Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1857
Gary Giddins takes the perspective of a jazz historian in this painstaking biography of Harry Lillis “Bing” Crosby up to the midpoint of his career as a popular singer. Thus, he takes pains to establish Crosby’s credentials as a jazz singer who, in the 1920’s and 1930’s, was influenced by, and performed with, many of the luminaries of that medium. His introduction serves to remind veteran Crosby fans of the singer’s jazz roots and of his remarkable versatility. It serves as well to acquaint a younger audience with the striking and varied achievements of an extremely popular entertainer who fell out of the limelight two decades before his death in 1977. Tin Pan Alley tunes, jazz, western favorites, blues, Hawaiian songs, hymns, spirituals, light opera: Few are the modes of American music that Crosby did not perform successfully.
Three technological leaps forward in the 1920’s, which was when his professional career began, made his career possible. These were the transformation of sound recording from acoustical to electrical, the evolution of radio from the specialist’s crystal set to a commonplace object in the American home, and the addition of sound tracks to motion pictures. No one took advantage of these advances better than Bing Crosby. First as a member of the Rhythm Boys, who gained fame as the popular vocal trio with Paul Whiteman’s orchestra, and continuing as soloist, Crosby made many more recordings and had more number one hits than either Frank Sinatra or Elvis Presley. His Kraft Music Hall radio series, beginning in 1936, not only turned him into a weekly guest in millions of American homes but also presented hundreds of other talented performers, including many European classical musicians who would otherwise have remained unknown to typical listeners. He long reigned as a major box-office attraction at Paramount Pictures, where often a film began not with a script, not even with an idea, but with the mere fact of his agreement to appear in it (although Crosby always insisted that his top billing be shared with from one to three other actors). He was, in short, a phenomenon.
Yet, unlike Sinatra or Presley, Crosby is in eclipse, a situation that Giddins would like to help change. Crosby fans remain, but Crosby records are not much heard over the airwaves, except for Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” during the holiday season and an Irish song or two on St. Patrick’s Day. Although he was still performing in his and the century’s eighth decade, he had been out of fashion among younger popular music aficionados since the rise of rock music in the mid-1950’s.
Vaudeville and minstrel shows comprised the chief entertainment media available to Americans early in the twentieth century—in Tacoma, Washington, where Crosby was born in 1903, or in Spokane on the opposite side of the state, where he did most of his growing up—and these forms strongly influenced the young Bing. Although he would become identified with the Irish ancestry of his mother, his father, Harry Lowe Crosby, had an ancestor who arrived on the Mayflower. To this mild, easy-going father, widely known as “Happy Harry,” the singer owed his temperament and love of music; he more resembled his mother, the former Catherine Harrigan, in his capacity for self-discipline, a talent he initially lacked but developed to a high degree as his career unfolded.
All his education took place in Spokane. He graduated from Gonzaga High School and attended Gonzaga University, both conducted by the Society of Jesus. Had he finished college, he would have earned both a B.A. and a law degree; as it was, his nearly four years there gained him a classical education unique among popular American singers of his stature. By the time he was twenty-two, however, show business was calling him away. At first he performed locally as an indifferent drummer with a local band called the Musicaladers, one of whose members, Al Rinker, would emerge, along with Crosby, as two-thirds of Whiteman’s Rhythm Boys. The third member was Harry Barris, a young Jew from New York. It is worth noting that Crosby, who readily imbibed diverse musical influences, learned early to appreciate talented Jewish performers, of whom Al Jolson was his great favorite.
Giddins’s biography cuts through the jungle of unexamined assumptions, semitruths, and outright falsehoods generated by show business publicity and spread uncritically by Crosby admirers. It reveals the subtleties and complexities of a man who struck his audience and most fellow performers as a simple, casual, modest fellow inclined to attribute his enormous success to good fortune, even to the extent of titling his autobiography Call Me Lucky (1953). Indeed, the persona that Crosby cultivated has a decided ring of truth to it. During the filming of his Paramount movies, he was invariably the most relaxed person on the set and often the one who, by employing his gift for spontaneous humor, could defuse tension among other cast members. Audiences enjoyed the “Road” films with Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour for their apparent spontaneity. Very few true ad libs made their way into his finished Paramount productions, but people who knew him well insisted that the insouciant character he portrayed therein represented well the essential Crosby. Giddins chose to focus his last chapter on the Road films, although only the earliest of them,Road to Singapore (1940), falls into the period covered by this first of what obviously is intended to be a two-volume biography.
By the time readers reach this chapter, however, they are well aware that this casual, easy-going performer was a professional who invariably arrived at the motion picture studio on time, often well before other cast members, with his lines thoroughly learned. Early in his career, his careless attitude toward his work and his excessive drinking frequently exasperated Paul Whiteman. Ironically, by the time of his marriage in 1930 to Dixie Lee, a proper Southern girl whose credentials as a prospective movie star were considered at that time superior to his, he had amended his behavior, while she later developed a more serious problem with alcohol. No one doubted that they loved each other, but the marriage had many stormy moments.
A seemingly contradictory aspect of Crosby’s personality was his aloofness. Many people knew him and liked him, but they did not know him well. Friendly with nearly everybody he met, he nevertheless kept them all at a safe distance from the realm of his private thoughts and feelings. One exception was when the great jazz guitarist Eddie Lang died young from complications of a tonsillectomy that he had reluctantly undergone at Crosby’s urging. On that occasion the singer, in a rare display of emotion, fell to his knees and cried into the lap of Lang’s widow. It is perhaps significant that he told his favorite lyricist, Johnny Burke, to avoid the direct “I love you” in the love songs Burke was regularly asked to furnish for his films. With most of his coworkers, he avoided personal relationships. He and Bob Hope were not close friends, for instance, despite the remarkable chemistry between them as performers.
Giddins may have good reason to believe that now is the time for interest in Bing Crosby to grow anew. For many younger people today, he belongs not to their parents’ generation, whose favorites they are unlikely to embrace, but to that of their grandparents, whose vagaries are likely to strike them as more interesting. Certainly there are aspects of Crosby’s career that younger music fans can appreciate, one being his respect for black performers. He and Louis Armstrong became a mutual admiration society at a time when even Satchmo’s monumental achievements as trumpeter and singer could not earn him a place in the mainstream of American popular entertainment. Although born far from the American South, Crosby served, long before Bill Haley and Elvis Presley appeared on the national scene, as one of the conduits through which African American popular music reached white audiences. Not only did he incorporate its rhythms and phrasing into his own music, he marched in the vanguard of white entertainers who promoted—and performed with—talented African Americans. In 1934, two years before Benny Goodman hired pianist Teddy Wilson and three before Jack Benny signed Eddie Anderson, the Rochester of his radio series, Crosby chose the Mills Brothers as regulars on his first radio series for Woodbury cosmetics. Armstrong became, at Crosby’s insistence, the first black artist to be top-billed in a white film, the 1937 Pennies from Heaven. Even Crosby’s penchant for occasionally imitating black dialect, now condemned, perhaps too readily, as in poor taste, reflects not condescension but sincere admiration.
The author’s research is impressive. Nearly one-fifth of this 728-page book is devoted to a discography of his subject’s early years, a complete filmography, notes, sources, and bibliography. Evidence of the text suggests that Giddins has listened carefully not only to every Crosby recording but to rejected masters, including a few on which the singer muffed a lyric and wound up indulging himself by clowning in the manner of jazz musicians when a sour note has ruined a take. Clearly, Giddins has also studied every scene of the Crosby films, including early two-reelers. This thoroughness enables him to comment precisely on even small nuances in his subject’s singing style as it developed through the decades. These analyses do what good criticism is supposed to accomplish: They provoke in the reader the desire to revisit and reexamine the works under discussion. Fortunately, this ambition is not difficult to accomplish, for a large body of Crosby recordings remains available on compact disc.
The biography is somewhat longer than it need be. Giddins unnecessarily labors worthwhile points, such as the temptation—which he admits Crosby did not always avoid—to succumb to the “middlebrow blandness” that characteristically threatens enormously popular artists. This temptation was undoubtedly a more common temptation before the fragmentation of the popular audience at the time of the explosion of rock music and the downturn of Crosby’s popularity in the 1950’s. The author’s inclination to repeat himself becomes more annoying when he airs mere prejudices, such as his attempts—on four occasions—to enhance the baritone Crosby by contrasting him with the “effeminate” popular tenors of the time. Several dark, largely unspecified allusions to Dixie Crosby’s drinking problem, which one gathers turned serious only in the 1940’s, should have been reserved for Giddins’s second volume. Another minor blot comes amidst the thirty-two pages of illustrations. Most contribute to the book, but two rather vulgar photographs might well have been omitted.
These flaws aside, Giddins has served his subject extremely well. He makes a convincing case that not just “White Christmas” but many of Crosby’s recordings remain eminently listenable and that his neglect in recent decades, though understandable, is nevertheless deplorable. It is no very hazardous prediction that his account of Crosby’s life, once complete, will stand as the definitive one.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist 97 (December, 2000): 675.
Library Journal 125 (December, 2000): 140.
The New York Times Book Review 106 (February 11, 2001): 10.
Publishers Weekly 247 (December 4, 2000): 64.
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