(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

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...

(The entire section is 1857 words.)