Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams, The Early Years 1903å?1940
by Gary Giddins
Little, Brown, 728 pp., $30.00
In the postwar world I grew up in, Bing Crosby’s presence was pervasive without ever quite being central. It was clear that he had been around for a long time, and was not in any apparent danger of displacement. Nobody I knew had ever seen him in the flesh—he pretty much gave up live performance after the mid-Thirties—but pieces of him were scattered everywhere you looked or listened. Turn on the radio and you heard a steady rotation of his hits both new and old: “Easter Parade,” “Mexicali Rose,” “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby,” “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening.”
Move over to the television and you saw him turning up as a guest on variety shows, joshing with Bob Hope, Louis Armstrong, the Andrews Sisters, and all his other legendary cronies. Go downtown to the movies and you saw him in a rerun of Road to Morocco if not in the trailer for the upcoming High Society. Duck into the diner and some half-crocked old-timer was dropping a quarter in the jukebox to hear “McNamara’s Band” again. Open a magazine and there he was with his trademark paraphernalia—hat, pipe, Hawaiian shirt, golf clubs—posing with wife and children, or promoting one product or another. Arrive at school the next morning and the teacher might be playing “White Christmas” on the battered phonograph so the kids could learn it for the holiday recital.
“White Christmas” was preeminently the recording of which every syllable, every intake of breath—the effortless modulation from comforting bass tones to affecting high notes, the deftness with which he negotiated the treacherous row of sibilants in the last line—was as familiar as the layout of the playground itself, as familiar as the living rooms in which he had been blending in since before any of us were born. We did fight back: no elementary school playground was without its Crosby imitators, and in their efforts we began to discern that the effect of Crosby’s singing was after all a matter of technique, which could be appropriated, rather than of the kind of raw emotional charge that can only be contemplated with awe. The emotions that Crosby elicited did not seem inherent so much in him as in his audience and their lives. He touched on the feeling latent in every common recurrence, Christmas, Easter, St. Patrick’s Day, each season in its turn.
No one thought to ask where he had come from. He was there, like Mount Rushmore. How much he was there I had not fully gauged until, for the whole time I spent reading Gary Giddins’s biography, I was conscious of being wrapped in Bing’s voice. As if from within an internalized echo chamber that intimately known baritone sounded every refrain and every line of dialogue cited in the text. The button had been there, waiting only to be pushed to reveal a long-hidden disembodied Bing, a ghost continuing to melodize somewhere just below the level of conscious hearing. Yet what might that voice convey? It did not appear to dredge up either my own emotions or, indeed, those of the singer. More than anything, from this remote vantage point, Bing Crosby’s voice seemed like the sonic balm that had held together some of the parts of a world. It had created an impression—an illusion, perhaps—of shared feeling, of relaxed good humor, of a benevolence and tolerance that could almost be taken for granted.
This wasn’t music for serious solitary listening; there were no depths to plumb, no complexities to unravel, no private revelations. But it was fine for aunts and cousins and grandparents, for picnics and bus rides and church socials, for the undemonstrative interludes of good-natured calm that had once, in what seemed like another incarnation, actually seemed like the characteristic emotional climate of a certain backyard America. The admiration expressed for him by those who had been through a depression and a war with him was broad and deep. As Gary Giddins writes, “Bing’s naturalness made him credible to all…. He was discreet and steady. He was family.” To be near the center of the phenomenon, like Crosby’s troubled son Gary, was to experience steady streams of people “kneeling in front of me to tell me what a wonderful man he was and what a thrill it must be to be his son, and how they loved him so much, and he had done so much for them, and his singing was so great, and it went on and on and on, the way people spoke about God.”
In the course of time I encountered, with considerable surprise, earlier phases of Bing: the tricksterish, self-mocking “Bing Crosby” he played in the 1932 movie The Big Broadcast, the jaunty jazz singer jamming with Bix Beiderbecke or Joe Venuti on early recordings like “That’s My Weakness Now” and “Some of These Days.” At the time of these encounters—this was the Sixties—it seemed a typical instance of an industrially confected image rubbing out all traces of a more youthful, more authentic performer. A cautionary tale might be made of it, showing how a temperament of carefree, almost insolent incandescence—a raffish talent at home in the worlds of jazz and vaudeville—could be transmuted over time, with a good deal of corporate support, into the blandly beneficent Father O’Malley of Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary’s.
But there was not much occasion to think about Bing Crosby in the Sixties, and afterward there was scarcely any occasion at all. After his death on a golf course in Spain in 1977, once the predictable flurry of record sales subsided, Crosby faded with startling suddenness from a culture he had once dominated. The ease with which his image was tarnished by a couple of unsympathetic biographies (particularly the one by Gary Crosby, who described harsh corporal punishment and a glacial emotional distance between Bing and his children) illustrated how vulnerable that reputation had already become.
For one thing, pretty much all of Crosby’s recorded output—the records with Paul Whiteman, the early movie songs like “Love Thy Neighbor” and “I’m an Old Cowhand,” the lively cuts from the late Thirties like “Bob White” and “Don’t Be That Way” and “Small Fry”—had been drowned out by the perennials from “White Christmas” and “Silver Bells” on down. The iconic Crosby had succeeded in hiding the range of his own work, and when that icon became suspect—when that singular combination of talents and virtues began to seem too good to be anything but a publicity job—any interest in exploring the work tended to evaporate. There was so much else to listen to, to focus on: What was the appeal of an artist neither rebellious nor self-destructive, but rather canny, pragmatic, conciliatory, a man who had reaped the profits of consensus, the embodiment of the middle of the road?
He began to become invisible in somewhat the same way that Longfellow—to whose once universal acceptance Crosby’s might be likened—became invisible after the triumph of modernist poetics. It should not have been surprising, when the moment of millennial assessments came around, to find Crosby largely missing from the roll call of twentieth-century pop music. A conclave of New York Times critics found room, in one such tabulation of the century’s Top Twenty-Five, for Caruso and Jolson at one end and the Ramones and Nirvana at the other, but could not even squeeze Bing—and here was real humiliation—into a list of twenty-five runners-up which included Kraftwerk, Nine Inch Nails, and the soundtrack of Saturday Night Fever.
As a result of this period of cultural amnesia, Crosby’s career is ripe for the reconsideration that Gary Giddins accords it in the first volume of his extremely ambitious biography. He has set out not only to reconstruct Crosby’s career in detail—a career that Giddins prizes above all for a musical achievement he considers more significant, and more modern, than usually acknowledged—but to use it as an occasion to map the emergence of the musical-industrial complex we now know as the modern entertainment business. Crosby is exactly the right protagonist for such an undertaking, in that he benefited more than anyone else from the convergence, in the late Twenties, of electronic recording, radio, and talking pictures. What he made of his opportunities was extraordinary, as Giddins notes in a tallying of statistics that seems designed to allay any skepticism about Crosby’s stature: he was responsible for more studio recordings than any other singer in history, the most popular record ever made, the most records charted (an astonishing 396, as compared with 209 for Sinatra and a mere 68 for the Beatles), of which 38 were number-one hits, another record. In addition, he was the top-ranking movie star every year from 1944 to 1948, and was a radio star from 1931 to 1962, appearing on roughly four thousand broadcasts.
The statistics set the tone for what is very much an outward study of Crosby’s career: not a description of his inner life—that must be counted among the unwritable books—but a graph of his doings and their intersection with a busy and rapidly evolving world of show biz folk. It could hardly be otherwise. Crosby guarded his privacy so well that very little of it gets into Giddins’s biography. That reserve—which was described by some as a form of self-protection, by others as icy detachment—establishes the mysterious bass pattern under the busy, disciplined, consistently successful melody line of a life that Crosby himself summed up in the title of his 1953 memoir: Call Me Lucky.
For whatever reason, Crosby succeeded, once he had attained the stardom he never lost during his lifetime, in constructing a private world where he could hide in plain sight. He was at once the most publicized and, as he wanted it, the least known of persons. The household Crosby of radio and fan magazines was a kind of decoy distracting attention from the person who remained a cipher even to most of the people he worked with. (Giddins suggests that his withdrawal may have been connected with the death of the guitarist Eddie Lang, his closest friend; Lang died in 1933 following a tonsillectomy that Crosby had recommended, and the trauma was compounded when Crosby was mobbed at the funeral by unruly fans who overturned pews to get close to him.)
His colleagues were in awe of his professionalism—his memory, his musical precision, his ability to learn a song after a couple of hearings—and yet puzzled by his persistent emotional distance. Few ventured to guess what really lay beneath that perfect surface: “He was a very private person, at least in the studio,” according to his announcer Ken Roberts. “He would come in and do his job. He was not temperamental at all, easy to work with, but as soon as he was finished it was good-bye.” It is astonishing to learn that he had no personal friendship whatever with the Andrews Sisters, for instance, with whom he made four dozen records brimming over with a convincing imitation of exuberant bonhomie. The more you learn about Crosby, the more you don’t learn about the other side of that easy-going, open disposition.