The account of his early years is all the more fascinating as a result. Before the curtain falls on his private life, we are able to get a glimpse of the face before it settles into a mask. He was born Harry Lillis Crosby in Tacoma, Washington, in 1903, and grew up in Spokane, one of six children of a mandolin-playing spendthrift of a father and a musically gifted, sternly Catholic mother. Taught by the Jesuits at Gonzaga High School, he was, as Giddins notes, perhaps the only major American pop star to receive a classical education. To the oratorical and poetical recitations of his school years he attributed a measure of his artistry: “If I am not a singer, I am a phraser…. I owe it all to elocution.” Crosby was the kind of quick study who could do well in school—on top of football, glee club, debating club—without ever displaying any particular intellectual ambition. “He had a vocabulary like a senator’s,” his father remarked, and in his youth was apt for theatrical experiences ranging from Julius Caesar to some exercises in blackface minstrelsy. His ability to entertain people was manifest long before he had acquired any specific skill, and everything that happened to him subsequently can be traced to his intelligent management of that ability.
Music, modern music, came into the picture through records. If his father’s Edison gramophone had already introduced him to “Irish tenors, Jewish vaudevillians, Sousa marching bands, barbershop quartets,” the local record store in 1917 and after began to offer the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, the Six Brown Brothers playing “That Moaning Saxophone Rag,” the Mound City Blue Blowers, the Original Memphis Five. Whole days spent at Bailey’s Record Store with his pals, listening to all the new releases, formed the basis of a musical education, along with a Spokane appearance by Al Jolson: “I hung on every word and watched every move he made. To me, he was the greatest entertainer who ever lived.” In ad hoc fashion, teaming up with other local music fans, borrowing repertoire from records, improvising on a mail-order drum kit, Crosby fell into his career as if following the path of least resistance. With his friend Al Rinker he formed a piano-and-drums duo; they played at the local movie theater between films and became, in the recollection of a local observer, “great favorites—good looking, pleasant appearing chaps with ingratiating smiles and an original method of putting over their songs.”
In 1925, a three-week motor trip down the road took them to Los Angeles to stay with Al’s sister, the singer Mildred Bailey, who was married to a bootlegger and singing regularly at a Hollywood speakeasy. Liberated from Spokane and the Jesuits, Crosby seems to have taken without much difficulty to the world of speakeasies and vaudeville houses. Within a few months of his arrival in Los Angeles we find him touring with Al on the Orpheum circuit as Two Boys and a Piano, partying at San Simeon with William Randolph Hearst Jr., and amusing Beatrice Lillie at a party in the Hollywood Hills with his rendition of “When the Red, Red Robin Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin’ Along.” By the end of 1926 the pair had been hired by Paul Whiteman, the most famous bandleader in America. Joined by Harry Barris and billed as the Rhythm Boys, they would record the scores of records—among them “Muddy Water,” “Mississippi Mud,” and “‘Taint So, Honey, ‘Taint So,”—in which Crosby forged a jazz-inflected male vocal style that made most of his competitors seem pinched, pompous, and artificial.
The casualness which later became mythic at this stage seems to have been unfeigned; during and after this rapid ascent he enjoyed by all accounts a life of carousing that somehow did not interfere with either his musical career or his regular attendance at mass. In the Whiteman years, a friend recalled, “if they couldn’t find Bing, they’d say, well, where was he last night, and they’d go and look for him under one of the tables.” He also smoked his share of marijuana and in his later years called for its decriminalization. Glimmers of a feckless era come through in anecdotes about the weekend he unknowingly spent in the company of Al Capone’s hit man Machine Gun Jack McGurn (the party was finally interrupted by gunfire from a rival gang) or the jail term for drunk driving that led to his missing his big solo number in the gaudy Paul Whiteman movie musical King of Jazz.
He did manage to show up for a few scenes in King of Jazz, notably its finale, “Happy Feet,” a production number beyond parody: “Happy feet,/ I’ve got those happy feet,/Give them a lowdown beat/And they begin dancing….” Bing delivers himself of these lyrics with a grin of complicit hilarity, as if to say, “It’s ridiculous, but we’re all having fun, aren’t we?” He enlists the audience in a shared pleasure, rather than dazzling it from the glittering heights occupied by the rest of the production. The other Rhythm Boys are good, too, just not as good as Bing; Harry’s a bit over the top in his comic stylings, Al doesn’t quite have the personality of his colleagues. What they enact together amounts to a kind of rock and roll, an up-tempo entertainment designed to create a perfect illusion of spontaneous good times, a well-oiled simulacrum of rambunctiousness.
It’s hard to imagine that air of youthful revelry surviving into the Thirties, and it didn’t. In relatively short order Bing acquired a solo career, a radio show, a string of hit movies, a movie-star wife (although Dixie Lee’s fame would soon be eclipsed by his own), a mansion, and a worldwide reputation that would make him, in the heart of the Depression, a kind of logo for the American version of the good life. He was the man for whom America’s vacation spots were made, the fun-loving handsome cousin who sent postcards of his various incarnations—Dude Ranch Bing, Waikiki Bing, Golf Course Bing—as if he were enjoying himself on behalf of everybody else, a designated vicarious success story. The concept of leisure was woven into every aspect of his public image: he was the guy who’d rather be fishing, rather be playing golf, anything but have to get up in the morning and go to work. Louis Armstrong, seeing him in his natty jacket (“a hard hitting blue with white buttons”), thought of him as “a young Captain on some high powered yacht.” The hats (which he wore to conceal his baldness) became a badge of laid-back eccentricity, likewise the pipe, likewise the tropical shirts and bright socks (whose gaudily mismatched hues were to some extent a byproduct of his colorblindness).
What he was really doing, from the moment he opened on his own at the Cocoanut Grove in 1930, was applying everything he had to becoming, as Duke Ellington put it, “the biggest thing, ever.” Within a year his schedule went like this:
In total, he commanded Paramount’s two New York stages for five months without a break. During most of that time, Bing’s daily grind consisted of four stage shows—at $2,500 a week—and two fifteen-minute daily broadcasts, plus variety charity shows, guest appearances, recording dates, and concerts.
The rest of the time he was making movies, ten features between 1931 and 1935.
As Giddins emphasizes, technological change always seemed to work in Crosby’s favor. Electronic recording, microphones, and radio all favored the calm and intimate style for which he was perfectly suited, a style which soon made other entertainers look antiquated: “Two years earlier Al Jolson had been at the peak of his popularity; now he would be recast as the beloved reminder of old-fashioned show business.” Crosby didn’t need to bellow or gesticulate, didn’t need to plead hyperactively for the audience’s attention; he was just an average fellow who happened to have a golden voice, a priceless sense of humor, and all the luck in the world.
The hipness of the humor—which came into its own in the Road movies with Bob Hope—kept the sweetness of that baritone from cloying. He was the perfect guy to embody Modern Romance, without all the absurd stickiness and florid caterwauling that now seemed remnants of some mannered and stultifying age of pointless decorum. Like the young sailor he plays in the 1934 movie We’re Not Dressing, who has to take charge when shipwrecked with a party of useless and contemptuous aristocrats, he had come to bring tux-and-tails pretensions down to street level. His 1935 recording of “Love Is Just Around the Corner” gave the lively impression that it was being sung by someone at home on the corner.
For all the luck, none of it seems the product of accident. As his radio announcer observed, “We liked his easiness, the intelligence behind his interpretation of the lyrics. Everything he did depended upon intelligence and he certainly had that.”
Giddins’s book is punctuated with lists that are often fascinating. Musicians with whom Bing hung out at the Sunset Cafe in Chicago after joining the Whiteman band: Bix Beiderbecke, Hoagy Carmichael, Tommy Dorsey, Frankie Trumbauer. People who showed up on the 1926 opening night of Paul Whiteman’s short-lived Club Manhattan on Broadway and West 48th Street: Al Smith, Jimmy Walker, Jimmy Durante, Texas Guinan, Charlie Chaplin, Jeanne Eagels, Gloria Swanson, and Harry Warren. (“Evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson dropped by a few days later.”) Participants in Bing’s 1932 roast at the Friars Club: Jack Benny, George Burns, Irving Berlin, Rudy Vallee, William Paley, George Jessel, Damon Runyon, and George M. Cohan, who presented Crosby with a lifetime membership card made of gold. Bing’s guests (among many others) on the Kraft Music Hall in 1936: Spencer Tracy, Lotte Lehmann, Edward Everett Horton, Louis Armstrong, Fyodor Chaliapin, Alice Faye, Andrés Segovia, Iona’s Hawaiians, and Art Tatum.
It was not a solitary world he lived in, to say the least, and the company could hardly be described as bland, at least not at the outset. From a distance that era can seem like a carnival of unbridled personalities. In the Fifties, when the survivors of the period showed up on television, there was a wonderment at the sheer unlikelihood of those faces, those accents, those bizarre traits upon which they had founded their comedy, those cherished eccentricities. Once upon a time, it appeared, oddity and improvisation were not only honored but required.
Then came the stealthy encroachment of those publicizing and marketing forces that wanted to iron out the crags and protuberances in favor of a one-size-fits-all entertainment product. For Bing that encroachment took the form of Jack Kapp, the founder of Decca Records, who encouraged him—or, more precisely, ordered him—to lose his more outré vocal mannerisms: “Jack summed them up as the ‘bu-bu-bu-boos,’ by which he also meant scat singing and jazz.” Kapp wanted to remake Bing as a universally acceptable figure, “the John McCormack of this generation,” as he put it. The result ultimately was a more pietistic and paternally reassuring persona, expressed in records that, however expertly made, had a heavier aftertaste than his earlier buoyancies. Where he once was a pure entertainer, now he seemed to be selling something. What he was selling might be no more than his own personality, but it was a personality that had somehow been abstracted from him and remade into a plausible and yet finally unsettling doppelgänger.
The contemplation of Bing Crosby seems like an unlikely trigger for existential anxiety. In contrast to Cocteau’s “difficulty of being,” he offered an incomparable ease of being: carefree, graceful, virile, beneficent, self-deprecating, and, beneath and beyond all that, knowing. He had everything covered. He had sung
Life is a beautiful thing
As long as I hold the string
and made it believable, yet in the later years one wondered when he had stopped believing it himself. What remained was a perfect model of the adjusted human being that didn’t, somehow, fit in anywhere. Outside of a sound stage or a broadcasting studio, in what imaginable world could such a being exist? It was a paradise of personality to which, unfortunately, the rest of us could not gain access.
But all this is more than music—a voice, a tune, a tempo—could or should be expected to bear. Speaking of Louis Armstrong, whom he professed to admire more than any other singer, Crosby remarked: “When he sings a sad song you feel like crying, when he sings a happy song you feel like laughing. What the hell else is there with pop singing?” If for at least thirty years Bing Crosby’s voice was a medium through which countless listeners encountered their own emotions, perhaps it is an irrelevance to wonder what his were.