Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams, The Early Years 1903å?1940
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.
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.