All the Luck in the World

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…

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