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Bada Bing

Recently, for reasons I needn’t go into here, I found myself in a recreation room adjacent to an RV park and nine-hole golf course in Twentynine Palms, listening to a karaoke set by a singer with the euphonious moniker of Al Rio.

Al -- the park‘s entertainment director, a moon-faced baritone in his 60s whose slacks were held up by baby-blue suspenders -- ran down a mixed-bag pop repertoire (“Spanish Eyes,” “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree,” etc.) to the delight of the assembled retirees, who frequently hopped up from their tables to cut a smooth rug. There was something indefinably familiar about Al’s engaging, nonchalant style, but I didn‘t realize what it was until he slipped a bit of bubbling scat -- “Hup-bup-bup-boo” -- into the coda of one number. His ingratiating manner, subdued bluesiness and offhanded warmth were the pure products of Bing Crosby.

It seems curious that Crosby’s artistry -- which made him one of the best-known, most loved and wealthiest entertainers of the 20th century -- is still so prevalent that its elements can be detected in the act of a semipro performer plying his trade in the middle of the California desert, and at the same time is being increasingly obscured by the passage of time.

Born Harry Lillis Crosby in 1903 in Tacoma, Washington, Crosby has been off the stage now for almost a quarter of a century: The founder of the first celebrity pro-am golf tournament dropped dead on a course outside Madrid in October 1977. (Last words: “That was a great game of golf, fellas.”) Even at that point, his role as a revolutionary American vocalist was interred in the distant past. Children of my postwar rock & roll generation knew “Der Bingle” primarily as the sleepy, avuncular, besweatered figure whose “White Christmas” returned to the airwaves every yuletide; at best, we were familiar with TV early-show screenings of his road-movie hijinks with another dinosaur, Bob Hope.

Gary Giddins, the longtime jazz critic of The Village Voice (this publication‘s sister paper), seeks to resurrect the figure who forever changed pop singing in Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of DreamsThe Early Years 1903--1940, the first of two biographical volumes devoted to Crosby. The task has consumed Giddins for years: A note in the booklet of a 1993 MCA Records box set devoted to the vocalist anticipated 1995 as the publication date for the writer’s work, then structured as a one-volume study.

Reviewing exactly the first half of his subject‘s life, Giddins delineates with his customary incisiveness the nature of Crosby’s musical art, and the reasons for his remarkable ascent to the pinnacle of popularity onscreen, in radio and on records simultaneously during the ‘30s. One of seven children born to a feckless brewery employee and his fear-inspiring wife, Crosby acquired both an appreciation for music (via the cylinder machine his father bought, possibly with the grocery money, when little Harry was 3) and his famous nickname (drawn from a newspaper humor supplement he loved) at an early age. But Crosby took little interest in singing professionally until he fell in with a group of teenage musicians while studying law at Spokane’s Gonzaga University. Partnered with one of those youngsters, Al Rinker (brother of the sweet-voiced singer Mildred Bailey), Crosby made his first impression on vaudeville stages in the Pacific Northwest, and in 1925 the duo set out in an old Ford flivver to make their fortunes in L.A.

Crosby always claimed that his career was built on providence (he titled his 1953 memoir Call Me Lucky). As Giddins notes in a pithy four-page passage, the singer was certainly the right man in the right place at the right time. Bing‘s arrival in Hollywood coincided with the introduction of electrical recording, the perfection of the microphone, the birth of national radio networks and the development of the technology that led to sound on film. At the same time, Crosby’s fame, which owed so much to all of those developments, could not be written off simply to serendipity. After all, many heard Louis Armstrong‘s primordial scat vocal on “Heebie Jeebies” -- a performance released in 1926, the year Crosby cut his first sides with Don Clark’s Biltmore Hotel Orchestra -- but it was Crosby alone who fully understood its implications.

In the late ‘20s and early ’30s, first as a singer with Paul Whiteman‘s enormously popular orchestra (which included such masterful jazz players as trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke and saxophonist Frank Trumbauer), and later as a solo star for Brunswick and Decca Records, Crosby formulated an entirely new American vocal style. Bing, Giddins points out, was neither a balcony-busting belter like vaudevillian Al Jolson nor a fey, sexless tenor like the nearly forgotten Gene Austin. Combining technology and technique, baritone Crosby grew to become everything those singers were not -- intimate, warm, virile, subtle, seemingly effortless and, most of all, swinging. A la Armstrong, Bing brought a jazzbo’s rhythmic understanding to a popular repertoire, and rendered those antique earlier approaches obsolete. Virtually every important American popular singer who succeeded him followed the Crosby model.

According to Giddins, Crosby also owed his ascent to the ministrations of three “powerful gatekeepers.” Jack Kapp, a Brunswick producer and later the founder of Decca, encouraged the singer to record a grand breadth of material -- from standards-to-be like “Star Dust” and “What‘s New?” to cowboy songs and Hawaiian laments -- and released affordable 35-cent 78 rpm records that cemented his popularity in the heart of the Depression. Director Mack Sennett midwifed the “Bing Crosby” character -- charming, devil-may-care, innocently wicked -- in a series of two-reel comedies, which led to the vocalist’s installation as Paramount‘s box-office champ. And broadcasting magnate William Paley brought Crosby to CBS with a daily show in 1931 and made him a long-running radio sensation.

Giddins is a master of short-form biography, as his brisk 1988 Armstrong book, Satchmo, and his pleasingly idiosyncratic 1998 biohistory, Visions of Jazz, make clear. Here, in 256 well-paced pages, he makes the tale of Crosby’s rise engaging and even suspenseful. However, things lag in the second half of his telling, which commences with Crosby‘s first network radio broadcast in 1931 and ends with the release of Road to Singapore, his first screen pairing with Bob Hope, in 1940.

The writer takes up entirely too much space with details of Crosby’s many dire movie vehicles of the ‘30s, most of which are unscreened today. “[Crosby] was unlikely to find himself in a film he himself would have regarded as a potential classic,” Giddins says. Thus, page after page is devoted to vague and uninterested descriptions of these successful but predictable musical romances; just as a new career arc begins with the arrival of Hope, the book ends.

More troubling is the way in which the private Crosby disappears over the book’s course. The reader gets a big dose of his show-biz persona (which, some observers claimed, wasn‘t all that different from the “real” Bing) and not much of the man.

Sometimes Giddins is overprotective of his subject. We hear, for instance, how Crosby’s compulsive carousing almost sank his gig with Whiteman and nearly wrecked his marriage to Broadway starlet Dixie Lee after six months (he swore off the booze, they stayed hitched, and she died an alcoholic in 1952), but his destructive drinking is treated like boys-will-be-boys stuff. We learn he could be generous (he consistently found work for former partner Harry Barris, another alcoholic) and willful (he threatened to walk off the set of Waikiki Wedding if he wasn‘t allowed to perform “Sweet Leilani” in the film), but we never learn why. Some things, like his reputedly reactionary political views, remain nearly undiscussed.

A big part of Giddins’ problem may be a lack of reliable witnesses: Crosby‘s closest friend and confidant, his guitar accompanist Eddie Lang, died from a botched tonsillectomy in 1933, and the author himself suggests the singer may never have opened himself up to anyone else again.

This last item may result in a fatal shortcoming for a biographical work that aspires to the same length and depth as Peter Guralnick’s splendid two-volume measuring of Elvis Presley. Fortunately for Guralnick, Presley had a retinue of salaried pals who in the end weren‘t bashful about spilling the beans on their erstwhile boss. Unfortunately for Giddins, Bing Crosby was ultimately a loner who played things close to the vest; as good as he was on the links, he was probably also a terror at the poker table. And that’s bad news for any biographer. So Giddins, who must now consider the last 37 years of that fabulous cipher‘s life in the sequel to A Pocketful of Dreams, has some tough work in front of him.

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