I always thought of Frank Sinatra as the first white male singer of the modern era (that is, since recordings, the movies, and radio converged in the early part of the 20th century) to sound as if he had a penis. It was Elvis’s innovation, a generation after Sinatra, to sing as if with an erection. Now that I’ve read Gary Giddins’s Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams and listened to the old crooner’s music with a new understanding of Crosby’s time and place, I have to replace Sinatra in my priapic theorem. Giddins has unemasculated Der Bingle.
Without benefit of the perspective and context Giddins provides, few people under 70 would likely see Bing Crosby as radically masculine or indebted to African American culture or interesting in myriad other ways Giddins illuminates. My own image of Crosby has long been a confused morphing of his sleepy walk-throughs in countless interchangeable TV variety shows and Christmas specials during his final years (in the early 1970s), the Loony Tunes caricatures of Crosby boo-boo-booing around, and the self-parodies I didn’t recognize as such in movies like High Society and Robin and the Seven Hoods. (I’ve always enjoyed the road pictures, of course, but mainly for Bob Hope’s bravura milksop act.) Puffing on that pipe in golf clothes, singing “Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral,” Crosby always seemed as much of a cartoon as a live-action, musical Droopy Dog.
A Pocketful of Dreams demonstrates the advantages of good history over jaded generational memory. In the late 1920s and early ’30s, when Bing Crosby rose to national fame (first as a member of the Rhythm Boys, a jazz-oriented harmony trio in bandleader Paul Whiteman’s organization, then as a solo vocalist), the male singers of the day were uniformly sterile tenors. Until Crosby, the author explains, “others piped in an effete manner that suited the gender-bending tastes of an era when transvestites were among the top attractions in vaudeville.” By contrast, Crosby’s buoyantly conversational baritone sounded robust and swaggering, almost threateningly so. “Bing’s singing was nothing if not virile,” Giddins says, by way of comparison with Crosby’s forgotten predecessors, as opposed to the successors who eventually took his approach so far that Crosby ended up sounding relatively tame and old-fashioned.
In Bing Crosby, Giddins sees the story of a monumental cultural force, and the author has given his subject duly epic treatment. The raw stats of Crosby’s career would impress anyone. He had nearly 400 records on the charts from 1927 to 1962, including 38 number-one singles (the most by any artist or group, ever) and the most popular record of all time, “White Christmas.” As a screen actor, meantime, he was the top box-office attraction in the country for five years, and he was among the top 10 most popular movie stars 15 times. Giddins’s primary interest is in Crosby’s art, however—the work, not the paydays. As a result, A Pocketful of Dreams seems to stand alone among the dozens of books about Crosby published since the 1930s. (I’ve made it all the way through three others, including Crosby’s ghostwritten memoir, Call Me Lucky, which reads like an inspirational novel for boys, and Bing, the promotional clip job authorized by Crosby’s widow, Kathryn, after her 73-year-old husband’s death from a heart attack in 1977.)
Giddins has always written acutely on both film and music, and he has become a fine cultural historian. (He has been a movie critic as well as the longtime jazz critic of the Voice, and he has published studies of Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker.) Only in Giddins’s hands does Crosby come to life as not just a celebrity but a great, pivotal musician. We learn about the common ground between the Irish music of Crosby’s heritage and the African American jazz that Crosby came to love, and we find ourselves caught up in the Archimedean swirl of technological and societal developments—the microphone, sound recording, and radio that gave Crosby the opening to transform popular music into an intimately personal form of expression that could cross old boundaries of race and class. In one virtuoso section, Giddins details the rise of electrified sound and ruminates on the excitement and anxiety it provoked, adroitly tying in the movie Frankenstein; the passage is a performance as economically commanding as a Louis Armstrong solo.
“Bing had good reason to believe in luck, having fallen upward every step of his career,” Giddins points out. Indeed, everything Crosby did, from his singing and acting to his phenomenal business success (funding the development of recording tape in order to cut down his time in the studio), seemed not merely effortless, but a kind of anti-effort. He had the perfectly unindustrious image for the postindustrial age. Crosby was Horatio Alger in reverse, the embodiment of the 20th century’s inversion of the American dream: to get it all with the smallest possible exertion of effort. It is an accomplishment that required staggering gifts, clarity of purpose, and will.
Giddins makes no effort to disguise his admiration for Crosby; he had to love him in order to devote most of the past 15 years to researching and writing this book—700-plus pages covering just the first half of Crosby’s life and work. (The second volume is in the works.) Yet A Pocketful of Dreams is far from hagiography, rarely distorting in its praise, and never fawning or apologetic. In fact, Giddins is severely critical of Crosby’s substandard records, particularly those that suffered from the singer’s pursuit of mass appeal. “Bing’s solo sessions . . . produced gems,” Giddins writes of Crosby’s late-’30s recordings, “but sometimes you had to pan through a lot of silt to find them. The biggest risk in taming Bing was the threat of a middlebrow blandness, imposed not through songs or arrangements but coming from within Bing himself.”
That blandness ultimately enshrouded Crosby in our collective memory. Though he made some superb jazz records through the 1950s and a few gems as late as the early ’70s, we could no longer see Bing Crosby, the artist, through the pipe smoke of his submissions to banality. Gary Giddins has finally cleared the air.