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Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams, The Early Years, 1903-1940 by Gary Giddins

For anyone whose impression of Bing Crosby is informed solely by “White Christmas,” kindly Father O’Malley from the movie Going My Way and glimpses of the aging crooner on Hollywood Palace or the various family-oriented Christmas specials and Minute Maid commercials that aired on TV through the ’60s, this voluminous study of Der Bingle’s more turbulent and triumphant early years will no doubt be a revelation.

Through his own exhaustive detective work involving countless hours of interviews with key figures in Crosby’s life along with wading through mountains of documents, press clippings and personal correspondence made available to him by the Crosby estate, Gonzaga University, two international fan clubs and a dozen more organizations and institutions, Gary Giddins has pieced together a complete and compelling picture of one of the world’s most beloved entertainers.

The list of Crosby’s accomplishments through a legendary career spanning six decades is staggering. In the first half of the 20th century, Crosby was simply the king of popular culture, riding high atop the record charts as a singer, dominating the airwaves as host of the country’s most popular radio show while also becoming the nation’s number-one box-office attraction. Giddins’ book focuses on the ascent to this lofty pinnacle, tracing Bing’s remarkable journey from humble beginnings as a young law student from Spokane, Wash., to his dominant place in the entertainment world, stopping a few years short of Father O’Malley, “White Christmas,” his iconic role as a morale booster during World War II and a host of other important landmarks that came in later years (to be covered in a Volume Two, reportedly scheduled for a 2003 release).

While there have been other biographies of Bing-some worthy (Bob Thomas’ The One and Only Bing and Charles Thompson’s Bing), some odious (Donald Shepherd and Robert Slatzer’s The Hollow Man), some sensational (Gary Crosby’s resentful memoir Going My Own Way)-no other author to date has so astutely drawn the connection between Bing and the jazz world. But Giddins, who has also penned biographies on Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker and was a key talking head throughout Ken Burns’ Jazz, clearly gets it. His deep understanding of the mechanics of what made Crosby a great singer-his unrelenting sense of swing, spotless timbre, exemplary articulation, expressive intimacy and uncanny ability to ‘”hear the one”-is what immediately separates Giddins from all other Crosby biographers. As he so perceptively notes: “One of the most significant things Bing learned from Louis [Armstrong] was that the contagious pulse later called swing did not have to be exclusive to jazz. It was a universally expressive technique that could deepen the interpretation of any song in any setting.”

Through his affectionate though critically insightful analysis of Crosby’s style, you get the impression that Giddins agrees with swing-era bandleader Artie Shaw, who calls Bing, “the first hip white person born in the United States.”

More than just a popular crooner with a golden set of pipes and a breezy, charming demeanor, Crosby was indelibly tied to a jazz aesthetic through his inherent sense of swing and his great appreciation (and emulation) of Armstrong’s genius for vocal phrasing, spontaneity, emotion and comedy. (Their mutual respect and friendship through the ’20s and ’30s is well delineated here). Bing could scat a blue streak, as he did so convincingly on Prohibition-era recordings with the Rhythm Boys, and hold his own alongside such potent jazz soloists as Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Frank Trambauer, Joe Venuti, guitarist and confidant Eddie Lang and Bix Beiderbecke, another close friend who also had a significant influence on the Crosby vocal style. Aside from his obvious gifts, Bing could also deliver a lyric with the kind of sly, knowing cadence that completely eludes lesser singers. As Giddins writes: “When Crosby came of age, most successful male singers were effeminate tenors and recording artists were encouraged to be bland, the better to sell sheet music. Bing was the first to render the lyrics of a modern ballad with purpose, the first to suggest an erotic undercurrent.”

The chapters on Crosby’s wild, lustful early years in the business-often drunk and rowdy, late for gigs or missing them entirely yet supremely confident of his abilities at all times-read like the rise of a modern-day rock star. Indeed, Bing was the prototype Elvis while his first starring vehicle, 1932’s The Big Broadcast, reads like a template for The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night.

Whereas most biographies of Crosby rush through the early years leading up to his association with Bob Hope and the subsequent series of successful Road pictures, Giddins immerses readers in the details of Bing’s involvement in college minstrel shows, his first gigs around Spokane with a hot-jazz quintet known as the Musicaladers and his subsequent stint on the vaudeville circuit with hometown partner Al Rinker in a cutting edge act billed as Two Boys and a Piano. As Giddins points out: “They were the Jazz Age personified, two clean-cut white boys bringing a variation on black music to the vaudeville stage with panache and charm. They represented something borderline radical: a trace of danger, a current from a generation that threatened to bust out of old and settled traditions. At no time between the Civil War and Prohibition had the nation’s young people clamored for a music of their own or rebelled against the songs of their parents. The young men suggested youth and daring in a way that did not send the ‘cornfeds’ running for cover. They charmed everyone yet were harbingers of a break with conventions, a fissure gradually developing in the American family. Bing, especially, signaled the change with his easy wit; cool, distant manner, and unmistakably virile baritone. When he sang a song, he created drama.”

The Two Boys are eventually discovered by renowned orchestra leader Paul (“King of Jazz”) Whiteman and thrust into the national spotlight as The Rhythm Boys. After an initial flop in New York as a duo, Whiteman adds the savvy and talented young showman-songwriter Harry Barris to the act, transforming The Rhythm Boys into the popular sensation of 1928 (the Backstreet Boys of their day). After innumerable run-ins with club owners, with the law and with the patriarchal Whiteman himself, The Rhythm Boys ultimately break up in 1931, paving the way for Crosby’s meteoric rise as a solo artist. By the book’s end, 1940, Bing is well on his way to becoming a bona fide all-American hero, a position he would firmly occupy in the collective American psyche until the advent of rock ‘n’ roll, which instantly made The Groaner seem old-fashioned and musty in the eyes of a new generation.

There are some humorous anecdotes about romps in speakeasies and rival crooners like Russ Columbo and Rudy Vallée, whom Bing quickly dispatches with mellow élan. The passages about Eddie Lang’s tragic death in 1933 and its devastating effect on Bing are particularly touching. Giddins also spends a good deal of time expounding on Crosby’s entree into Hollywood, first via Mack Sennett’s slapstick two-reelers (which reveal Bing’s love of Charlie Chaplin), later in big-budgeted productions like The Big Broadcast, College Humor, Too Much Harmony, We’re Not Dressing and the fascinating Going Hollywood, co-starring Marion Davies, then paramour of the powerful William Randolph Hearst. Bing’s first encounter and subsequent chemistry with comedian Bob Hope and with Decca’s savvy president Jack Kapp (the man responsible for Crosby crossing over to more mainstream tastes) are recounted here with the kind of vivid detail, affection and understanding that adds new layers of depth to Bing’s legacy.

Ten years in the making, A Pocketful of Dreams is an admirable achievement by the eminent jazz critic-and a must-read for Bingophiles.

Originally Published