November 28, 2018


How Bing Crosby Changed the Course of Pop Music: a review of BING CROSBY: Swinging on a Star: The War Years, 1940-1946 By Gary Giddins (James Gavin, Nov. 28, 2018, NY Times Book Review)

[N]ewer generations had no way to know that Crosby had not only changed the course of American popular singing, he had helped create it. It was he who, more than any other vocalist, had freed that art from its turn-of-the-century stiffness and transformed it into conversation. Drawing on black influences, he made pop songs swing, while treating a new invention, the microphone, as if it were a friend's ear. Without him, Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Dinah Shore, Dean Martin and countless other intimate singers could never have happened. A workhorse, he turned out a staggering number of recordings (including dozens of No. 1 hits) as well as films, radio shows and personal appearances. Whatever he did seemed off-the-cuff and effortless.

For all that, his reputation hasn't much endured. He lacked the qualities that have made Sinatra eternally seductive: coolness, sex appeal, danger, risk and a singing style that opened a window into his hard living and emotional extremes.

Crosby had a far different job. With calm reassurance, he shepherded America through the Depression and World War II, then became a symbol of postwar domestic stability. Crosby applied his soothing baritone to love songs, folk songs, Irish songs, Hawaiian songs, country songs -- he sang almost everything and revealed almost nothing. His 1953 memoir, "Call Me Lucky," upholds the blithe facade. He seemed trapped in it.

Then, in 1983, six years after Crosby's death, his oldest son, Gary, wrote his own book, "Going My Own Way" (with Ross Firestone). In it, he portrays the singer as a monstrous disciplinarian for whom beatings and belittlement were the answers to every filial problem. Gary had become an alcoholic; later in life, two of his brothers, Lindsay and Dennis, shot themselves in the head.

All this is a biographer's feast. But with a faded titan like Crosby, should one aim for a single, reader-friendly volume that might attract more than just die-hard fans? Or do the achievements demand a multivolume magnum opus, such as John Richardson is writing on Picasso and Robert Caro on Lyndon B. Johnson? And if a writer is enraptured enough to go that route, what to do when there's lots of personal unpleasantness to address?

Crosby's biographer Gary Giddins had choices to make. A formidable scholar of jazz and popular song, Giddins is certainly the man for the job. He spent 30 years as a Village Voice columnist. His journalism and his books about Charlie Parker and Louis Armstrong have won him scores of awards.

In 2001 he released the 700-plus-page "Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams -- The Early Years, 1903-1940." Now comes the comparably sized "Bing Crosby: Swinging on a Star -- The War Years, 1940-1946." It's easy to see why Volume 2 took him so long. As before, Giddins researched a mountain of material to the max, and he lays his findings out with impressive clarity. 

Posted by at November 28, 2018 6:14 PM