The Book on Bing Crosby

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But put aside the imposing stats. Giddins is impressed by Crosby's importance in the history of pop singing, his talent for vocal nuance and lyric-reading; rather than a bland stylist, the first easy-listening star, Crosby is promoted as, in Artie Shaw's words, "the first hip white person born in the United States." To Giddins, Bing was more. He embodied an attractive prototype: the casual, unflappable American, at ease in his eminence, who faces life with equanimity, win or lose — but who always wins. Giddins also dares to admire the fullness, longevity and ease of Crosby's success: "He taught the world what it meant to live the American common man's dream."

The Best?
Harry Lillis Crosby (his nickname came from a newspaper comic, "The Bingville Bugle") took a while to go solo. He was half, then a third, of a Whiteman vocal group called The Rhythm Boys; the other two were Bing's Spokane, Wash., buddy Al Rinker and singer-songwriter Harry Barris ("Mississippi Mud," "Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams"). A novelty act, mixing smooth and hot vocals, jaunty and racy lyrics (the chipper miscegenation song "When the Bluebirds and the Blackbirds Get Together"), the Boys leavened the stately syncopation of Whiteman's repertoire. When Pops went to Hollywood for the 1930 musical extravagance "King of Jazz," they went along — though Crosby had to commute to the set from jail, where he was working off a month's sentence for drunk driving. (He weaned himself from this addiction and replaced it with golf.)

Within a year, Bing was on his own and a star, perhaps the first star in a new galaxy. He broke the tradition of stentorian tenors, whose big voices and melodramatic high notes were needed to fill the concert halls and vaudeville houses. Crosby recognized the intimacy of the plug-in media: radio, records and the new talking pictures. His voice — music critic Henry Pleasants described it as "microgenic" — was made for the studio mike. With a mellow baritone that got richer as it aged, he gave an FM sonority to AM radio. It was a modern, all- American sound; as Crosby's record producer Ken Barnes said, "Bing cut the silver cord to Europe."

Giddins works overtime to give Bing his props and chops. He sees the Crosby style as an extension and domestication of Armstrong's pioneering, growling scatmanship. He notes that in 1927 Bing haunted the Chicago boîtes where Satch was wowing the hip world with his innovations as a trumpeter and vocalist; and that the Rhythm Boys often interpolated scat, as comic relief, in their tunes.

All true. But Crosby's early delivery has even more insistent echoes of Al Jolson's, with its declamatory style and its tendency to end on an orgasmic high note (though Bing tended to moo his glissandi, where Jolson went "mwaaa"). Apparently skeptical of the appeal of his natural baritone, he forced it up into the familiar tenor range. It took a while for him to realize that the bu-bu-bu- boos were original, natural and, to his widening audience, deeply satisfying. It was also wonderfully adaptable to the musical genres he would investigate for the rest of his career: Irish songs, cowboy ditties and hymns, as well as the standard Tin Pan Alley and Hollywood pop of the day.

Giddins is an engaging, even seductive writer — a terrific synthesizer who makes passionate arguments sensible. His take on Crosby's movies is knowledgeable, always erring (if this can be called an error) on the positive side. Bing may not be a true jazz singer, but Giddins makes a jazz symphony of his early life and career. "A Pocketful of Dreams" is an inspired improv on the familiar materials of that life; a righteous riff, with footnotes. The book makes Crosby hip by association, not with Armstrong, but with Giddins.

The Voice
The book makes an argument familiar to all proselytizing critics. Crosby, Giddins says, isn't like all those people you don't like (like Al Jolson); he's like those people you like (Armstrong, Sinatra, Elvis). And, oddly, the argument is just about convincing. Crosby did indeed learn from Louis — a debt he would gleefully repay with dozens of recorded duets, frequent invitations to Armstrong to appear on "Kraft Music Hall" and the securing of star billing for Armstrong in Crosby's 1936 film "Pennies from Heaven" (at the time a rare plum for a black performer).

If Bing helped Louis, he could be said to have given artistic birth to a generation of singing stars; baritones were the almost exclusive rage for the next two decades. Specifically, his example taught Sinatra that the pulp poetry in a good lyric could be enriched by honoring it, and showed Presley how the low range for his ballads could be as sexy as the squalling tenor of his rockabilly.

In the Presley era and beyond, stars made an impact by going too far, by affronting community propriety (when the community still had propriety), by translating the lewd and the crude into popular art. Bing was just the reverse. He didn't outrage or astonish; he reassured. He was not on the edge; he created a new middle, which always should have existed but didn't until he eased into it. Imagine that, far into the history of food — say, around 1930 — someone had come up with the potato. That was the eureka element to Crosby's relaxed style. He was Everyman singing in the shower, or Everyman as he thought he sounded there. If it is a considerable achievement to rebel against the prevailing standard, surely it is a greater one to create that standard. Bing didn't break the mold; he made it.

Part Two: Bing in the Movies

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