Rehabilitating Bing Crosby

David Stearns posted 03/15/01 12:20 PM Central Time (US)     No E-mail no email address given
Philadelphia Inquirer, March 4, 2001.
"Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams -- The Early Years 1903-1940."
By Gary Giddins. Little, Brown. 728 pp. $30
The world doesn't care so much about being cool anymore. But even if you steer clear of South Street with "Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams" under your arm, people from all walks seem temporarily united in their incredulity: "You're reading what?"..Imagine their further reaction upon learning that the 728-page tome is subtitled "The Early Years 1903-1940" and only takes Crosby to the brink of superstardom. Crosby now inhabits the deepest, darkest realms of pop culture's Elysian Fields, perhaps because the public's last memories of him prior to his death in 1977 are lifeless renditions of "Hey Jude," mirth-by-numbers TV specials and a "daddy-dearest" book by his son Gary that depicted him as a disciplinarian monster. If you hear Crosby on the radio, it's at Christmastime. The bulk of his huge, long movie career is forgotten; you're lucky to find "The Road to Rio" at local video stores (and if you do, you'll discover a far more accomplished comedian than you remember)...Thus, the book appears to be a heroic act of rehabilitation, especially so considering that the author isn't a movie or pop-song buff, but respected jazz critic Gary Giddins. That's curious. Jazz people have more right than most to be skeptical of Crosby, even though he did sing with the Paul Whiteman Band and roomed with Bix Beiderbecke. In the grand scheme of the Crosby career, jazz was only the beginning, and even then, he was a transitional figure...Whether Giddins' jazz predilections are the cause or only a symptom of the book's problems, you come away convinced that Crosby deserves some sort of a biographical monument, but not this one.

In theory, the book ought to be just fine, since it seems to contain all possible extant information about a singer who was ubiquitous on radio, recordings and movies between 1934 and 1954. From a reporting standpoint, the book is a staggering achievement, but one that might leave you skipping paragraphs containing far more minutiae than you want. The writing is skilled, and full of flash-forwards that keep the early years from seeming mundane...The problems arise with justifying its mass. Giddins starts with statistics: Crosby recorded more hit singles than anybody else (400) and was the top box-office movie star for five years (1944-48). He did much good for many people, giving the Andrews Sisters a wartime lift, bringing Judy Garland out of her post-MGM doldrums and generating a musical sense of well-being when the country needed it most. Once he achieved croonerhood, his hallmark was music-making that was accomplished, mellifluous and generous, but (unlike any number of torch singers) demanded nothing emotional in return...Still, popularity doesn't equal significance. Darden Asbury Pryon attempted to equate commercial success and cultural importance in "Liberace: An American Boy" (University of Chicago, $27.50) and failed. Beyond statistics, Giddins' claims for Crosby's importance work against him, since they are often based on insupportable and strangely skewed suppositions...

For example: "Crosby was the first white performer to appreciate and assimilate the genius of Louis Armstrong."

Does anybody really know that? Just because Artie Shaw called him America's first hip white person doesn't mean it's true. If the underlying idea is that Crosby was a conduit between black jazz and white America, didn't Beiderbecke do it more forcefully with longer-range implications?..Most odd is Giddins' preoccupation with the masculinity factor that he claims Crosby brought to pop music, a change he characterizes as dramatic as Elvis Presley's later transformation of pop music. Obsessively and repetitively, Giddins describes pre-Crosby pop singing style as "effeminate," a too-shrill attempt to enlist our sympathies by suggesting that Crosby saved pop music from -- ohmygod! -- castration... But the testosterone factor is beside the point. Vocalists, as Giddins rightly states at one point, functioned as stylistically neutral entities to fuel sheet-music sales. With a greater range of expression possible with the microphone, more intimate nuance was possible and welcomed. The progression, therefore, was from impersonal to personal rather than from feminine to masculine...Recordings from 1930 show Crosby could be as neutral as anybody, only with a deeper baritone register. And what about Crosby's jazz singing? After reading so much of Giddins' admiring prose on the subject, I sought out recorded samples of it and heard scat singing that now sounds forced and rudimentary. In ballads, young Crosby could be highly artificial, using vocal portamenti straight out of operetta. Crosby's ultimate hallmark was directness: His effortlessness and sincerity grew out of singing that was pared down to stylistic essentials...

On nonmusical fronts, Giddins delivers some startling surprises: Contrary to his later conservative image, Crosby had a debauched past that never seems to have been as far behind him as one might think. He comes off as one of the heaviest drinkers to come out of Prohibition alive, failing to show up for performances and radio shows. His first wife apparently exacted some sort of alcohol-curbing pledge from him, which Giddins characterized as a turning point for Crosby and his until-then unambitious work ethic...But then there are a number of accounts, many deliciously inside-y, of his continued relationship with Mother Bottle. On the fun side, he and Marion Davies clung to each other to keep from stumbling over fake flowers when shooting a movie scene after a particularly liquid lunch. Not so fun is a transcribed tape of a drunken Crosby being stubborn and cantankerous in a recording session. Was he an alcoholic with periods of white-knuckle abstinence? That could explain a lot, but Giddins doesn't go there...

One through-line Giddins pursues to maintain interest in the endless stream of career milestones is Crosby's "unknowability." The relaxed, friendly on-camera Crosby often had a Zen-like aloofness. Giddins finds significance in this with another unprovable statement: After several early-adulthood friends left his life, he never again confided in anybody. How does anybody know that? Did adult men in mid-20th-century America do much confiding anyway? Might it be a normal, healthy defense mechanism for the most famous American of the mid-20th century? Is it possible, too, that Crosby's waters just didn't run that deep?..

Giddins has another chance for a clear-eyed, objective account of Crosby and his importance in the forthcoming second volume. Hopes of that happening, though, are dimmed by what seems like a deeper purpose at work: establishing Crosby as an icon...One informal test of Crosby's icon potential is summing him up in a charismatic sentence. Example: Elvis Presley, the rebel who drowned in the excesses of the American dream. Or Marilyn Monroe, the sexual idol who was as vulnerable as a butterfly. Now for Bing: The crooner who got Louis Armstrong into some very bad movies. Try again: The boozy jazz singer who became America's favorite priest. Try yet again: The only one who can still sing White Christmas in these days of global warming...Sorry, Crosby just doesn't cross the bridge separating the merely super-successful from folk heroes. And I don't think he ever will..

Lee posted 03/15/01 01:20 PM Central Time (US)    E-mail contact the author directly
This long diatribe against Bing is typical of the history revisionists. They just refuse to believe facts even when they're presented in front of them. This guy sounds like he was bitterly disappointed to learn the facts of Bing's true genius and greatness and is disappointed that this great Bing bio isn't another Daddy Dearest lie filled book. He obviously is thrilled to relish over the small point in Bing's life when he took a drink or 2, he embelishes this side issue and refuses to admit Bing's true contribution to the world, his wholly original style that changed the way people sang forever more. I think he should go back to reading the Enquirer type books, those are obviously more to his liking, no matter how many lies are repeated.
Arne posted 03/15/01 03:20 PM Central Time (US)    E-mail contact the author directly
Oh dear, the Philly Inquirer writer doesn't understand what the "big deal" is about Bing Crosby. He asks many rhetorical questions, all of which could answered in a simple dialogue by any one of us.... or by any one of the overwhelming body of heavyweight critics from important papers and media sources who have been raving about Bing, and this book, for two months now. As I said in another post several weeks ago, SOME PEOPLE JUST WILL NEVER LIKE BING CROSBY..... They are a stubborn lot, and even when delivering a fairly even-tempered piece (such as this one was) their original bias shows through, i.e. "Bing wasn't important, his music and art had no depth, therefore, Giddins is wrong and it's my duty to tell you so...." -- Just remember one thing, folks: the media coverage of this book (and by extension, Bing) has been overwhelmingly positive. I've collected every single piece of print I could get my hands on, through newspapers and via internet sources, which I've printed and filed (Thank you, Steven Lewis!!!!) and messrs. Giddins and Crosby are smelling like roses right now. So this guy doesn't get it. He's wrong.
Brian Weber posted 03/15/01 03:50 PM Central Time (US)    E-mail contact the author directly
How about: "Bing Crosby, the vocal innovator who anchored America from the Great Depression through World War II"?..The reviewer seems to feel that only Giddins holds this view of Crosby as innovator. He fails to acknowledge that Armstrong, Sinatra, and countless others also held this view. Sinatra, Bennett and many others said, "None of us would be here if it weren't for Crosby. He led the way."..Hm, to whom do I give more credence -- jazz historians and every great singer of the pre-rock era, or the book reviewer for the Philadelphia Inquirer? Gee, I just don't know..
Arne posted 03/16/01 06:04 PM Central Time (US)    E-mail contact the author directly
Here is the text of a letter I just Emailed to the Philly Inquirer:..

To The Editor,..Regarding David Stearns review of "Bing Crosby - A Pocketful Of Dreams" by Gary Giddins:..Johnny Mercer, Jon Hendricks, Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Nat Hentoff, Ella Fitzgerald, Will Friedwald, Henry Pleasants, Sonny Rollins, Milt Hinton, James T. Maher, Perry Como, Jimmy Rushing, Joe Bushkin, Tommy Dorsey, Dave Frishberg, Leslie Gourse, Mel Torme, Dean Martin, Tom Shales, Dave Dexter Jr., Richard M. Sudhalter, Jonathon Schwartz, Leonard Maltin, Michael Feinstein, Jimmy Heath, Buddy Bregman, John McDonough, Milt Gabler, Herb Jeffries, Artie Shaw, and Rosemary Clooney* all disagree with Mr. Stearns. And so do I...Bing's music is timeless, and Gary Giddins' book serves as a potent and valuable re-introduction to the most influential pop media figure of the twentieth century's first half. ...Oh, and how about this as an iconic phrase for Crosby, as per Mr. Stearns' examples citing Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley: ..........."BING". Sort of says it all, doesn't it?..Arne Fogel,.St. Louis Park, MN.*sources available upon request.......End of text.....I hope somebody who receives this newspaper can let me know if they print this. Thanks.

Mike Campbell posted 03/17/01 01:32 AM Central Time (US)    E-mail contact the author directly
I thought the Stearns review was overhwelmingly good, thoughtful, and balanced --until his last ludicrous comparisons to Elvis and Marilyn. Big deal, who wants to be in their company anyway? Look at the nutcases and freaks who worship at their shrines. I'll take solid talent over hysterical emotionalism anyday. Crosby will be long remembered, while the dumb-dumb reviewer will still be in the media business wondering why he doesn't get paid as much as his friends who work (worked)at dot.coms.I'd also like to make a small defense of that seemingly indefensible book, "Bing Crosby: The Hollow Man." There is one chapter in the book that was clearly meant to paint Bing as an avaricious miser -- it's the chapter about his business dealings with Minute Maid, real estate, and If I remember correctly Ampex. Well, the writer's attempts backfired. That chapter compelled me to hold Bing in even higher esteem: a solid businessman with an eye on trends and the future. Too bad Elvis and Marylin didn't have interests outside of showbiz like Bing --then maybe they'd be alive today. Bing had the mark of a REAL survivor. Now that's virility.
Steven Lewis posted 03/19/01 02:07 PM Central Time (US)    E-mail contact the author directly
I suspect that Stearns was assigned to write the review of Giddins' biography of Bing and was told to give it a different spin. Clearly, Stearns is not very knowledgeable of the subject about which he writes. Why, for example, would he write that Bing's claim to jazz fame was due to his singing for Paul Whiteman? Whiteman was no more the King of Jazz than he was the King of Siam. Stearns would have realized this had he read the book that he was reviewing. Clearly, though, the content of the book was secondary to the spin, which evidently was determined in advance...Nevertheless, if Bing had reviewed Giddins' book he would have reached more or less the same conclusion. Why all this fuss about me? Two volumes? There'll be a lot of room to write your thoughts in volume 2. In fact, Bing's modesty -- his refusal to let his celebrity go to his head -- is, no doubt, part of what made him so appealing to his generation and to me. As Bing's son Gary said in Going My Own Way, "Bing was a very civilized man." This characteristic may not get much mileage in today's celebrity culture, but in my book I can't think of a better epitaph..
Dennis posted 06/01/01 02:40 PM Central Time (US)    E-mail contact the author directly
Mr. Stearns displays an unfortunate and apalling ignorance of the American musical scene, especially from the perspective of an historical overview. This apparent lack of awareness invalidates his conclusions...Internationally, Bing Crosby is rightfully regarded as one of the founding fathers of American popular music, and is seen as an icon personifying that genre. Recent passersby such as Mr. Stearns cannot begin to comprehend the impact this one solitary man has had on that most powerful of cultural expressions...Bing didn't just record the "standards" of his time--he MADE them the "standards", and he SET the standards which to this day are the achievements of the better artists and the attempts of the lesser ones...In his aboriginal desire to tear down that which he cannot begin to understand,Mr. Stearns reveals a spray-can graffiti mentality which sadly passes for journalism in the environment of the rag which employs him.
K MCCOY posted 11/23/01 03:02 PM Central Time (US)    E-mail contact the author directly
I am truly impressed by the depth of this site. It is common place for the internet to be full of mud-slinging, foul-mouthed, incompetent fools. However- I have found a sanctuary in which I can sit for an hour or two and revel in the mysteries of the past and the beauty of yesteryear. Bing Crosby has given this to me- and his music instilled an appreciation for life into a society which seems to be deprived of any genuine art. ..Whatever this author had against against Bing- he certainly needs to sit for a minute and think about his comparisons. Has Marilyn lasted? Did she ever promote anything but (what a conservative like myself would consider) moral decline? Did Elvis die putting on the green? Happier than ever? Content with life? ..The legacy you leave behind is more than the little mistakes that we all tend to make in life. Bing Crosby was no saint. He couldn't be. No more than you or I could be. Why? Read your Bible. (And then go turn on a good White Christmas record. It's chilly out there!)
John J. Murphy, Jr. posted 10/29/05 09:09 PM Central Time (US)    E-mail contact the author directly
I concur that everyone has expressed themselves very well about Mr. Stearns book review. I found in reading his article that it got pretty soggy halfway through wherein I could not fathom whether he had a problem with Bing Crosby, himself, or with Gary Gidden's book. It's akin to calling the purchase of Alaska from Russia a "folly."

For simplicity's sake I have always enjoyed the understated prose found in Brian Rust's American Popular Entertainment Discography that describes Bing Crosby as "probably the best liked member of the profession."

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