“The First Hip White Person”


Is this the right moment to inaugurate a huge double-decker biography of Bing Crosby? Since his death, in 1977 (which took place, appropriately enough, on a golf course, where the seventy-four-year-old crooner had just shot a very creditable 85), his reputation has gone into eclipse. He hasn't, to be sure, vanished from the cultural map. Yet Crosby increasingly seems like the sole inhabitant of a kind of white-bread Mount Rushmore. He's not hip or sexy or tortured enough to rise from the show-biz ashes in the manner of, say, Tony Bennett (who, happily, lived long enough to enjoy his own resurrection).

In the superb Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams, Gary Giddins is quick to acknowledge his subject's dwindling mystique—the result, he argues, "of having played Everyman too long and too well." But Giddins also makes a strong case for Crosby as the prime mover of American pop culture, who shaped it in his own affable image for more than three decades.

Without any dramatic outward change, he had somehow been the right man for successive crises, assertive and optimistic through Prohibition, the Depression, and hot and cold wars. He had the chameleon's ability to reflect his surroundings and the artist's discernment to illuminate them ... Bing, in his peculiar motley (shirttails, beat-up hats, torn sweaters, mismatched socks) with his pipe and preternatural calm, embodied the best in American individualism.

Harry Lillis Crosby was born on May 3, 1903, in Tacoma, Washington. Three years later his parents, clinging precariously to their middle-class perch in a boom-and-bust economy, moved the family to Spokane. There the young Harry—whose devotion to a Sunday newspaper feature, "The Bingville Bugle," led to his eventual rechristening—enjoyed a classic small-town youth, whittling, stealing cherries, and swimming in the millpond. Crosby's boyhood suggests nothing so much as an Irish Catholic version of Huckleberry Finn's, albeit one with the benefit of elocution classes and an upright piano.

In the golden age of the parlor sing-along the fact that Crosby's father had insisted on shipping the family's piano inland from Tacoma was hardly unusual. But his purchase of an Edison Phonograph was another matter entirely. This contraption, the first in the neighborhood, played cylinders, amplifying the music through a kind of Victorian ear trumpet. Giddins writes,

The marvelous machine, patented nearly three decades earlier by Thomas Edison, ... filled the house with trebly, tinny, yet vividly exuberant and often exotic sounds. Radio, as an entertainment medium, was more than twenty years in the future. But for now they had this pipeline to the world and its music.

It's worth dwelling on exactly what sorts of performers made their trebly, tinny passage through that pipeline. At the time, American music and its listeners hadn't yet been balkanized into distinct (and often warring) factions. Light classics existed cheek by jowl with minstrelsy, patriotic flag-wavers, Irish ballads, and vaudeville shtick. This freed Crosby early on from what we might call the tyranny of good taste. It also foreshadowed his own cross-pollinating tendencies as a performer: by the mid-1930s he would sing anything, in any genre, transforming dross into gold with amiable regularity.

Crosby was quietly, definitively bitten by the performing bug at age fourteen, when Al Jolson (billed as "The World's Greatest Entertainer") made a high-voltage appearance in Spokane. "I hung on every word and watched every move he made," Crosby later recalled. Over the next few years he appeared in a string of high school and college productions—often, like his idol, in blackface, inaugurating a lifelong attachment to burnt cork. He also took up the drums, which led to a partnership with another restless local, Al Rinker. As a vocal duo they snagged a regular curtain-raising gig at a Spokane movie theater, representing, in Giddins's words, "Jazz Age bravura in an unthreatening incarnation." And it was in Rinker's company that Crosby left town in a Model T, on October 15, 1925, to seek his fortune in Los Angeles.

Once they arrived, Crosby's transformation from vocalizing rube to national icon took place at a rapid clip. After a short stint in vaudeville the duo was picked up by Paul Whiteman, whose stiff and starchy brand of orchestral jazz had made him a major celebrity. ("The tall, egg-shaped Whiteman," Giddins writes, "was the darling of the media—he could make news by announcing his latest plan for a diet.") Two years after Crosby left Spokane, his voice adorned such hit records as "My Blue Heaven" and "Ol' Man River." By 1930 he had left Whiteman's elephantine arrangements behind and struck out on his own, swiftly establishing himself as a music, film, and radio star. His domination of all three industries engendered the kind of synergistic triumphs that current media moguls can only dream of. To take just one example: in 1937 Crosby's "Sweet Leilani" became the most popular recording since the Crash, spending six months on the charts and earning the singer his first gold record. Meanwhile, the song he performed in Waikiki Wedding (itself a whopping success at the box office) won an Oscar—and helped to sell an astonishing 54 million units of sheet music. By just about any measure the Groaner, as Crosby styled himself, had triumphed.

How? The answer is a complicated one, but Giddins—whose gift for juggling biography, history, and musical microscopy won him the 1998 National Book Critics Circle Award for Visions of Jazz—is the ideal man to formulate it. As he sees it, two factors helped propel Crosby to the top of the cultural heap. To begin with, there was his vocal style, particularly as it was shaped by that gravel-voiced wonder Louis Armstrong. During Crosby's tenure with Whiteman he had been exposed to plenty of crack jazz players, and Bix Beiderbecke—with whom he roomed and not infrequently roistered—left his imprint on the young singer. But it was Armstrong who did the most in the twenties to liberate American music from its fin-de-siècle stodginess, cheerfully discarding its rhythmic and harmonic shackles. And it was from that same genius, first encountered during a 1926 visit to Chicago, that Crosby's voice acquired the elusive yet unmistakable sense of forward momentum known as swing. As Giddins sees it, Crosby was the first white singer truly to absorb these innovations, and he was never shy about acknowledging his debt, calling Armstrong "the beginning and the end of music in America."

Was Crosby therefore the only begetter of blue-eyed soul? Not exactly. For all his infatuation with blackface, he was too shrewd and individual an artist to function as a copycat. Instead he assimilated Armstrong's rhythmic propulsion and melodic ingenuity into his own, cooler sensibility, inspiring the master's admiration in the process. "Ever since Bing first opened his mouth," Armstrong wrote circa 1967, "he was the Boss of All Singers and Still is." The two performed together many times, and it is always instructive to compare their styles: in a 1936 recording of "Pennies From Heaven," for example, Armstrong sings the first, ebullient chorus, adding bluesy interjections and biting off his phrases, whereas Crosby glides suavely between his upper and lower registers and hits each note on the nose without ever breaking a sweat. Giddins gets it exactly right when he insists,

[Crosby] did not imitate Armstrong; he understood that Louis's message was to be yourself. That meant not simulating a black aesthetic but applying it to who he was and what he knew as a Northwestern third-generation Anglo-Irish Catholic, reared on John McCormack and Al Jolson, Dixieland and dance music, elocution and minstrelsy, comedy and vaudeville.

Nor did Crosby's achievement end with a canny reconciliation of black and white aesthetics. Enveloping the whole package in his lyrical, listener-friendly baritone, he brought the eros and elasticity of jazz to an enormous mainstream audience—and did so at a time when such crossover moves were virtually unheard of. In this context a 1992 comment by Artie Shaw makes perfect sense: "The thing you have to understand about Bing Crosby is that he was the first hip white person born in the United States." True enough. And by tailoring his hipster appeal for the masses, he accumulated a staggering string of successes, including more No. 1 hits than either the Beatles or Elvis; multiple Academy Award nominations and an Oscar for his role in Going My Way; and an audience of 50 million for his weekly broadcasts of the Kraft Music Hall—not to mention the most popular recording in history, "White Christmas," which is about the closest we Americans have come to a secular hymn. Crosby's sphere of influence also extends far beyond his curriculum vitae: every major male pop singer who followed in his wake had to come to terms with his example. Frank Sinatra turned himself into a kind of anti-Bing, substituting a highly emotive style for the older man's smiling reserve, but not even the anxiety of influence could steer him clear of that legato phrasing. And the next iconic male figure in popular music wore Crosby's imprimatur on his gold-lamé sleeve. With his patented leer and Deep South inflections, Elvis would seem to be his predecessor's polar opposite, yet the trademarks of Presley's mature style—the swooping, ardent low notes, the shimmery upper register—are strikingly apparent in the very first recording Crosby made for Brunswick in 1931, "Out of Nowhere." And surely it's no accident that Elvis chose to jump-start his post-Army career with a cover version of "Blue Hawaii," a hit for Crosby nearly twenty-five years before. If he couldn't inherit Crosby's mantle, he was willing to settle for his lei.

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