“The First Hip White Person”

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.

And for his way with a microphone. In Giddins's view, the development of electronic amplification in the mid-1920s was the other significant factor in Crosby's ascent, because it ensured that loudness was no longer quite so close to godliness: "According to an old theatrical shibboleth, an entertainer who could not project to the balcony's last row was not ready for the big time." An entire generation of belters was swiftly put out to pasture. And nobody used this shiny new technology with more finesse than Crosby, who "collaborated with the electric current as if he were romancing a woman." Giddins writes, "With the microphone elaborating the subtleties of his delivery, Bing was reinventing popular music as a personal and consequently erotic medium."

This kind of formulation—knowing, nervy, and (to use a much maligned word) judgmental—is Giddins's stock-in-trade. Indeed, the only weak patches in A Pocketful of Dreams occur in the first hundred pages or so, when Crosby hasn't yet begun his career and there's nothing to be judgmental about. Delivering his history of greater Spokane, the author sometimes lapses into what reads like a superior chamber-of-commerce brochure. But everywhere else he displays his phenomenal smarts and critical acumen, and both qualities get a workout as the book eases into the mid-1930s.

It was at this point that America's most popular singer began to soft-pedal his jazz pedigree and to move very consciously toward a mushier middle ground. Much of the impetus came from Jack Kapp, the owner of the Decca record company, who signed Crosby in 1934. At once this impresario spurred his star toward what Giddins calls "common-denominator aesthetics," meaning plummy ballads, light opera, choral music, Christmas carols, cowboy songs, Hawaiian ditties, and one-shot novelties of every stripe. Now, Crosby was the last person to balk at singing such an ecumenical repertoire. And history—at least the history of commerce—proved Kapp right, as Crosby went on to rule the charts for another two decades. Still, listening to some of the junk that emanated from what the author elsewhere calls "the Decca plantation," it's hard not to wonder whether Crosby wasn't ultimately a little too amenable, and too heedless of his own talents.

Here, though, Giddins dismisses any notion of the singer as a sellout. Yes, Kapp labored to transform him into a "smoother, less mannered, ultimately less expressive singer, a kind of musical comfort food." But this, Giddins argues, is exactly what allowed Crosby to reinvent himself for decades on end.

The erstwhile symbol of Prohibition and now the Depression would be reborn yet a third time as an unchallenged icon of World War II and a fourth time as the gladdening troubadour in an age of postwar paranoia (his peak years) and a fifth time as the avuncular skipper of the affluent 1950s. Had Bing not leveled his style, the mainstream would likely have left him behind, a Dixieland dinosaur bewildered by changing times and not the show-business titan who enjoyed an additional twenty years at the epicenter of American tastes and attitudes.

Only with the arrival of rock-and-roll did Crosby lose his grip on the national imagination. By the end of the 1960s he was an object of nostalgia or (depending on one's age) derision, a smooth-talking old trout selling orange juice on television. And to judge from a few simple benchmarks, his influence has continued to wane. In my local, profusely stocked Tower Records, Crosby gets less shelf space than his cardigan-sporting epigone Perry Como—less, even, than his underachieving kid brother Bob. The Road movies, once staples of late-night television, seem to have pulled a similar disappearing act. Has cultural amnesia done Crosby in for good?

To my own surprise, Giddins has made me doubt it. Thanks to Crosby's penchant for understatement and precision-tooled drollery, his best work has hardly aged a day, and even the worst of the Decca crapola is still ennobled by his perfect intonation and no-muss, no-fuss phrasing. What's more, his influence remains pervasive, even if it's not always visible. During his thirty-odd years in the public eye (and the public ear) Crosby came to embody for many what an American was supposed to be: decent but a trifle distant, good-humored and democratic and unflappable. And that persona has proved no less durable than his art, which should guarantee Crosby's survival well into the new millennium. Certainly it's hard to think otherwise after reading A Pocketful of Dreams. A formidable biographer and exegetical wonder, Gary Giddins is so persuasive that even the most skeptical post-Boomer should close this book with the eerie sensation that it's Bing's world after all—we just live in it.

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