“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.

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.