March 20, 2019

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How Bing Crosby Changed the Course of Pop Music

How Bing Crosby Changed the Course of Pop Music
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Crosby’s biographer Gary Giddins had choices to make. A formidable scholar of jazz and popular song, Giddins is certainly the man for the job. He spent 30 years as a Village Voice columnist. His journalism and his books about Charlie Parker and Louis Armstrong have won him scores of awards.

In 2001 he released the 700-plus-page “Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams — The Early Years, 1903-1940.” Now comes the comparably sized “Bing Crosby: Swinging on a Star — The War Years, 1940-1946.” It’s easy to see why Volume 2 took him so long. As before, Giddins researched a mountain of material to the max, and he lays his findings out with impressive clarity. At the start of the book, Crosby, 37, is America’s greatest star, a “national security blanket” whose role is about to grow as war approaches. Crosby’s weekly radio series, “Kraft Music Hall,” had made his voice as welcome in the American living room as Franklin Roosevelt’s. Once war was declared, the star took to the road to entertain the troops. The “Road” movies, his series of slapstick travelogues with Bob Hope, provided goofy escapist fun for the folks back home. In contrast, Crosby’s Oscar-winning portrayal of warm, wise Father O’Malley gave the Catholic Church its best P.R.

He tended his image carefully. “My private life is just like the private life of any other middle-class American family,” he declared. Crosby’s wife was Dixie Lee, a winsome songbird who had traded her career (and her peroxide-blond hair) for motherhood. On the air, Crosby depicted their four sons as adorable scamps. In truth, Dixie was a hopeless and nasty drunk, while Crosby, aided by his wife, doled out harsh corporal punishment to keep the boys in line. Gary had it the worst; aside from the beatings, his father humiliated him for a perceived weight problem, calling him Lardass and Bucket Butt. “Bing’s attempt to eradicate a sense of specialness and privilege in his sons,” as Giddins terms it, was undercut by the fact that they were Hollywood kids, trotted out as needed for show.

Giddins guides us past these minefields in brisk, lucid prose, as smoothly controlled as a Crosby performance. His scholarship and thoroughness earn the highest marks. But Crosby’s inner life is left mostly to the imagination. Perhaps few people understood it; he seems to have rarely dropped his mask, except to family. Giddins notes, but just in passing, “the undertow of loss and fear, the threat of unremitting loneliness” in many of Crosby’s song selections. Mary Martin, his co-star in the 1940 film “Rhythm on the River,” recalled Crosby as “absolutely terrified of any love scenes, any close-ups, any kissing.” According to the family friend Jean Stevens, Crosby had “no way to show his affection at all, never hugging the children for fear of spoiling them.”

But the why is unexplored. One can only imagine how Crosby felt when he visited Cardinal Francis Spellman to ask for counsel: He was thinking of divorcing Dixie and marrying the actress Joan Caulfield, with whom he was having an affair. “Bing,” the cardinal warned, “you are Father O’Malley, and under no circumstances can Father O’Malley get a divorce.”

Such material is moving, but there’s not much of it. Giddins seems more comfortable examining the career. He shines in his discussion of minstrelsy in film and its garish presence in the Crosby movie “Dixie.” The perils and drudgery of U.S.O. touring come to life. And Giddins tells us a lot about how Crosby and the director Leo McCarey jointly fashioned the Crosby-like character of O’Malley.

But the immensity of detail can be overwhelming. Pages and pages of historical context; sprawling lists of figures, song titles and names; letters quoted in near-entirety — all of this invites skimming.

How many more volumes would Giddins need to cover Crosby’s remaining 31 years? They include the singer’s entire television career, about 20 more films (including three of his best-remembered ones, “The Country Girl,” “White Christmas” and “High Society”); a more serene second marriage and family life; and his final concert years, when it was just Bing, face to face with his audience. As the work thins out and the frail humanity emerges, Giddins may face his greatest challenge.

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