Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Review (book): Bing Crosby biography

Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams. The Early Years: 1903-1940. By Gary Giddins. Little, Brown, and Co., 2001. 728 pp. $30.00
Review written by Tom Wilmeth
31 August 2001

While in Milwaukee last winter to discuss his Elvis Presley biography, Peter Guralnick stated that the passing of time must eventually bring a decline to Presley’s popularity. Gary Giddins is determined to rescue Bing Crosby from this backwater of neglected cultural icons. Giddins’ challenge is arguably a more difficult task, for the decline that Guralnick describes took place decades ago for Crosby. Fortunately for author and subject alike, this new work is extremely successful, and with A Pocketful of Dreams Giddins does for Bing what Ken Burns did for Louis Armstrong. He is able to excite new audiences about a long-silent talent.

Remembered today primarily as a singer, and even then most often during the Christmas season, Giddins chronicles Crosby’s dominance of not only recordings, but also radio and movies. The young man who emerges from the text is one of tremendous talent, capable of handling a variety of fields. The scene also includes, however, a self-imposed and self-serving isolation that began early, as well as the insistence on getting every ounce of what he felt was his – from top billing for secondary roles to a generous cut of every royalty percentage possible. In fact, some of the business dealings of the book read like the Colonel Tom Parker guide for creative finance.

As this first volume nears its conclusion, the career parallels with Presley become striking. Like Elvis’ post army days, many of Bing’s recording sessions were a waste of the singer’s talent, capitalizing on the demand for anything bearing the Crosby name, with the focus of his career turning to movie roles. The music suffered, often due to poorly or hastily chosen material, or the record company’s misguided attempts to push the singer away from jazz material in favor of bland and widely marketable pop songs. But like Presley, Crosby’s natural talent saved many “dreary arrangements” with his constantly interesting voice.

A turning point in Bing’s life was the death of his guitarist and good friend, Eddie Lang. Lang was more than as essential accompanist however, as the guitarist would often take the unheard-of step of suggesting different ways for Crosby to phrase certain vocal passages. With Lang’s death (from a tonsillectomy suggested by Crosby) Bing built higher walls around himself. Giddins account of this friendship and its sad demise is among the best sections of the book.

Giddins obviously loves his topic, and clearly describes what takes place during the artist’s life, his various media projects, and what lies in the grooves of his best recordings. These detailed descriptions are welcome, since most readers of the book (as Giddins wisely acknowledges) will be unfamiliar with all but the biggest of the crooner’s radio hits. Along the road to Bing’s cultural dominance, Giddins chronicles Crosby’s stints with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra and Tommy & Jimmy Dorsey. Other notables from the arenas of jazz and film provide fascinating vignettes, as with Bing’s own comments on his one-time roommate Bix Biederbeck.

At one point of the narrative the author recounts various lost artistic jewels. Missing studio takes, unsaved radio performances, and especially some destroyed performance footage from an abandoned film project are all lamented. While these items are apparently forever gone, Giddins is determined to save the rest of the Crosby legacy, and makes it available and even enticing in this successful biography.

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