© - Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
“Sprezzatura” - “The ability to do difficult things with apparent ease.”
- Baldassare Castiglione, count of Casatico, Italian courtier, diplomat, soldier and prominent Renaissance author
“Ut Saepe Summa Ingenia In Occulto Latent” - “How often the greatest talents are shrouded in obscurity.”
- Plautus, Roman playwright [c. 254-184 BC]
“Ars Est Celare Artem” - “The perfection of art is to conceal it.”
- Ovid, Roman poet; Proverbs 12:23
Since the first time I heard it, I have always been fond of the saying: “The unexamined Life is not worth living; the unlived Life is not worth examining.”
No danger of that duality occurring in terms of the life lived by entertainer Bing Crosby or in author Gary Giddins’ examination of it.
And, with Bing Crosby A Pocketful of Dreams, The Early Years 1903-1940 we are “only” through the first, thirty-seven years of Crosby’s remarkable odyssey in the world of music and movies and Giddins’ chronicling of it - with thirty-seven more years yet to come! [Bing Crosby died in 1977 at the age of seventy-four].
Using words to describe music is almost as perilous as using words to make music by singing it. Gary Giddins is as adept at the former as Bing Crosby was at the latter which is what makes Bing Crosby A Pocketful of Dreams, The Early Years 1903-1940 such a great work: the author is equal to the task of examining the qualities that made Bing Crosby one of 20th century America’s great entertainers.
Thanks to his superbly researched and well-written biography, Gary Giddins has helped insure that Bing Crosby will not be as Plautus’ laments - “a great talent shrouded in obscurity.”
More to the point, when combined with its planned second volume, the Giddins Crosby biography project will help to safeguard Bing Crosby’s accomplishments as a hallmark of 20th century American musical and theatrical success similar to the distinction achieved by Plautus in his lifetime.
And yet, if in an imagined conversation I was to ask Gary Giddins to employ his considerable gifts as a writer on a subject of popular 20th century American culture, I doubt that Bing Crosby would have been my choice.
I should be particularly happy, then, that Gary Giddins “doesn’t return my calls,” because his choice of Bing Crosby as the focus of his talents as a research and a writer brought me into contact with a man whom the late clarinetist and bandleader Artie Shaw refers to as “... the first hip white person born in the United States.”
It also brought me into contact with the “Lost Worlds” of Minstrelsy, Vaudeville, the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, the nascent years of radio as a medium of communication, phonograph records, radio broadcasts, the development of the microphone and its effects of vocalization, the evolution of motion pictures and the creation of movie stars, the close relationship of Jazz and the world of entertainment - all of which had a hand in shaping Bing Crosby and which, in many cases, Bing shaped in return making them vehicles for the highest level of artistic expression.
As is usual with Mr. Giddins’ work, his Introductions provide readers with an excellent overview of the journey they are about to undertake as is exemplified in the following excerpts from the Introduction that launches Bing Crosby A Pocketful of Dreams, The Early Years 1903-1940 [footnote references excluded]:
“... [Bing Crosby’s] death [on October 14, 1977] was front-page news everywhere. In the United States and Great Britain, his passing was treated as comparable to that of Churchill and de Gaulle. Newspapers then were edited and written by the generation of men and women who came of age during World War II. They remembered Crosby as a shining light during those years, not merely because Der Single had made the largest number of V-Discs and army broadcasts, toured in England and France in 1944, and raised $14.5 million in war bonds (a Yank magazine poll declared him the individual who had done the most for GI morale) but because perhaps more than anyone else he had come to define — at a time when national identity was important — what it meant to be American.
Yet to the swarming generation born after the war, all the reverence was a mystery. He was known to them as a faded and not especially compelling celebrity, a square old man who made orange-juice commercials and appeared with his much younger family on Christmas telecasts that the baby boomers never watched. He had long since disappeared from movies and the hit parade. If children of the sixties knew his work at all, it was from his perennial hit record of "White Christmas," TV reruns of his Road pictures with Bob Hope, and his duet with David Bowie on "Little Drummer Boy." They would have been amazed to learn how advanced, savvy, and forceful a musician he had been in his prime.
That was the cost of having played Everyman too long and too well. Harry Lillis Crosby was the most influential and successful popular performer in the first half of the twentieth century. His was the voice of the nation, the cannily informal personification of hometown decency — friendly, unassuming, melodious, irrefutably American. In his looser and wilder years, when the magnitude of his stardom was without precedent or equal, he had been reckoned the epitome of cool. But universal acceptance demanded of him a willful blandness that obscured the full weight of his achievement. Of the few musicians who had synthesized modernism in popular music and jazz, Crosby received the least serious attention from biographers and critics after 1950. What Edmund Wilson wrote of Charles Dickens's standing in the 1930s describes Bing Crosbys at the time of his death: he had become so much a "familiar joke, a favorite dish, a Christmas ritual" that pundits no longer saw "in him the great artist and social critic that he was.”
But more than familiarity laid waste to Crosby's reputation. Popular culture plays by the numbers, and Bing's numbers — and the aesthetic they represented — were shaded by those of rock. His art was now as remote from demotic tastes as classical music or jazz. Four of the last century's most treasured singers died in quick succession in the late summer and fall of 1977: Elvis Presley on August 16, Ethel Waters on September 1, Maria Callas on September 16, and Bing Crosby on October 14. All were American-born and all were celebrated beyond the idioms with which they are primarily associated. Of them, Bing's stature seemed especially secure: his obituaries triggered so many record sales that MCA (Decca) could not handle the orders and farmed them out to other plants, requiring more than a million discs per day. Yet on the twentieth anniversary of their deaths, only Elvis's memory was widely acknowledged in mass media. Two years later Newsweek devoted forty-plus pages to "Voices of the Century: America Goes Hollywood," in which Crosby was not mentioned, except to caption a photograph with Frank Sinatra.
In the decade following his death, Crosby's personal stature had been tarnished by a one-two punch. First, there was a savage, ineptly researched biography that ignored his art in its haste to show that yet another departed hero had feet of clay. It was soon followed by a resentful memoir by his alcoholic eldest son, Gary Crosby. Under the law, the dead cannot be libeled, and those books, published in the early 1980s, generated an irresponsible piling-on. Unfounded rumors were passed off as fact. The fading portrait of the imperturbable crooner, the soul of affection, the totem of cool, was replaced by the crude rendering of a pinchfaced, right-wing, child-beating philanderer.
His contemporaries had a more accurate sense of him. Crosby was a phenomenon in the cultural life of the United States long before the war. He had helped lift morale while elucidating the American temperament during the Great Depression, the worst years of privation in the nation's history. Combining musical cultures as no one had ever done (he sang in every idiom short of grand opera), he made the country a more neighborly and unified place. After the war Crosby became an even bigger star, selling more movie tickets and records than ever, serving as a steady barometer of the postwar mood, a bulwark against the reign of paranoia, an outrider of the affluence that followed. 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. If Churchill, in his Savile Row pinstripes with his cigars and learned oratory, incarnated the British lion, 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. In 1943 H. Allen Smith observed, "He has been the antithesis of all that the Sunday schools and the Boy Scouts and the Y secretaries taught — and look at him.”
Of the handful of artists who remade American music in the 1920s, Crosby may be said to have had the broadest immediate impact, if only because he reached the largest number of people. He played a decisive role in transforming popular song from a maudlin farrago steeped in minstrelsy and vaudeville into a swinging, racially nuanced, and internationally accepted phenomenon that in one form or another dominated the age. He was by no means alone, yet he attained a matchless orbit of popularity. Most histories of the Depression and the New Deal never mention Crosby, as if the rantings of Huey Long or Father Coughlin exercised greater impact on the public temper than "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?," "The Last Round-Up," or "The One Rose." Yet as many as 50 million people tuned in every Thursday evening to hear Bing's Kraft Music Hall (1935-46). Consider that the hottest TV series of 2000, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, peaked with 36 million viewers.
Popular art listens, absorbs, reflects, harangues, and can, in troubled times, console. Crosbys records were as reassuring as President Roosevelt's "fireside chats." In a national poll conducted in the late 1940s, Crosby was voted the most admired man alive, ahead of Jackie Robinson, Generals Eisenhower and MacArthur, Harry Truman, Bob Hope, and the Pope. Bing was less impressed with himself. He remarked in 1960, "As far as I am concerned, with the exception of a phonograph record or two, I don't think I have done anything that's really outstanding or great or marvelous or anything that deserves any superlatives.” Emerson wrote, "Every hero becomes a bore at last.” Even to himself.
Except for a confederation of minstrel troupes and chains of vaudeville theaters, the entertainment industry barely existed when Harry Lillis Crosby was born in 1903 to a lower-middle-class Anglo-Irish-American Catholic family. The wax-recorded disc was three years old, and the first nickelodeon was two years down the road. The first regularly scheduled radio broadcasts didn't begin until 1920. Over the next half century, the United States forged the first empire dependent not on strategic colonies but rather on the irresistible sway of its popular arts. Crosby's prestige was crucial in shaping that empire, in spreading a New World style and image. Not the least of his achievements was his role in ensuring the prosperity — in some instances, the very survival — of several major entertainment corporations, including CBS, NBC, ABC, Decca Records, Paramount Pictures, and Ampex tape.
Crosby was the first white vocalist to appreciate and assimilate the genius of Louis Armstrong: his rhythm, his emotion, his comedy, and his spontaneity. Louis and Bing recorded their first important vocals, respectively, in 1926 ("Heebie Jeebies") and 1927 ("Muddy Water") and were the only singers of that era still thriving at the times of their deaths, in the 1970s. When Crosby came of age, most successful male singers were effeminate tenors and recording artists were encouraged to be bland, the better to sell sheet music. The term pop singer didn't exist; it was coined in large measure to describe a breed he invented. Bing perfected the use of the microphone, which transfigured concerts, records, radio, movies — even the nature of social intercourse. As vocal styles became more intimate and talking pictures replaced pantomime, private discourse itself grew more casual and provocative. Bing was the first to render the lyrics of a modern ballad with purpose, the first to suggest an erotic undercurrent.
The great cultural critic Constance Rourke identified the three regional stereotypes of nineteenth-century American humor as the Yankee, the backwoodsman, and the minstrel. Bing remains the only entertainer to embody all three, producing in the bargain a twentieth-century composite, often described in his day as the Common Man. Rings discography, a compilation of 1,668 songs (not including hundreds more he sang on radio), is astonishingly comprehensive. It enfolds the Yankee's Tin Pan Alley, the backwoodsman's western laments, and the minstrel's Old South ballads. It explores every idiom, class, and precinct of American song, from hymns, anthems, spirituals, and novelties to Hawaiian, Irish, light opera, and r&b; he even took a fling at rock 'n' roll. No other performer s catalog is comparable.
During his most prominent years, from 1934 to 1954, Crosby held a nearly unrivaled command over all three key entertainment media, racking up legendary phonograph sales, radio ratings, and motion-picture grosses. At no time was he marketed to one generation or faction of the audience. He may have begun as a Jazz Age emoter for the College Humor set, but by the mid-thirties, he was America's troubadour. Ring's influence can be heard in the work of numerous singers in diverse idioms, including Armstrong, whose first foray into popular songs in 1929 was in part a response to Ring's achievement, Jimmy Rushing, Connie Roswell, Perry Como, Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Jimmy Wakely, Roy Rogers, Herb Jeffries, Billy Eckstine, R. R. King, Mel Torme, Ella Fitzgerald, Rosemary Clooney, Johnny Hartman, Tony Rennett, Ruth Brown, Dean Martin, Ray Charles, and Elvis Presley, who recorded more than a dozen of Crosby's signature hits. Instrumentalists from Jimmy Dorsey to Sonny Rollins have attempted to mimic a semblance of the Crosby cry.
Popular culture, like sports, is beset with statistics, a fixation on chart and box-office rankings, grosses and salaries, and prizes…..
It is impossible to regard Bing Crosby as a historical figure without considering some of his statistics. If nothing else, they reveal his dominance over popular entertainment from Prohibition until the mid-1950s, when his decline as the nation's preeminent muse was signaled by the comeback of a newly charged Sinatra and the arrival of Elvis - the former marketed to adults, the latter to their children. During Crosby’s reign, that split did not exist.
[Listing of Crosby’s statistical achievements here.]
Such reckonings count for little and would mean nothing at all if Crosby’s art did not merit rediscovery. He was, first and foremost, a masterly, innovative musician — an untrained vocalist of natural charm and robust power with impeccable instincts about phrasing and tempo. He pared away the rococo mannerisms of bygone theatrical styles in favor of the clean melodic line. Lyricists thought him a godsend because he not only articulated words but also underscored their meaning. Crosby, who never learned to read music and could play no instrument except rudimentary drums, had an apparently photographic and audiographic memory. He had only to hear a song to know it.
As an actor, Crosby broke the rules. He was the antithesis of a Hollywood matinee idol — small and average-looking with outsize ears, thin lips, pointed jaw, and a padded midsection that belied his graceful athleticism. He created a new prototype: the unflappable maverick with a pocketful of dreams, a friend to men and catnip to women. The immense success of his 1940s movies has overshadowed his often daring work in the 1930s, when he developed into an accomplished farceur and an exceptional improviser of physical shtick.
A performer of such enormous popularity becomes, inevitably and in spite of himself, a social critic. Crosby, an unreasonably modest man who never took credit for anything musical, let alone social or political, nonetheless played a coercive role in the acceleration of civil rights. He encouraged and pioneered racial integration on stage, radio, and records and in movies; in 1936, after winning the contractual right to produce his own pictures, he hired Louis Armstrong and gave him star billing, a Hollywood first for a black entertainer. A Jesuit by training and temperament, Crosby had enjoyed the benefits of a classical education. He lived in a small parochial world until he was twenty-two. He was a classroom cutup and lover of old show business, not least minstrelsy, but by the time he dropped out of law school, he understood that American popular music was a stew of intermingling ethnicities. He absorbed the influences of performers so diverse that few would have mentioned them in the same sentence, among them, Al Jolson, John McCormack, the Mound City Blue Blowers, Ukelele Ike, Ethel Waters, Mildred Bailey, Van and Schenck, Bix Beiderbecke, and, most decisively, Armstrong.
Perhaps the most telling aspect of Crosby s neglected role in integrating American show business was his calculated decision to attach himself to an ethnic wing. At the time of his death, he was widely remembered as Irish American. … Bing quietly stepped up to embody a larger truth. As he began to sing Irish songs and play Irishmen and priests, he required no rhetoric to stress the point that nothing was more all-American than its minorities.
Crosby rarely allowed stereotypical Catholic pieties to interfere with the scampish irreverence that informed much of his best work, from the romantic comedies to the Road movies….. ‘Bing” was a standout moniker, a name that underscored his easygoing modesty. He taught the world what it meant to live the American common man s dream. Aside from his music, that was the best part of his art, perhaps the best part of himself.
Bing was a remarkably autobiographical performer. Yet while the public thought it knew him intimately his intimates conceded that Crosby was, in many respects, unknowable. They would often remark on his intelligence, humor, and generosity, and then marvel at his contradictions: the melting warmth and chilly reserve, the conservatism and liberality, the piety and recklessness. Bing liked people who made him laugh (he expressed bewilderment that anyone might think him, as many did, a loner) but avoided public displays of affection and introspection. … Iron-willed and self-made, insouciant and obstinate, gregarious and remote, he was thoroughly enigmatic, yet hardly unknowable — no man with a legacy as large as Crosby's could be that. Neither saint nor monster, Crosby survives his de-bunkers along with his hagiographers because the facts are so much more impressive than the prejudices and myths on either side. Bing Crosby was, after all, a poor boy from a Catholic working-class district in turn-of-the-century Spokane who caught the attention of the world and made it better. "Call me lucky," he said. But it was never just luck or even talent. It was also the determination and brains of an alert young man who came along when American entertainment was at a crossroads. He showed it which road to take.”
In the 26 chapters that follow this Introduction, Mr. Giddins elaborates on the many and varied influences and the singular qualities of mind, body, personality and character that gave Bing Crosby [to paraphrase Mr. Giddins] “ … unrivaled command over all three key entertainment media - racking up legendary phonograph sales, radio ratings, and motion-picture grosses during his most prominent years from 1934 to 1954.”
Thus we read in the chapter about Bing’s university days at Gonzaga University in Spokane, WA that:
- “Bing would have understood Father O’Flannery injunction “Good is something under construction.”
- “With his photographics memory, Bing found that most subjects came easily to him.
- “Bing Crosby is the only major singer in American popular music to enjoy the virtues of a classical education. It grounded his values and expectations, reinforcing his confidence and buffering him from his own ambition. As faithful as he was to show business, his demeanor was marked by a serenity that suggested an appealing indifference. He had something going for him that could not be touched by Hollywood envy and mendacity. He acted in the early years of his career as if he didn't give a damn, displaying an irresponsibility that would have ensured a less talented man’s failure, and he learned to turn that knowing calm into a selling point. Other performers worked on the surface, but Bing kept as much in reserve as he revealed. He was as cool in life as he was in song or onscreen.”
In his chapter entitled “Mr. Interlocutor,” Mr. Giddins offers these elucidations on the effects of The Art of Minstrelsy on Bing Crosby.
- “The importance of minstrelsy in the development of America's popular arts can hardly be overstated, and Crosby was steeped in it. …. Negro minstrelsy, as it was called regardless of the performers' race, was the only acceptable conduit for what was thought of as native Negro artistry. Though antebellum troupes were white, the form developed in a forced racial collaboration, illustrating the axiom that defined — and continues to define — American music as it developed over the next century and a half: African American innovations metamorphose into American popular culture when white performers learn to mimic black ones.”
- “At its height, minstrelsy was a stylized, codified, and even ritualized variety show. … Bing was enamored of many things southern, personally as well as professionally; he married two southern belles. His longtime buddy Phil Harris used as a theme song "That's What I Like About the South," which comically enumerates the specifics. Bing liked the whole effect, the mystique, the humor, the songs, the speech cadences that chimed well with his bottom notes and vocal affectations. As the character Crosby plays in the movie Birth of the Blues tells his disapproving father: "Southern music makes you feel like the circus is coming to town.” He found inspiration in the South, in the first recordings by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band and the Mound City Blue Blowers, and more profoundly in the triumphant art of transplanted southern blacks, most particularly Louis Armstrong.
To Bing’s generation, southern was a synonym for black ….”
- “Dixie was a state of mind and his passport was the faded but inveterately popular minstrel show, which helped bolster his determination to venture beyond his immediate domain. However intuitive and urbane Bing’s understanding of jazz, he never lost his adolescent affection for the dese, dose, yowsuh, yuk-yuk relics of southernness ritualized in minstrelsy. His recorded performances are rife with words, airs, and slurred inflections that bespeak the show-business customs of his youth.”
Mr. Giddins begins his chapter on Vaudeville, the form of entertainment that ushered Bing into show business by informing us of
- “… the recording industry's dramatic conversion from acoustical to electrical reproduction of music.... That innovation, which dominated the industry for more than two decades (until the introduction of tape), would help bring Bing's strengths into the spotlight, leading directly to the advancement of his true instrument, the microphone.
More than any other performer, Crosby would ride the tide of technology. He dominated records, radio, and movies throughout a career that would parallel the development of those media in ways ever more suitable to emphasize his talents. Boosted by technology in the beginning, Bing eventually became its advocate and master: In the mid-1940s, he single-handedly transformed radio from a live medium into a canned, or prerecorded, one. Later, the TV industry followed suit. It was through the growth and expansion of electronic media that Bing became so familiar, so prized, so beloved a presence in American life. But the technology never diminished his natural ability to connect with an audience.”
Mr. Giddins continues in this chapter with a description of the importance of the relationship that formed between singer Mildred Bailey and Bing Crosby.
- “Mildred Bailey would one day be recognized as one of the first of the great women jazz singers, the key transitional figure between Ethel Waters and Bessie Smith and band singers like Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. Her small, light voice inclined to a whirring vibrato when she sang high notes, and her time and enunciation were exemplary.”
- “Bing understood Millie's rare abilities as a singer, her unaffected-ness, understatement, and versatility. And she saw in him the real thing, an antidote to the prissy aesthetes who had no swing or feeling for the blues. Bing, having won prizes in elocution, admired her impeccable diction; she encouraged his innate affinity for focusing on the language of a song, its meaning, the special story it told. She played records for him and Al, including Ethel Waters, Bessie Smith, …
More significantly, it appears to have been Millie who first told Bing of a young man in Chicago whom he had to hear if he was going to be a serious singer: Louis Armstrong. What makes this advice particularly fascinating is that as of November 1925, Armstrong had yet to record as a vocalist (beyond a scat break at the end of a Fletcher Henderson side) and Mildred had yet to travel to Chicago or New York to hear him. She was familiar with Louis's trumpet playing from his records with Henderson and Bessie Smith and may have advised Bing to study his instrumental work, which had musicians nationwide buzzing. … Bing soon put Louis on a pedestal; their association would prove momentous musically, professionally, and — in advancing integration in show business — societally.”
Mr. Giddins remarkable eye for, an attention to, detail as regards the influences on and reasons for Bing Crosby’s artistic achievements continues apace in brilliant, subsequent chapters on the Paul Whitman Orchestra, The Rhythm Boys vocal group, Bing’s association with violinist Joe Venuti and guitarist Eddie Lang, his relationship with and marriage to starlet Dixie Lee [Wilma Winifred Wyatt], the filmmaker Max Sennett, Jack Kapp and Decca Records, his early roles in pictures made with Paramount Studios, the effects of the Great Depression, the Kraft Music Hall Radio Program, his relationship with his brother and bandleader Bob Crosby, his 1938 homecoming tour of Spokane, WA and Gonzaga University, his expansion into a variety of ethnic and genre recordings and movies, including the immensely successful Road movies that he commenced with comedian Bob Hope.
As portrayed by Mr. Giddins, the 1930’s in the career of Bing Crosby would make a brilliant socio-cultural companion volume to William Manchester’s The Glory and The Dream, A Narrative of America: 1932-1972. For Bing Crosby, at least, the decade was one of the glorious realization of many, if not, all of his dreams.
Mr. Giddins’ biography concludes with a Bing Crosby Discography: The Early Years, a Bing Crosby Filmography: Complete and a comprehensive listing of all Notes and Sources.
If, as the Roman poet Ovid and the Proverbs [12:23] maintain Ars Est Celare Artem - “The perfection of art is to conceal it” - then it would appear that Mr. Crosby’s art has been found out: revealed in all its sublime magnificence thanks to Gary Giddins’ diligence, skill and talent as a biographer
And, too, that Baldassare Castiglione’s Renaissance concept of Sprezzatura - “the ability to do difficult things with apparent ease” - applies as much to Gary Giddins as it does to Bing Crosby.