Bing Is Back - as a Swingin' Jazz Man ; Crosby Was a Musical Innovator, Says Biographer

By Ivry, Benjamin | The Christian Science Monitor, February 23, 2001 | Go to article overview
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Bing Is Back - as a Swingin' Jazz Man ; Crosby Was a Musical Innovator, Says Biographer


Ivry, Benjamin, The Christian Science Monitor


Tony Bennett once called Bing Crosby "the forgotten man" of American music. Now one award-winning jazz critic is making sure that doesn't happen.

In his new biography "Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams - The Early Years, 1903-1940" (Little, Brown, & Co.), Gary Giddins addresses why Crosby deserves a second listen.

"He's one of the great singers and entertainers of the past century and has been largely forgotten," says Giddins, whose decision to spread Bing's story into two spacious volumes has been questioned by some critics as perhaps more ink than the crooner deserves.

"He was a musical innovator who helped to create and embody the American style in music and attitude," Giddins replies, and "his career offers me a way to trace the rise of popular culture and the technocracy, as Bing is central to the development of records, radio, movies, and the microphone."

"Yes, it will sustain two volumes easily; I'm first approaching the most exciting years of his career as a singer, film star, and as the man who singlehandedly remade radio into a prerecorded or canned medium."

Harry Lillis "Bing" Crosby (1903-1977) was one of the most successful pop singers of the 20th century. Born in Tacoma, Wash., he got his start with a bandleader Al Rinker, brother of the great jazz vocalist Mildred Bailey, and he sang in Paul Whiteman's famous jazz orchestra as a member of the Rhythm Boys. A series of hits led him to Hollywood and eventually to record Irving Berlin's "White Christmas," which sold more than 30 million copies.

But Crosby was somewhat disparaged in later years, perhaps because his own easy self-mockery allowed such nicknames as "The Old Groaner" and "Der Bingle."

Giddins is esteemed for his fine illustrated biography of Louis Armstrong, "Satchmo" (Da Capo). His frank and clear-eyed take on jazz history made him an important participant in the recent public TV series "Jazz," filmed by Ken Burns.

How is Crosby treated by Burns? "Crosby isn't mentioned at all, additional evidence that he has been neglected," Giddins notes. "[But] the treatment of Armstrong is brilliant - more people will get a sense of his greatness from this film than from all the writings by me and other jazz critics combined."

In order to take Crosby seriously as a jazz artist, must we block out "White Christmas" and the rest of his pop crooning?

"No, no, no, no, no," Giddins exclaims. "It's all part of the same man. 'White Christmas' is a wonderful record - he employs his perfect timing and diction to make the lyrics come alive; he gives them a meaning far beyond their surface sentiment, which is why it had so powerful an impact on American life here and overseas during the war and after.

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