Gary Giddins on Bing Crosby and Swinging on a Star

“Bing Crosby is the perfect subject for me,” Gary Giddins states. “I basically write about two things—music and film. He’s the most popular singer in history and the most popular film star of the ‘30s and ‘40s. I can explore both things.”

The esteemed 70-year-old critic, essayist, and historian, author of the well-known “Weatherbird” jazz column for the Village Voice for three decades, was discussing Swinging On A Star: The War Years, 1940-1946, the immersive second installment of his prospective three-volume Crosby biography. It appears seventeen years after the critically lauded Pocketful of Dreams: The Early Years, 1903-1940, itself published ten years after Giddins, then 43, contracted to write a 300-page, single volume biography of his subject.

It’s not necessary to have read Pocketful of Dreams to appreciate Swinging On A Star, though it couldn’t hurt. But if you haven’t done so, here’s a precis.

Supported by some 300 interviews, unpublished manuscripts, and various troves of clips and memorabilia, Giddins traced Crosby’s ascendant career arc and the milieu that framed it in clear, declarative prose. The bright but indifferent Jesuit-educated student in provincial Spokane gives up the law to try his luck on the West Coast vaudeville circuit with young pianist Al Rinker, billing themselves as the Rhythm Boys. Their quest culminates when Paul Whiteman hires them in 1926. Via numerous recordings and hundreds of live appearances with Whiteman, Crosby becomes, in short order, a nationally popular figure whose impact on the course of American singing is transformational. He leaves Whiteman as the Roaring Twenties ends and the Depression begins, and turns lemons into lemonade, shedding his dissipated wastrel skin and morphing into a sober, disciplined family man. He launches interlinked careers: leading man during the first decade of talking pictures, a widely heard radio personality on the Kraft Music Hour during the nascent years of network radio, and a multi-platinum recording artist for Brunswick and Decca Records. Giddins enriches the narrative with the informed, eloquent musical and cinematic exegeses that readers have come to value over his four decades writing regular columns about the subjects, as well as perspicacious mini-biographies of key figures with whom Crosby intersected, and informed histories of the infrastructures of the business and technological arenas within which Crosby operated and flourished.

Giddins authored four other books as Swinging On A Star took shape, while also running the Leon Levy Center of Biography at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York from 2009 to 2014. In 2008, he offered Visions in Jazz, comprising 79 elegant, interwoven biographical essays about the idiom’s master practitioners from turn-of-the-century minstrelsy to the cutting edge of the ’90s and ’00s. In 2009, W.W. Norton published Jazz, a collaborative venture with historian Scott DeVeaux, which stands with Ted Gioia’s History of Jazz and Alyn Shipton’s A New History Of Jazz as authoritative textbooks on the subject. Meanwhile, Giddins also assembled two separate volumes of film writings, Natural Selection and Morning Shadows.

Meanwhile, Crosby’s second wife, Kathryn Crosby, gave Giddins access to Crosby’s heretofore unexplored personal correspondence, private journals and business records. Throughout Swinging On A Star, Giddins incorporates this information and further first-person testimonies to delve deeply into the psychological nuances of Crosby’s complex intra-family relationships with his first wife and their four children; his hard-line negotiating postures towards radio sponsors and film moguls; and his diaristic recountings of the harrowing Fall 1944 USO tour in France when he performed for U.S. troops within shouting distance of the battlefields.

Like its predecessor, Swinging On A Star is exhaustive and entertaining, a model of clarity and lucid prose. It’s a major contribution to the canons of biography, cultural history, and criticism.– Ted Panken

 

The Barnes and Noble Review:   Trace your evolution from essayist to biographer — Crosby is your third biographical subject.

Gary Giddins:   I wanted to write biography from the very beginning. My volumes on Charlie Parker (Celebrating Bird: The Triumph Of Charlie Parker) and Louis Armstrong (Satchmo) were apprenticeships. They were short; they were critical. I didn’t have the full force of research that you need to do. I’d also written a proposal for a biography of Duke Ellington that my agent was happy with, but that fell through. For years, I’d turned down suggestions that I do a Crosby bio, but now my agent suggested I think about doing it. So I bought everything I could find on Crosby, and was astonished that there was nothing of any consequence. I already loved his early work with Paul Whiteman and what he did right after he left Whiteman, and now I saw his influence on technology, how ahead of the curve he was about race. So I agreed to do it.

Before I started the research, I assumed that the premise of The Hollow Man, a hatchet job from the early 1980s that painted Crosby as this monstrous figure, was accurate. That became a theme I wanted to explore: How does somebody with this private life as a cold, difficult man exude all this warmth and become this totemic figure of American wisdom and musical Americana?

Then, I began to research more and more into Crosby’s music, changed my mind about a lot of his singing, and began to watch movies I had never seen before, like Going My Way. After doing 50 or 60 interviews with people who thought he was the most incredible professional they’d ever known, the most tolerant, the most socially advanced, I called a filmmaker who was doing a documentary on Crosby for the Disney Channel – we’d shared a lot of our research. I said, “Am I talking to the wrong people? This is not the Crosby I expected to find.” He said, “I know, I’ve been thinking the same thing.”

BNR:   It took ten years to complete the first book…

GG:   Yes. But only seven years of it was writing. After the first book came out, Mrs. Crosby, who had refused to talk to me for nine years, invited me to Hillsborough, the Crosby home, and let me go through every file cabinet. I was there for almost a week, at the end of which she gave me a suitcase and said: “I trust you; send them back when you’re done.” Also, the editor of the Crosby fan magazine sent me copies of some very intimate letters that Dixie (Crosby’s first wife) wrote to Bing when he was in South America, and I was able to access a storage locker where Bing had thousands more documents. Also, I had much more detail from people I interviewed about the ’40s than about the Whiteman years, since their memories were more vivid.

When you’re a biographer, you’re standing outside the home of your subject, in a metaphorical and, to some degree, in a literal sense. You may get people to talk to you, but you can only go so far. Suddenly, I’m inside, reading the most personal kinds of correspondence, and business things. I realized that his war work was something nobody knew about.

I always saw this volume as a circular story. It begins with Bing asking Dixie for a divorce (he rescinds the request), and it ends with him going back to Hollywood alone on a train, after two months in New York preceded by two months at his ranch in Elko, Nevada. One of the themes is that as famous and powerful and wealthy as he was, all of us are prisoners, to some degree, of who we are and what we’ve done. Crosby’s religion, his relationship to his mother, his sense of responsibility to his first wife and their children, kept the marriage in place until she died. And although I knew about the break with Kraft Music Hall in 1945 and 1946, I had no idea until I saw the private papers that during the early ’40s he’d initiated talks with Kraft’s chairman to give up the show.

BNR:   Who was Crosby circa 1940? As you’ve said, he had reached a pinnacle, and yet he was at the cusp of ascending to another.

GG:  At the beginning of 1940, Road to Singapore, the first film Bing made with Bob Hope, was the top-grossing movie of the year. His career had begun to sag, and this suddenly brought him back as a comic actor, a comic foil. Two years later, he does Holiday Inn and sings “White Christmas,” which becomes a phenomenon you don’t see again until “Heartbreak Hotel” or something. It remains unique, because it comes back every Christmas, so people still know who Bing Crosby is. You’d think he couldn’t go any farther, but then in 1944 he makes Going My Way, which is the biggest thing that’s hit the cinema since Gone With the Wind. We’re in the war, and the war is being fought by citizen soldiers, so most of the country is pulling together. And Crosby is, in many respects, the Voice. At one point I mention his royalty numbers. The second biggest star on Decca Records was Jimmy Dorsey, whose royalties were $78,000. Crosby’s were $280,000 or something ridiculous like that. You have to multiply that by 20 to get to where we are today—it’s almost $5 million.

So Crosby was huge, in a way that stars aren’t any more. He was genuinely beloved. And he had no affectation. He was aloof. People liked that about him. He didn’t bleed all over himself. He didn’t bleed all over you. He wasn’t sentimental. He wasn’t corny. He could sing anything, sing it with conviction, and make it work. I love Sinatra, and Sinatra certainly deepened the approach to ballad singing. But Sinatra could not do a song like “San Fernando Valley,” which became this triumph of suburban outreach; and Sinatra could not do 19th century songs that Crosby could do, or songs like “Mexicali Rose” and make you weep — even though Crosby is supposed to be the one who doesn’t wear his heart on his sleeve. When Crosby sang country music, he sounded like he could have been a country guy from Nashville. He could sing in several languages. And every time he went back to jazz, that thing he had was still there.

BNR: What qualities allowed Crosby to remain a film star for such a sustained period of time?

GG:   He’s very appealing to men and women. There’s something about his loneliness, the way he sort of keeps to himself, that draws you to him. He is very natural. Frank Capra said he was one of the ten greatest actors he ever worked with because he was so good with props. The next time you watch a Crosby movie, watch him with props. He’s always doing something.

Of course, he’s a marvelous singer, and he can keep you watching him while he’s doing that. He can handle comedy. He’s game to try anything — he’ll dance with Fred Astaire, and he won’t come off looking bad. He’ll trade quips with Bob Hope and sometimes defeat him. He can laugh at himself. He was extremely generous. Ray Walston told me about a time when he was very nervous doing a scene, and Bing said: “I won’t move a muscle; you just look at me and say the lines—nobody will even know I’m on the screen.” Walston said, “And he actually did that, whereas every other actor would have tried to steal the scene.” There’s no other actor I can think of that’s so easygoing, laid back and cool.

I think it was Spencer Tracy who said, “Don’t ever let them catch you acting.” Crosby was that kind of performer. Even though, as James Cagney points out, creating that persona was tremendous hard work. Artie Shaw told me, “Crosby was no more Crosby than Humphrey Bogart was Bogart.” When he was by himself, I think he was a cool, much more calculating figure. But he invented this character. He invented him partly on the radio, partly as a singer—and it really comes to fruition.

His ur-Crosby performance was as the priest in Going My Way. He’s very funny. He’s very fast. No matter who he’s dealing with, he’s on top of every situation. But because he’s wearing a clerical collar, there’s no threat, there’s no romance to complicate things. Calling him a secular saint is too heavy, because he’s not thinking in that respect. He’s just a genuinely good man, and that’s the role where he really established that. But he was thought of that way almost from the time he first appeared in movies, even though he plays very unpleasant people. Big Broadcast is one of my favorite of his films, no longer easily available, directed by Frank Tuttle in the style of Rene Clair, a superb movie: Crosby is a falling-down alcoholic, completely irresponsible, chasing a vamp who he prefers to the good girl who adores him. In Sing You Sinners, he tries to romance his brother’s fiancé. Also irresponsible—loses all the family money on horses. Holiday Inn. Everybody remembers him sitting around the Christmas tree, but he’s very deceptive, trying to play tricks on everybody. So it’s not that the characters he plays are genuinely good men. But he somehow embodies a figure that is worth trusting.

BNR: Crosby the musician?

GG:   He was an amazing musician. He never made a mistake. Musicians loved working with him—as long as you were on time. Crosby was the first guy in the studio, and he expected you to be on time as well. As Vic Schoen, the Andrews Sisters’ arranger, said, his preparation was such that when he walked in, he was ready, and he already had ad-libs running around in his head in order to play certain tricks during the take. This is before tape, so the take was not a small thing. You wanted to get it right. Opera singers adored him — the way he used his voice, how natural he was, his accuracy. He had gorgeous high notes and he had gorgeous low notes, and he knew how to play them against each other.

He also had an extraordinary time feel. He went to London once to record with a big band with a lot of young jazz guys who were all listening to Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane and Stan Getz. They had grown up hearing Crosby in their home, hearing what their parents thought of him, and they didn’t know what to expect. They decided to play a little prank, and do everything they could to trip him up. They couldn’t move him from the beat. Jimmy Heath told me Crosby was the guy he and Sonny Rollins got tunes from. He said,”He was the only white guy on radio who had time.”

He was an innovative figure on many counts. He introduced jazz to a lot of people. He had a laid-back, legato way of singing jazz and ballads that hadn’t been established during the ’20s. He really understood Louis Armstrong, and Armstrong loved him. They became friends in 1926, and Crosby did Armstrongisms all the time — he mainstreamed a lot of what Armstrong was doing. If you match Armstrong’s early discography to Crosby’s, you see that Armstrong not only started singing ballads after Crosby becomes known, but he starts singing the same songs.

BNR: Do you think that Crosby’s courageous behavior during the war something that could have been predicted earlier?

GG:   I don’t think you would have predicted it. I think in a strange way, the trouble in his marriage helped facilitate it. It gave him a reason not to be home, and I think he was glad frequently not to be home. Crosby saw what these kids were doing. These were not professional soldiers. He goes to Europe, and meets one person whose son was his caddy. Or he goes aboard on the Ile de France, and sees some of the same people he’d been hanging out with had lost a leg. Everybody knows about Bob Hope and the USO, because he spent his entire life with it afterward. But Crosby never did that — or anything political — again. But for those five years he gave his all, and he was extraordinary. My section on France depicts all those letters to him from soldiers about how close to the front he was, or the soldiers writing to their wives: “Guess who showed up today? A thousand yards from the front.”

BNR:   In what ways do you think your music writing informs your film writing, and vice-versa?

GG:   That’s an interesting way you put it, because the way it informs it is the process. One of the reasons I loved doing the column for the New York Sun about DVDs is because I was able to write about filmmakers the way I wrote about music in the “Weatherbird” column, which was to see everything, to do generalized essays even though they might be ultimately reviews of specific things. I think film writing in some degree is easier because it’s less abstract. A certain percentage of the review, just in actual word-count, is going to be telling the plot, telling what the actors do, who the director is. With music, once you say who’s in the Miles Davis Quintet and what the tune is, you’re using an imaginative kind of language to convey what’s going on in the recording.

 

But in both instances I’ve tried to listen to or see everything, and to write about an artist in terms of the context of his or her total body of work, and, perhaps even more significantly, in the context of the world around them. The Depression affected the way the guys in the 30s played. The war affected the way they played. The 50s, the Atomic Age, Rock-and-Roll—everything affects the way the music is. The same thing with film. You can’t write about movies of the Golden Age of Hollywood and not talk about the Production Code. When a jazz musician takes a pop standard and plays with it and against it, he’s translating it into something else. The filmmakers had to deal with the Code, and were finding ways to undermine it. From that perspective, certain layers of cleverness become apparent, especially in things like the Road movies, which were trying to get around the censors at every possible turn.

BNR: What’s the status of volume three?

GG:   There’s no contract right now. I’ve done the research and I’m working. The ’50s is a very interesting period to write about. The ’60s is mostly TV. The ’70s is mostly Britain. As a music critic, the stuff I’ve already done, the ’30s and ’40s, is the period I love the most. It depends on how volume two does. If this book just falls into the quicksand of popular culture (or unpopular culture), I don’t see a publisher running to give me the kind of advance I would need.