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Bing Crosby: A Pocketful Of Dreams - The Early Years 1903 - 1940 (2002)

Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams - The Early Years 1903 - 1940 (2002)
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3.98 of 5 Votes: 1
ISBN
0316886459 (ISBN13: 9780316886451)
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English
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back bay books
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Bing Crosby: A Pocketful Of Dreams - ...
Bing Crosby: A Pocketful Of Dreams - The Early Years 1903 - 1940 (2002)

About book: This review originally ran in the San Jose Mercury News: Strange to say, Bing Crosby needs this biography. Other major white male jazz/pop singers who were eclipsed in the rock revolution of the '60s managed to re-emerge. Frank Sinatra's bad-boy behavior kept him hot. Tony Bennett hung with the Red Hot Chili Peppers and got certified as hip by the MTV generation. Even Mel Torme benefited from Harry Anderson's worship of him on ''Night Court.'' Of course, they were around to help revive their reputations, while Crosby, who created the style of singing that made them famous, died in 1977. So Crosby got dismissed as a nostalgia throwback, like the Andrews Sisters, or a bland middle-of-the-roader, like Perry Como. At worst, he was regarded as a cultural imperialist who made his fortune by ripping off black musical idiom and making it palatable for white audiences. Or he was just that old guy who played golf -- before Tiger Woods made golf cool. Gary Giddins' task, then, is to persuade us not only that Crosby was ''the most influential and successful popular performer in the first half of the twentieth century'' but also that the work he left behind him deserves our continued respect, admiration and emulation. This exhaustive -- and occasionally exhausting -- biography takes us up to 1940; Giddins plans to tell the rest of the story in another volume. But the Crosby of the '30s is the essential Bing Crosby, the one whose achievement was summarized by bandleader/clarinetist Artie Shaw: ''He really is the first American jazz singer in the white world.'' It was a very white world 0in which Crosby grew up. He was born in Tacoma, Wash., and raised in Spokane, and on his father's side, he could trace his lineage back to passengers on the Mayflower. His mother's Irish-Catholic heritage and religion prevailed over his father's, however: Bing was raised a Catholic and attended the Jesuit-run Gonzaga High School and Gonzaga University. But he dropped out of law school at Gonzaga and headed for Los Angeles with a friend, Al Rinker, whose sister, the singer Mildred Bailey, was breaking into show business. The vaudeville duo of Crosby and Rinker became a trio, the Rhythm Boys, with the addition of Harry Barris, and soon they were featured performers with Paul Whiteman and his orchestra. In 1930, the Rhythm Boys appeared in the movie ''King of Jazz,'' a showcase for Whiteman that flopped but launched Crosby's film career. The association with Whiteman, the self-styled King of Jazz, does nothing to help Crosby with either those who regard him as a cultural imperialist or those who fail to think of him as a jazz innovator. Whiteman's ''jazz'' was slickly orchestrated stuff, not the ebullient, improvisatory music we think of as echt jazz. But Giddins is content to face the simple fact: ''African-American innovations metamorphose into American popular culture when white performers learn to mimic black ones.'' Crosby, under Whiteman's aegis, became ''the first in a long line of white musicians who popularized real black music . . . for a white public. This was ten years before Benny Goodman launched the Swing Era, thirty years before Elvis rocked.'' It's good to remember that Crosby was raised in an era when the minstrel show and blackface performers like Al Jolson were tolerated. Today we cringe at production numbers such as ''Abraham'' in the 1942 movie ''Holiday Inn. ''In it, a blacked-up Crosby and company sing the praises of the Great Emancipator for an all-white audience, while his African-American cook sits on the back porch and sings to her children about how Lincoln freed the ''darkies.'' But as Giddins points out, Crosby also made an effort to integrate black performers such as Louis Armstrong into his films, and was frustrated: Armstrong's performance in the 1938 film ''Doctor Rhythm'' was cut in deference to Southern audiences. Crosby repeatedly acknowledged his debt to Armstrong, calling him ''the greatest pop singer in the world that ever was and ever will be forever and ever.'' The easy camaraderie in the duets Armstrong and Crosby recorded is evidence that the tribute was genuine -- and genuinely appreciated. Of course, sounding genuine was Crosby's forte. There has been no surer master of the media -- from recordings to radio to film and TV -- in which he appeared. ''More than any other performer,'' Giddins observes, ''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 his talents.'' He had the good luck to be starting his career just as recording shifted from acoustical to electrical reproduction of music. Before the development of the microphone, recording artists had to bellow into great horns -- a technology unsuited for the subtlety and intimacy characteristic of a performer like Crosby. Then came radio, on which the bright, high sound of the tenor was less welcome than a mellow baritone like Crosby's: ''Higher voices are better for reaching theater balconies, but lower ones are more appealing in living rooms,'' Giddins notes. Crosby took each medium and shaped an agreeable persona for it. As no singer before him, he made singing seem as natural as speaking. The voice that people heard on records and the radio had established his sex appeal, so when he moved into film it didn't matter that he was balding, paunchy and jug-eared. Moreover, he resisted Hollywood's efforts to make him conform to conventional ideas of good looks -- once he established himself at the box office, he rejected the practice of gluing back his ears, and chose to wear hats rather than toupees to cover his bald spots. Giddins is one of the country's foremost jazz critics, so it's no surprise that his detailed accounts of Crosby's recordings are sensitive and illuminating. He succeeds brilliantly in his chief task of persuading us of Crosby's worth as a performer. But he's also a masterly biographer -- he has written about Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker as well -- who compiles an astonishing amount of information and turns it into a readable narrative. Admittedly, there are some boggy spots -- I learned more about the making of movies like ''Waikiki Wedding'' than I really needed to know. Giddins also tends to lose sight of the off-mike Crosby -- the husband and father -- in his focus on Crosby at work. We learn that Crosby got his drinking problem under control, but that his first wife, Dixie, didn't, and we begin to sense that there are problems at home -- but then we're off on the road with Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour again. And sometimes Giddins' attempts to summarize Crosby's importance bring him perilously close to cheerleading: ''No other pop icon has ever been so thoroughly, lovingly liked -- liked and trusted. Bing's naturalness made him credible to all, regardless of region, religion, race, or gender. He was our most authentic chameleon, mirroring successive eras -- through Prohibition, depression, war, anxiety, and affluence -- without ever being dramatic about it. He was discreet and steady. He was family.'' That was the image, at least. After Crosby's death in 1977, the iconoclasts, including his son Gary, went to work on biographies whose allegations of abuse and infidelity tarnished his reputation as husband and father. But Giddins' biography is focused on how Crosby created a persona, and only to a lesser extent on what lay behind the mask. Rehabilitating Crosby's artistic reputation is higher on Giddins' agenda than sorting through the dirty laundry, but if he takes the story beyond 1940, things will doubtless have to come out in the wash.

Very excited to have snared a new hardcover of this recent bio at Half Price Books for $2.Now, the ole problem of page counts presents itself. Officially this book is "736 pages" long, but the last 144 pages are indexes and discographies and footnotes. The book actually ends on page 592. So that means in order to get an accurate running page count I have to "handicap" 144 pages. I'm not sure where in the process I should do this; perhaps at the halfway point. This is an issue because I like to look at the little progress bar as I'm going along.I'm now reading the fine introduction and will give the book credit for this much so far: It NUMBERS the pages in the introduction so that they COUNT toward the tally, instead of having them in effing Roman numerals before the official page 1.The introduction is good; puts Crosby and his career in context. The opening chapters make the mistake so common to bios nowadays - trying to be the definitive record of the family tree going way way back. I didn't like "One Hundred Years of Solitude" and I really don't care to read about Crosby's ancestors; I really don't. I want a bio of Bing, not his grandparents. I'm skimming this stuff.
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Reviews
Faith
I decided to abandon this book after I dropped it for the 50th time and it broke my glasses. (Read: It's HEAVY.) I'm interested in Bing Crosby, but this book just feels like the author wanted to list every. single. fact. he found about anybody even tangentially related to Bing Crosby. There is a great deal of biographical information about his high school classmates. There is a history of vaudeville. There is -- I kid you not -- a detailed description of the purchase & lien arrangements for his parents' house. Not even in the footnotes, y'all. In the text. I've just got too many other books waiting to be read to keep slogging through this one.
Dawn
A little slow at times, and peppered with the authors enthusiastic-but-technical descriptions of Bing's work, but nonetheless a good read. The work has more in common with a well-written (IE: not boring) history than the modern crop of memoirs, or the scandal-mongering tell-all. You'll find no dirty laundry here, but some clarifications of the man's true history, as can be best untangled after decades of press office tweaking and flip "I said it because it was funny" style wisecracks. Not to say it's dry either, as there are enough fun anecdotes sprinkled throughout to keep it lively.
Larry Brunt
First off, "Pocketful of Dreams" is a balanced biography. It would be nice if this didn't have to be noted, but especially in the case of Crosby, when his children and step-children have written scathing or adoring memoirs, it is refreshing when a biographer explores all aspects of a person, the strengths and flaws, some of which are deep. That said, what Giddins focuses on most is the music.This award-winning book makes a strong argument for Crosby being under-appreciated as a leader of making jazz popular in the mainstream. It argues persuasively that Crosby was not merely one of a group of crooners, but a leader in music who came onto the scene at the right moment in time, and then used his considerable talents and enormous popularity to introduce elements of black jazz to mainstream, white America. If you consider Crosby a singer of smaltz who merely sang Christmas standards, this book will make you see him in a new light, and greatly expand your appreciation of his contribution to American popular music.One caveat: Giddins has written the definitive biography, well-documented and thorough. He had so much material, that he decided to split the biography into two parts. This first volume, checking in at over 750 pages, covers Crosby's life until 1940, and was published in 2009. Five years on, readers are still waiting volume two. I eagerly await the publication of volume 2, but it may be a while.
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