Readers who are unfamiliar with Gary Giddins' earlier musical biographies or his commentaries on jazz for the Village Voice may recall him as one of the more animated talking heads in Ken Burns' recent PBS documentary, Jazz. In this first of two projected volumes, the author brings his enthusiasm and painstaking scholarship to the task of resurrecting one of America's most influential cultural figures. It is a noble mission. Besides being the consummate jazz and pop vocalist on stage, Bing Crosby also became a radio star, an Academy Award-winning actor and one of the world's most successful recording artists. Giddins' first chronicle covers Crosby from birth to 1940, by which time he had reached the top as a band singer, started a family, charted dozens of hit records and begun his series of "Road" movies with Bob Hope.
If there is a criticism to be made of this immensely informative book, it is that Giddins sometimes tells too much. It takes him 30 pages to get Crosby born (in 1903 in Tacoma, Washington) and another 80 or so to get him away from home and on his way to Los Angeles. In the interim, though, we learn a great deal about early 20th century show business and watch as Crosby evolves into the easygoing, self-assured figure he would remain in the national consciousness until his death in 1977. Unlike most of his peers in the business, Crosby was well-educated in addition to being naturally bright. He received a classical education at Gonzaga University and was on his way to a law degree there when the call to music became irresistible.
Although he was passionate about his music, Crosby appeared casual in his performance of it. He brought attention to lyrics by caressing, understating and playing with them. He was one of the first singers, Giddins points out, to master the microphone. Later generations would pigeonhole Crosby as a "crooner" or forget about him altogether. But Louis Armstrong proclaimed him "the Boss of All Singers," and ultracool Artie Shaw tagged him as "the first hip white person born in the United States." A well-written and entertaining work, Giddins biography will, with any luck, revive interest in Crosby the way Nick Tosches' Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams did with Crosby's disciple, Dean Martin.
Edward Morris is a Nashville-based writer.