Bing is back - as a swingin' jazz man

Crosby was a musical innovator, says biographer

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."

Giddins even claims to be able to tolerate the oddest recording of Crosby's career, a glum duet with the young David Bowie, "The Little Drummer Boy": "I can stomach it, but I don't much listen to it," he concedes.

Clearly Crosby's underappreciated talents as an actor helped spice up his jazz interpretations. "His genius as an actor was to abstract a persona based on who he was and what he wanted to be, or the way he wanted to be seen," Giddins says, "and that persona comes through as clearly in the record 'Someday Sweetheart' as in the movie 'Going My Way.' "

What hurt Crosby in the eyes of serious jazz fans, Giddins says, was "his concerted effort to move into the mainstream. Jazz fans were yelping about that as early as the early 1940s."

Even today, Bing's most important jazz-flavored albums, like the 1950s "Bing With a Beat" and "Bing Sings Whilst Bregman Swings" languish out of print, making a full estimation of his contribution difficult.

Still, fans can still seek out his early work with giants like Armstrong and Duke Ellington on "Bix & Bing" (ASV ), "That's Jazz" (Pearl), "Bing Crosby & Some Jazz Friends" (Decca Jazz), and "Fun With Bing & Louis 1949-51" (Jasmine). These reveal Bing's gift for highly rhythmic, swinging interpretations.

Not just a singer, but a real showman with a theatrical flair and a vaudevillian's sense of timing, Crosby struts his stuff in the best of these numbers.

Are there any other crooners or 'groaners' worthy of redemption - or at least a second listen on musical grounds?

"None as huge as Crosby," Giddins says, "but many singers merit a second look. Two of my favorites are Jimmy Rushing, the magnificent blues belter who worked many years with Count Basie; and Doris Day, a superb interpreter of ballads whose musical talents were buried by her film persona.

"My favorite singer, Sarah Vaughan, would make a great subject for a serious biography and musical analysis."

It is unlikely, though, that Giddins will focus any attention on Barbra Streisand, having already termed her "America's most overrated singer" in American Heritage magazine recently.

Such are the prerogatives of one of America's most respected jazz scribes.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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