|https://www.wsj.com/articles/bing-crosby-review-nothin-but-blue-skies-1541724095?mod=searchresults&page=1&pos=1ut Blue Skies
The soothing croon and laid-back charm of Bing Crosby were key to America’s sanity during World War II.
Bing Crosby, ca. 1945. AMERICAN STOCK/GETTY IMAGES
Nov. 8, 2018 7:41 p.m. ET
During the final days of World War II, a military commander wrote an urgent letter to singer Bing Crosby, insisting he had “something big” to say, “something too big not to have you know and understand.”
Crosby was more than familiar with effusive fans. At that moment, he was both the top box-office draw in movies and the most popular singer in America. His latest picture, “Going My Way,” would sweep the Oscars and win one for Bing himself, while his rendition of “White Christmas” was already the best-selling record of all time (a distinction it still holds). Even so, the sober words from this officer weren’t the typical stuff of fan letters.
Crosby’s music, he insisted, possessed the “power to soften the hearts of the man who so shortly after goes back to shoot down his brother man” and somehow manages to keep “our boys from turning into the beasts they are asked to be.” The singer’s voice “strikes to the bottom of the hearts of men. I have watched it happen, often, not just in the rare case but in many many thousands of men—sitting silent, retrospective, thoughts flying back to home and loved ones.” Somehow, in these barbarous times, Crosby had tapped into the “power of music, put into humble, throbbing words, as these fellows want it, need it, bow to it.”
Gary Giddins, Crosby’s indefatigable biographer, calls this aspect of his singing “a zone of emotional safety.” You could even claim that Bing Crosby invented emotional restraint in popular music. As leader of the first generation of singers to take advantage of the improved microphones of the late 1920s and early 1930s, Crosby grasped better than anyone the potential of conversational delivery. He was cool before cool was hip.
BING CROSBY: SWINGING ON A STAR:THE WAR YEARS, 1940-1946
By Gary Giddins
Little, Brown, 724 pages, $40
You could hardly find a more striking contrast to the Hitlerian rhetoric of the opposition. I’m not surprised Crosby got enlisted not to fight but to serve as, in Mr. Giddins’s words, “an essential voice of the home front.” Yet Crosby, who was never as complacent as his public image, also insisted on taking his act into combat. He undertook brutal tours that brought him into danger, often performing during bombing raids and sometimes as close as a thousand yards from the German lines. As a result, Crosby added another honor to his list after the war: In a national poll to pick the most admired man alive, Bing Crosby finished at the top—beating out the pope (Pius XII), the president (Truman) and two legendary generals (Eisenhower and MacArthur). Pretty swell stuff for a crooner from Spokane.
Yet fate is cruel to pop-culture icons once their original audience has died. When Gary Giddins started work on his Crosby biography in 1991, his subject was well-known, a household name even. But I suspect that a survey of music fans today would find that few can identify the entertainer so admired by their parents and grandparents (and, in many instances, their great-grandparents).
For Crosby’s renown to endure, he needs to make the transition from faded star to timeless artist. Someone has to make the case for Crosby’s historical importance—and fortunately for Bing, Gary Giddins has taken up the gauntlet with surprising vehemence.
Mr. Giddins is one of the leading music critics of the last half-century, and for many years set the tone for jazz coverage through his influential articles in the Village Voice. His opinions carried such weight that they were often mimicked by other writers within days of publication. He hasn’t written many articles in recent years, though—probably because of Bing Crosby.
Mr. Giddins published “Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams” in 2001, but this long-awaited book only covered the first half of the artist’s life, from 1903 to 1940. Readers have had to wait 17 years for a second volume—which, as it turns out, focuses just on the period from 1940 to 1946. You can do the math: Mr. Giddins has spent around two-and-a-half biographer years for each Bing year. Crosby lived until 1977, so either Mr. Giddins has to pick up the pace or this project will take until the end of the century to complete.
Yet Mr. Giddins makes a strong case that Crosby’s World War II years deserve their own book. Crosby dominated almost every facet of mainstream entertainment during this tumultuous period. His radio program, Kraft Music Hall, entertained Americans at home. His records were in constant rotation on jukeboxes. And when people went to the movies, they invariably preferred his comedies for laughs (especially Crosby’s “Road” films with Bob Hope), his musicals for romance and glamour (“Blue Skies” and “Holiday Inn”), and his play-acting as an Irish-American priest (in “Going My Way” and “The Bells of St. Mary’s”) for homespun inspiration.
It almost seems like a miracle, suitable for one of these religious films, that Crosby managed this workload while also touring constantly to raise money for the war effort and entertaining soldiers at home and abroad. This is where Mr. Giddins’s thorough research pays dividends. By digging into day-by-day and week-by-week itineraries, our biographer demands our admiration for Crosby’s unflagging efforts, often with little concern for personal rewards or favorable publicity. I always assumed that Bing Crosby, in private life, was as laid-back as his onstage image. I never knew this workaholic side of his character.
Yet a Crosby biography has also to deal with less-appealing character issues. The entertainer’s son Gary accused his father of coldness and abusive treatment, and two of Crosby’s other children, Dennis and Lindsay, committed suicide—both with a shotgun. This has left many with an uneasy sense that the Crosby persona of easygoing affability was a façade for a darker private life.
Mr. Giddins is surprisingly non-judgmental about this subject—especially when compared to his strong opinions on Crosby’s recordings. He chastises the performer when he “misses each and every high note” on a track or comes across as “stale and overemphatic” in delivering a lyric. But Crosby’s approach to child-rearing is never directly criticized, and often presented as symptomatic of its time and place. “In the lexicon of postwar psychology, [Crosby] might have been called a behaviorist,” Mr. Giddins explains at one point. Whenever possible, Mr. Giddins counterbalances the accusations of Gary with other views—for example, the testimony of his brother Phillip, who declared: “I just don’t see there was any way you could have asked for a better father.”
But no one can accuse Mr. Giddins of shortchanging us on the facts. Every aspect of Crosby’s life is laid bare for close inspection in this penetrating biography, from his tough negotiations with employers to his most casual dealings with servants and staff. I especially enjoyed previously unpublished extracts from a fan’s diary that recount minute details of Crosby’s life from the perspective of two sisters who followed him wherever he went. Today they would be called stalkers, but the accounts they left behind offer many insights into how the leading entertainer of midcentury America acted when he thought he was unobserved—almost always with charm, courtesy and an appealing nonchalance.
It’s hard to reconcile the different facets of this oddly private man who thrived in the limelight while maintaining such reserve. Yet the biggest obstacle to Mr. Giddins’s project may be less Crosby’s complexity than the sheer fickleness of public renown. Thirty years ago, a book of this sort would have found a huge audience. But nowadays any fans who heard Bing Crosby sing at the peak of his career would be in their 80s, if not older. He could easily be forgotten in a few years’ time.
That’s a shame. Crosby was not just a celebrity, but one of the most influential performers of modern times. No artist did more to celebrate the sublimity that can come from understatement or the grace derived from keeping cool under pressure. We could benefit from an unflappable champion of serenity guiding our current-day pop culture. I certainly welcomed this reminder that we had one in our midst not long ago.
—Mr. Gioia is the author of 10 books, most recently “How to Listen to Jazz.”