Sprawling first installment of an ambitious, literate, and eminently readable biography of the famed crooner.
Crosby was no mere entertainer. As Giddins (Visions of Jazz, 1998, etc.) capably demonstrates, he was a one-man media empire, who, in the mid-1930s, “was making three movies and recording, on average, forty records a year”—to say nothing of performing live concerts, making public appearances, and sending his fabulous voice out over the airways. Giddins traces Crosby’s path to his youth in Spokane, Washington, where he thrived as a well-liked, intelligent boy whose adolescence was checkered by a fondness for drinking, whoring, and fighting. (Crosby nursed at least some of these pleasures well into adulthood.) Chosen class speaker for his sonorous voice, Crosby parlayed a love for singing popular and operatic songs into a place in famed bandleader Paul Whiteman’s orchestra, where he honed his skills as a showman, carefully developed his own style, and built a huge following to rival Whiteman’s own; Giddins notes that Crosby’s ascendance was helped along by technology, particularly the invention of the condenser microphone (“which favored singers with an intimate approach”). Crosby also honed his talents as a businessman, building a considerable fortune while cultivating a devil-may-care image that traded on friendliness and detachment at the same time. (Johnny Mercer once remarked, “He’s an unphony man. He’s so distant, but he’s a very genuine man.”) Crosby relaxed his guard only around a few trusted friends, notably his longtime collaborator Bob Hope and the then-little-known jazz musician Louis Armstrong. Giddins’s account is big, but lean: there’s no padding, but instead a wealth of observation not only on Crosby’s early career but also on its social and historical context.
A pleasure for fans, this is likely to become both the standard biography of the singer and a model for other show-business lives.