It's understandable if the only mental image you carry of Bing Crosby is that of a grandfatherly, cardigan-clad duffer crooning Christmas carols with the likes of Rosemary Clooney and David Bowie. The most popular entertainer in the world in the 1930s and '40s, a friend and champion of bluesmen and jazz singers in a time when "race music" was not something nice middle-class folk were supposed to listen to, Crosby became safe as milk in later life, an older counterpart of such resolutely unhip types as, say, Pat Boone and Steve Lawrence.
But in his prime, Crosby was no mere entertainer to be trotted out at the holidays. A genuine phenomenon, blessed with a remarkable and commanding voice that he had laboriously trained out of thinness, Crosby was a one-man media empire who, in the mid-1930s, was making as many as three films and three dozen records a year, touring constantly and making hundreds of radio appearances in the bargain.
It is this untiring, hard-working Crosby whom jazz critic and historian Gary Giddins gives us in this sprawling biography, the first of a projected two volumes. He begins with Crosby's early years in the then-rough farm town of Spokane, Washington, where the son of Irish immigrants excelled in school while spending his extracurricular hours drinking and fighting. Through a stroke of luck, he managed to earn a place in Paul Whiteman's orchestra, one of the most popular big bands of the era; the years on the road helped him perfect his skills as a crowd-pleasing showman, though Whiteman, evidently something of an egomaniac, would complain that Crosby showboated to attract attention to himself at the expense of the band. (Another bandleader, Johnny Mercer, said in Crosby's defense, "He's an unphony man. He's so distant, but he's a very genuine man.") Whiteman's training was less important to his career, in the end, than Crosby's mastery of a new bit of technology, the condenser microphone, which, Giddins writes, "favored singers with an intimate approach" and introduced the singer to a nationwide radio audience. Unlike many musicians of his day and ours, Crosby also devoted himself to learning the business of show business, gaining another reputation as a hard bargainer capable of setting his own price.
Giddins covers a lot of ground in this 720-page biography, which is full of oddments of social and musical history, packed with data, subplots and sometimes scandalous episodes. For all that, he never loses sight of what made Crosby popular to begin with, namely, a powerful voice and an unconventional style that grew tame only late in life -- but for that we'll have to wait for volume 2.