Review of "A Pocketful of Dreams"

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Steven Lewis posted 01/15/01 12:12 AM Central Time (US)    E-mail contact the author directly
The long-awaited biography of Bing Crosby by jazz historian Gary Giddins at last reflects the light of day. Or at least part of it does. At 700+ pages "A Pocketful of Dreams" follows Bing's career only to 1940, necessitating a second volume that, if as detailed as the first volume, will rival the length of an unabridged dictionary...Giddins' biography is quite a contrast to two previous books about Bing: The Hollow Man by Shepherd and Slatzer and Going My Own Way by Gary Crosby. These books clearly had an axe to grind, and to boost sales they labored to create a tabloid contrast to the public persona of Bing. These were fundamentally exploitive books meant more to shock than to enlighten. Giddins, on the other hand, is no hatchet man, but a respected scholar who focuses most of his attention on Bing's development as an artist and the impact of his art on western culture...And what an impact! We have been conditioned by the model of a rock-or-rap star who scores a couple of hit albums, dies from a drug overdose or bullet and gets immortalized in a 2-hour prime-time cable-channel biography. Bing Crosby, on the other hand, became the first and most successful multimedia superstar, dominating American music, movies and broadcasting for more than a quarter of a century. In his spare time he beneficially affected the evolution of race relations, technology, sporting life and charitable fund-raising. He triumphed over his demons and left this world a far better place in numerous ways for having lived...Giddins' book, more than any other, captures the significance of Crosby in a thoroughly credible way. The author includes hundreds of references and 80 pages of documentation. He appears to have reviewed every Crosby recording, film and broadcast that is still accessible. He has interviewed Bing's contemporaries, perused Bing's personal correspondence and viewed his home movies. Giddins' book most likely will be remembered as the definitive biography of the first half of Bing's life...Working against Giddins' book is the cultural evolution of the past half century that has left Bing widely viewed as a Model T in the jet age. The products of Bing's artistry at his peak are mostly in black-and-white and monophonic. We may enjoy -- even yearn for -- snow at Christmas, but few people would tolerate it year round. So for the masses today Bing has been relegated largely to quaint holiday celebrations, leaving to historians and other transcenders of culture to ponder his enormous and unprecedented influence on the people who survived the Great Depression and beat the fascists...In his book Giddins is able to resolve many of the controversies surrounding Bing's life...

* He provides extensive documentation that Bing indeed was born 3 May 1903 and that Bing knew the truth of his birth date by the time of his marriage to his second wife, but continued to use 1904 as his birth year in deference to the Hollywood cult of youth. Giddins considers Ted and Larry Crosby's biography of their brother, which gives Bing's birth year as 1901, to be largely a work of fiction...

* Giddins concludes that Bing missed the premier of his CBS radio show in 1931 because of laryngitis, not because of drunkenness or a nervous breakdown...

* Giddins concludes that Al Rinker held no ill will against Bing for the breakup of the Rhythm Boys in 1931. He reveals that at the time of Rinker's death (1982) he was writing his memoirs in part to refute many of the accusations made against Bing by Shepherd and Slatzer in The Hollow Man...

* Bing had standing orders with his business office to assist his needy friends "no questions asked." This included Harry Barris, one of the Rhythm Boys, who fell on hard times because of alcoholism. Bing repeatedly got Barris work in films at Paramount and helped pay his bills. The other Rhythm Boy, Al Rinker, prospered without Bing's assistance, although Bing nevertheless gave him a professional boost on several occasions...

* Russ Columbo was never a serious threat to Bing's career. Columbo's musical range was far more limited than Bing's. Bing at the time was known more as a jazz singer than a sweet singer like Columbo. At the time of his unexpected death in 1934 Columbo's career was fading relative to Bing's...

* Jack Kapp selected the songs Bing recorded for Decca whereas Bing selected the songs for his radio show...

* Kapp and, later, John Scott Trotter helped to diversify Bing musically, moving him away from his jazz roots toward the mainstream...

* Giddins cited numerous examples to illustrate that Bing was advanced for his time in his attitude and treatment of minorities. He claims Bing was the first major star to hire a black group (the Mills Brothers) for regular radio work on a white show (Woodbury Soap show, 1933-34) and to insist that a black (Louis Armstrong) be given star billing in a white picture (Pennies from Heaven)...

* Bing avoided publicly endorsing candidates for political office after fallout from his 1940 endorsement of Wendell Wilkie, a liberal republican, over FDR...

* Kathryn's butler thought Bing did not like him because Bing refused to let him cater to his every need. Bing, according to Giddins, never let his fame go to his head and kept an entourage of one -- Leo Lynn, a former college friend who Bing kept on his payroll for more than 40 years as an assistant...

* Giddins concludes that Bing was probably an alcoholic in his early years, but, thanks to his first wife -- Dixie Lee, he turned back from destroying his career and life. Ironically, as her husband got control of his demons, she lost control to hers...

* Giddins quotes from Bing's autopsy that he indeed had undiagnosed heart disease at the time of his sudden death in 1977. Bing had diseased coronary arteries and heart valves...

* Finally, Giddins found gossip but no credible evidence that Bing cheated on Dixie in the '30s, but he does suggest that Bing betrayed his marital vows in the '40s. No doubt, Joan Caulfield will get considerable attention in the second volume of Giddins' biography, which is set for publication in 2003, if sales of the first volume are satisfactory......

David Lobosco posted 01/23/01 09:20 AM Central Time (US)    E-mail contact the author directly
Dear Friends,..Wow! It's been awhile since I wrote anything for this board. Did I hear applause? Anyways, I just want to comment about Gary Giddins superb book on Bing Crosby. It is truly a masterpiece. I especially liked the story about Eddie Lang. Bing was closer to him that I had thought, and he took Lang's death pretty hard. How can we wait until 2003 for volume 2!!!!!!!!!! It will be hard. ..At our local Border's Books And Music, where I bought my copy, they only had four copies. I managed to talk the manager into ordering a dozen more copies (with the help of President Jackson) and the store is considering having a Bing Crosby evening. ..Hopefully, everyone out there is helping to promote the book. It's not only helping the great Gary Giddins, but it is also helping our man Bing!..David Lobosco
Kevin Doherty posted 01/24/01 09:16 AM Central Time (US)    E-mail contact the author directly
Well, David, you get a round of applause from me! The Barnes and Noble where I bought my copy had it on display in two places in the store--music and new releases! They knew exactly what book I was referring to. ..I think you hit upon a great idea in asking the stores to order more copies and sponsor a "Bing Night". I will do that this week at my local BandN and Borders...It is going to feel like losing an old friend when I reach page 606. I can't wait for Vol. 2. By the way, it was very nice of Gary Giddins to respond to my posting. He is a real gentleman and deserves all of our support. It's nice to know that he reads our message board...Gary, if you read this, will you be going on a nationwide book tour?
Lee posted 01/24/01 10:23 AM Central Time (US)    E-mail contact the author directly
This is a real Gary Giddins week. He's on almost every night in the "Jazz" PBS special that's currently running and, of course, his masterful tome is available "in all fine book stores everywhere." I got the book last week and read it everyday at lunchtime. It is incredibly detailed and precise, he leaves no stone unturned in telling the true complete Bing Crosby story. I've only read the first few chapters so far, but I know more about Bing's family than I ever knew before. He even explains the genesis for Bing's style of singing. This is a truly great masterpiece and the subject deserves no less. My hats off to Gary and his latest.
Gary Giddins posted 01/24/01 01:38 PM Central Time (US)     No E-mail no email address given
David, Kevin, Lee, and everyone at Steven's great site,..You guys are great. I'm just overwhelmed by your generosity. I realize it's for Bing, but after nine years of labor on this project I can't tell you how much your support means. Vol 2 will take awhile, but it will be along. Maybe after all the fuss dies down, if you're interested, I'll tell you about the travail of getting Vol 1 published--you can glean most of the story on page 692-93. Right now, however, I'm feeling pretty good. There was a really nasty review in Entertainment Weekly ("bu-bu-bu-boring"), but an incredibly smart, supportive one in the current issue of The Atlantic, which I think proves what I've been telling people for years--that a serious work on Bing would elicit a serious reevalutation. Also a great one in the Boston Globe last Sunday. Some of you may be interested in getting hold of this Sunday's (Jan 28) New York Times Arts and Leisure section, if only for the 1934 picture which I've been told will be blown up very large; the article, by me, is a distillation of the book and doesn't offfer much that Bingfiles don't know. But, Jeez, the publicity. Kevin, I am doing a book tour and I think Steven has a link to it. Basically, it's Boston 2/5, Chicago 2/8-9, Seattle 2/12, Bellingham 2/13, Spokane 2/14, LA 2/15, San Francisco 2/16-17, Minneapolis 2/19, Atlanta 2/21, New York 3/7. There is nothing more dispiriting than appearing at a book store with an audience of three clerks, so I do hope Crosby fans in those parts will come out. ..


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