Riding High with Mr. Music

 

A book that is likely to appeal to readers who enjoy the popular music, motion pictures, and radio shows of the 1940s is Bing Crosby: Swinging on a Star: the War Years, 1940-1946 by Gary Giddins published in October 2018 by Little, Brown. As Decca recording artist, Paramount Pictures star, and host of Kraft Music Hall, Bing Crosby was probably the most popular entertainer of that crucial period in American history.

What this volume reveals for the first time is how Crosby the singer, Crosby the actor, and Crosby the genial radio personality wore all three hats during the busy war years and somehow managed to find time to raise thousands of dollars at bond rallies and perform for the troops both at home and abroad. Readers learn the full story of the various versions of “White Christmas” on records and in Holiday Inn and how crafty Crosby beat deadlines for strikes orchestrated by James Petrillo, head of the American Federation of Musicians. On screen Bing seemed adaptable to just about any starring role, looking equally at ease behind a white clerical collar in Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary’s as coming through with flying collars when racing down bumpy roads to Singapore, Zanzibar, Morocco, and Utopia with Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour. The Crosby who put himself in harm’s way in England and France in 1944 as part of a USO group seemed to be as personable and easygoing when joking and singing without his “dome doily” before servicemen and women as the humble, mellifluous host heard on NBC for Kraft and on Command Performance.

Giddins doesn’t omit the warts of Bing’s strained marriage to an alcoholic wife, a distant relationship with four sons, an affair with actress Joan Caulfield, and some ill-advised business investments, yet his intention clearly is not to bury his subject with dirt but rather to appraise Crosby’s key role in the popular culture of the twentieth century with material heretofore unavailable.

There is much to savor in this well-documented account of a remarkable star of the first magnitude who, though color-blind, went where the blue of the night meets the gold of the day innumerable times during his career and who sold countless millions of records despite being unable to read music.

 

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