Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Mount TBR #18

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2016. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

Call Me Lucky: Bing Crosby’s Own Story -  As told to Pete Martin

I was a smart-aleck college kid when Gary Crosby’s tell-all memoir of alleged abuse by his father Bing was released in 1983. Since by the early Eighties poor Bing was associated with all things square and phony, sneering and scolding Boomers snorted in derision at the contrast between Bing’s easy-going image and Gary’s portrayal of the stern personal trainer, penny-pincher and wielder of belts, straps, and canes. Perhaps because we tend to remember the last thing we heard of people, the only take on Bing Crosby for lots of us nowadays is that he was the hypocrite that smacked his sons around.

Which is a pity. Bing Crosby dominated American mass media in the 1930s and 1940s. He was the first multi-media superstar, bigger even than Mary Pickford, for the reason that he added success in television and records to stage, screen and radio.

His initial quick success was based on his mysterious, romantic voice. When he sang, Crosby's relaxed phrasing and rhythmic acuity made women melt. His sensitivity to the prosody of English – that is, conversation phrasing - made him very different from Rudy Valle and Al Jolson. Because improved microphones could capture his subtle phrasing, he could almost whisper and make his singing feel very intimate. This crooning made him very popular and naturally spawned many imitators. Very soon after Crosby’s death in 1977, a teacher wrote in Music Educators Journal, “From a music history point of view, Crosby set the direction for virtually every pop singer of the last fifty years.”

Crosby was an educated man in a time when not many people went to college. His three years at Gonzaga and instinctive love of and respect for words gave him a solid vocabulary and feeling for language. For instance, he said of Carole Lombard’s unique phraseology, “Her swearing wasn't obscene. It was good, clean, and lusty. They were gusty and eloquent. They resounded, they bounced. They had honest zing!” This is an observation that could come only from somebody who knew the tune was as important as the words.

Crosby himself was quick and witty, in the best senses. Although this is a “as told to” autobiography, Bing’s voice, the reader feels intuitively, comes through clearly. Martin, a well-respected feature writer at the time, had an ear for Bing’s voice and tone.

Although he does not talk about popular music and fickle public taste, he does say nice things about Louis Armstrong, and Jack Teagarden. His stories about violinist Joe Venuti are pretty funny. In an admirable burst of honesty, Crosby says that he talked guitarist Eddie Lang into seeking medical advice for a hoarse voice. Lang never woke up after a tonsillectomy in 1933. Bing felt guilty about urging Lang to get medical treatment.

I was more interested in the music part of his career, the motion pictures part much less so, because the comedy in the Road movies, for example, was just too – I’ll use Bing’s word - low for me. Bing addresses two hobbies, horse flesh and golfing, that he was famous for having. He also - bluntly, I think -  discusses the trouble he had with his four sons who were notorious and all of them came to sad ends.  The book ends in 1952, so to speak, with the death of 40-year-old Dixie Lee of ovarian cancer, which represented a turning point for Bing both personally and professionally.

This autobiography was serialized in The Saturday Evening Post in 1953 at the peak of a career that spanned from the mid-Twenties to the late Seventies. Then the story was bundled and released in both hardcover and paperback, to be become massive bestsellers.

I recommend this book to people into entertainment history, pop culture, and Hollywood production stories. I also urge interested readers to watch the PBS documentary Bing Crosby Rediscovered.

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