Bing and Billie and Frank and Ella and Judy and Barbra

Image of Bing and Billie and Frank and Ella and Judy and Barbra
Release Date: 
September 5, 2023
Chicago Review Press
Reviewed by: 

Author Dan Callahan specializes in big biographies of stars such as Barbara Stanwyck and Vanessa Redgrave. He profiled Alfred Hitchcock, looked at the art of screen acting, and wrote a novel, too. But this joint biography of six icons is the first time he’s written a book about music.

The six are rough contemporaries, though Streisand is the youngest and the only one still alive. Callahan has chosen an interesting way of telling their stories, in alternating (and sometimes overlapping) chapters that take each through their storied careers. The format works quite well, though the distance between Judy Garland and Ella Fitzgerald is actually much wider than it first appears—though both favored the standard repertoire.

Garland nodded toward jazz but never really got on board, and Fitzgerald was always, always swinging. And their lives were considerably different. Fitzgerald, who emerged from miserable poverty and encountered horrible racism, was insanely disciplined, and Garland—she of the many comebacks—was anything but.  

Of these oft-told lives, Callahan seems to have the hardest time with Frank Sinatra, whom he asserts several times didn’t have a feel for jazz. That’s, frankly, like saying the Beatles didn’t know how to write a popular song. In front of a big band, few singers ever embraced jazz with as much panache. OK, he was never going to scat like Ella, for whom it was like breathing. Sinatra could be considerably less than gracious, but he repeated to whoever would listen that his big influences were Bing (a jazzer in his youth), Billie and Ella, and he heaped praise on Johnny Hartman and Tony Bennett too. Of course, Sinatra recorded many types of music, as did Bing.

Callahan’s book is very well researched. He seems to have seen every film, listened to every record, and scanned the coverage of every concert these prolific performers released. He deserves a medal just for watching all of the Garland/Mickey Rooney Andy Hardy movies.

And Callahan’s musical analysis can be spot-on. “Bille had a very small voice and Judy had a big voice, but Billie thought like a musician and Judy was a singing star who would get too carried away with her own emotions to stay within any musical structure or play around with as a jazz singer would,” he writes. Definitely true. Did Garland repeatedly forget lyrics (as on her legendary Carnegie Hall record) just for sympathy? It appears so, according to Callahan’s research.

Callahan thinks that Crosby got a raw deal in his scapegrace son Gary’s tell-all autobiography, which was aiming for Mommie Dearest notoriety. That seems fair. Crosby could be emotionally distant, but he tries hard to do the right thing, and he was there for his friends. He also had the perfect ending, dropping dead after playing 18 holes on a golf course in Spain.

That Billie Holiday was a once-in-a-lifetime talent who could also be her own worst enemy is well known, but conclusively documented here. The Streisand sections are mostly a disc- and filmography, but husband Jon Peters gets skewered, and the star’s steely resolve is celebrated. Callahan filters some of these stars, particularly Streisand and Garland, through the filter of their gay audience, and that’s a welcome take.

In the film Ziegfield Follies, released in 1946, Judy delivers her patter “with a kind of barely controlled camp frenzy that makes it one of the gayest things ever put on screen, hip and decadent and devoted to pure colors, adoring and naughty men, and stiletto-like female irony,” the author says. Makes you want to see it, doesn’t it?

The author is particularly good on the filmographies of these stars, and you can use the book as a consumer guide. They made a lot of turkeys!

In the end, Callahan’s research pays off with a fresh take on the life of these stars. He should bone up on what is and what isn’t jazz, though.