Thursday, May 7, 2015

Kraft Music Hall: Selected Performances 1935-1936 (JSP Records, 2015)

The fine British reissue label JSP Records just released a single-CD collection of rare Kraft Music Hall broadcasts from the mid 1930s, the scarcity of which is well known to serious Bing Crosby fans. I recently published the following review of it in my classic jazz website, The Vintage Bandstand, and I now reprint it here because it also belongs in this blog.

The new JSP Records release, Kraft Music Hall: Selected Performances 1935-1936, is an unexpected but wonderful surprise for all Bing Crosby fans and collectors, which I have just received from the International Club Crosby. Although the medium of radio was of paramount importance in Crosby's meteoric rise as a multimedia star in the 1930s, unfortunately not too many broadcasts from this early period of his career have survived. As the subtitle of this disc ("Lost radio recordings rediscovered and released here for the first time") suggests, this compilation attempts to fill that void by presenting material from early Kraft Music Hall programs that have not been heard since they first aired in 1935 and 1936. At that particular point in time, December of 1935, Crosby's old boss, Paul Whiteman, was still the host of KMH, and the singer was simply a guest on the program. While the show was broadcast from New York, Bing's segments were relayed from Hollywood, as we can hear on the first track of this album, which has Whiteman introducing Crosby, who was not backed by Whiteman's outfit but by the excellent, swinging Jimmy Dorsey orchestra. It appears that it was common practice for Crosby during his guest spots to sing a medley of songs associated with him or taken from one of his then-current movies, as well as a few tunes that he had introduced or helped make popular, such as "On Treasure Island," "Red Sails in the Sunset," "Dinah" (unfortunately sans the Mills Brothers here), and "After You've Gone." As John Newton observes in the liner notes, Bing sings the romantic ballad "I'm Yours," which "fits neither category, but is nevertheless a welcome addition" and would later be beautifully recorded by Dean Martin.

Jimmy Dorsey leads the band on these shows
These performances are not interesting merely because of their rarity, but rather because they prove that Crosby was a master interpreter of popular song who was even more exciting, jazzy, and improvisatory when he was singing to a radio audience in front of a microphone and supported by a bandleader of the caliber of Jimmy Dorsey. On the December 26, 1935, broadcast, which includes a rather sleepy version of "I Get a Kick Out of You" by Kay Weber that sounds as though she were not getting any kicks out of singing the song, it becomes clear that Crosby is acquiring more protagonism, since he sings more numbers than on previous programs. In fact, come January 1936, Crosby began to host the KMH himself, quickly turning it into one of the most popular radio shows in the country, with a weekly listenership estimated at dozens of millions. From the first two shows hosted by Crosby we get some fantastic performances of songs like "Eeny-Meeny-Miney-Mo," "I'll See You in My Dreams," "A Little Bit Independent," and "Some of These Days," still backed by Dorsey, who would remain on the show until July 1937. This new release complements JSP's very recommendable 2007 four-CD set, The Vintage Years, which included broadcasts made between 1932 and 1950, featuring some interesting duets with Judy Garland and Jimmy Durante, and will delight Crosby fans for the scarcity of this type of material and also for the fact that it is up to the usual audio restoration standards of the fine British reissue label.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Songs I Wish I Had Sung the First Time Around (Decca, 1956 / BCE, 2014)

Here's a review I recently wrote for the U.S. Amazon website and that I have adapted for publication in this website. Although some fans find the arrangements on this album to be a little on the syrupy side, I must admit that I've always admired the work of Jack Pleis, both with Bing and with other singers, such as Johnny Hartman, so perhaps I am a little biased, but I've always considered this one of Bing's best albums of the 1950s.

This is one in a batch of four releases that Bing Crosby Enterprises issued back in November, the other three being the soundtrack of the PBS documentary on Crosby’s life and career, American Masters, a reissue of Some Fine Old Chestnuts with bonus tracks, and the collection of Irving Berlin tunes Bing Sings the Irving Berlin Songbook. This very welcome CD is a deluxe edition of Bing’s 1956 album Songs I Wish I Had Sung the First Time Around (which would be his last for Decca) complete with bonus tracks culled from recordings made for radio broadcasts. I won’t write an in-depth review of the first twelve songs on this CD (the actual Songs I Wish I Had Sung LP) because those tracks were already available on the Sepia Records release Through the Years Volume 9, which originally appeared back in 2012, and which I've reviewed in depth here.

As its title implies, Songs I Wish I Had Sung is a collection of songs carefully chosen by Bing that were hits for other artists and that Crosby wished he’d gotten around to recording before anyone else.

Arranger and conductor Jack Pleis
As Crosby himself states in the original liner notes that he wrote for the album (reprinted in the CD booklet), this project gave him a chance to pay tribute to other singers he admired: “Certainly I have no hope of embellishing these songs,” Bing writes, “nor do I dream of adding luster to the rich nostalgic patina which already surrounds them. Let’s just say it’s my way of paying tribute to the people who introduced and popularized them – people who . . . are particular favorites of mine.” Thus, Crosby sings twelve songs associated with the likes of Al Jolson, Ted Lewis, Louis Armstrong, the Mills Brothers, Nat King Cole, and even crooning rivals of yore such as Russ Columbo, Rudy Vallee, and Frank Sinatra. While not necessarily attempting to improve on the original versions, Crosby does succeed in making these tunes his own, and the album benefits from carefully constructed, mostly unobtrusive arrangements by the somewhat underrated Jack Pleis.

Pianist and organist Buddy Cole
This CD reissue of Songs I Wish I Had Sung also includes ten bonus tracks taken from recordings that Bing made for different radio series between 1951 and 1960, often accompanied by a small group led by pianist Buddy Cole. All but one of these bonus tracks (“Cocktails for Two,” which already appeared on the Mosaic Records 7-CD set of Bing’s CBS Radio recordings) are previously unreleased, and they are interesting in that producer Robert S. Bader attempts to stick to Bing’s idea of featuring songs that Der Bingle might have wished he had sung the first time around. Among them are Maurice Chevalier’s “Thank Heaven for Little Girls,” Dick Haymes’s “You’ll Never Know,” and Louis Armstrong’s “A Kiss to Build a Dream On.” Crosby is joined by the Four Aces on “(The Gang That Sang) Heart of My Heart” and applies his relaxed vocal technique to classics such as “’Deed I Do,” “At Sundown,” and “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans.” From Crosby’s radio show for General Electric come “Lady of Spain” and the lesser-known “Mandy Make Up Your Mind,” the latter a tune associated with Paul Whiteman that shouldn’t be confused with Irving Berlin’s similarly titled “Mandy.” The sound is very good throughout, and Bing’s original liner notes are augmented by an essay by Crosby specialist and radio show host, Arne Fogel, making this the definitive edition of a very enjoyable Crosby concept album.

On this album, Crosby pays tribute to his childhood hero, Al Jolson, among others

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Bing 'n' Basie (Daybreak Records, 1972)

Bing Crosby's only full-length collaboration with the Count Basie orchestra has always struck me as a missed opportunity, comparable to Frank Sinatra's 1968 album with Duke Ellington, Francis A. and Edward K. On paper, the idea of pairing Basie's swinging outfit with one of the jazziest voices in pop music was a winner, but the finished LP, though it does have some interesting moments, is far from being one of the most memorable efforts in the discographies of either artist. And the main problem isn't the Sam Nestico arrangements, which are in tune with Basie's typically exciting style of the '60s and '70s, or the orchestra, which sounds as well oiled as ever. The foremost complaint about this album is undoubtedly the repertoire. Do we need a Crosby version of "Gentle on My Mind," "Snowbird," and "Little Green Apples"? Should "Sunrise, Sunset," with its thoughtful lyrics about the circle of life and the passing of time be arranged as a swinger? The answer to both questions is a categorical no, and so the album, as a whole, suffers accordingly.

Bing in 1972
Some critics have pointed out that on some of the tracks Crosby seems to be simply going through the motions, and there doesn't appear to be a real connection between band and vocalist, which is disappointing if we consider who is sitting at the piano and who is standing behind the microphone. This lack of connection between Bing and the band, though, isn't surprising in the light of the fact that Crosby overdubbed his vocals onto tracks that the Basie orchestra had recorded previously, a practice that was never favored by the singer. But on the high points of the record, such as "Hangin' Loose," a swinging number by Nestico with lyrics by Johnny Mercer, "Gonna Build a Mountain," and "Put Your Hand in the Hand," we can get glimpses of what could have been if everyone involved had taken this project more seriously and had devoted more time to preparing for it. Nestico and Mercer also provide an acceptable album closer in "Have a Nice Day," complete with feel-good lyrics that reference Hoagy Carmichael's chestnut "Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief," and Mercer's liner notes constitute a fitting tribute to Bing and Basie.

Arranger Sam Nestico
In his book The Crosby Years, producer Ken Barnes, who worked with Bing extensively in the 1970s, makes a satisfying, if a little benevolent, critical appraisal of the record: "Of course, it's not Bing's best album, but there is enough good singing and playing to merit a few hearty cheers—and it was certainly better than anything he had done on record for years" (97). Bearing in mind that three years prior to cutting this album Bing had released Hey Jude / Hey Bing, one of his artistically least successful efforts, it's hard not to agree with Barnes that this is an improvement. Yet one certainly wishes that Crosby and Basie had selected songs that suited the style of both artists a little better. The CD reissue from Emarcy Records isn't always easy or cheap to find, but its sound is good, and even though it doesn't include any personnel information or any new liner notes, it does reprint the brief essay by Mercer that appeared on the original sleeve. Also, an outtake from the session, "If I Had a Hammer," remains incomprehensibly unissued and definitely would have made for a fine bonus track.

TRACK LIST: Gentle on My Mind / Everything Is Beautiful / Gonna Build a Mountain / Sunrise, Sunset / Hangin' Loose / All His Children / Put Your Hand in the Hand / Snowbird / Little Green Apples / Sugar, Don't You Know / Have a Nice Day.

Back sleeve of original album, with pictures and Johnny Mercer's liner notes

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Through the Years, Volume 9: 1955-1956 (Sepia, 2012)

The British label Sepia Records has done an outstanding job of releasing the vast majority of Bing Crosby's 1950s catalog in chronological order as a ten-volume series entitled Through the Years, which only lacks some of his efforts from that decade, such as the albums Bing Sings Whilst Bregman Swings and Bing with a Beat! I recently published an in-depth review of the ninth volume of the series on the U.S. Amazon website. This next-to-last installment includes studio tracks cut between November 1955 and October 1956 and shows that Bing was still making some strong, enjoyable records well into his third decade as a recording artist, from Christmas songs to current movie themes to a delightful little duet with Peggy Lee. Yet the main reason why this Sepia issue is essential is that it includes Bing's 1956 concept album Songs I Wish I Had Sung (The First Time Around), in which, as the title suggests, he pays tribute to several artists that he admired by covering some of their signature hits. The track list features tunes by Al Jolson, Nat King Cole, Johnny Mercer, Gene Austin, the Mills Brothers, Russ Columbo, Fats Waller, Ted Lewis, and even a young Frank Sinatra, among others.

Bing and Peggy Lee later in their careers.
Bing is in fine voice here and clearly enjoying himself as he performs songs that he wished that he had been the first to introduce. The often underrated arranger Jack Pleis provides twelve well-constructed charts that generally enhance Bing's vocal delivery, except perhaps for the slightly annoying arrangement of "April Showers" that has the background choir chant "drip, drip, drip, drip," which is certainly not in keeping with the general subtlety of Pleis's work for the album. The release is up to Sepia's usual standards of quality, with excellent sound, a booklet full of photographs and session information, and very informative liner notes by Crosby expert Malcolm Macfarlane. Moreover, this is currently the only affordable way to own Songs I Wish I Had Sung... on CD, and for that reason alone, this ninth volume of the Through the Years series is highly recommendable. If you would like to read my in-depth review on the U.S. Amazon website, you may access it here.

TRACKS: Christmas Is A-Comin' / The First Snowfall / The Possibility's There (with Peggy Lee) / The Next Time It Happens / Something in Common / Look to Your Heart / Suddenly There's a Valley / Moments to Remember / Is Christmas Only a Tree? / The Longest Walk / John Barleycorn / When You're in Love / April Showers / Blues in the Night / Prisoner of Love / Memories Are Made of This / My Blue Heaven / Paper Doll / Ain't Misbehavin' / When My Baby Smiles at Me / A Little Kiss Each Morning / This Love of Mine / Mona Lisa / Thanks for the Memory / Around the World / I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.

Monday, May 12, 2014

With Paul Whiteman & His Orchestra / In Hollywood 1930-33 / In Hollywood 1933-34 (Chansons Cinema, 1995)

The music that Bing Crosby recorded for his movies of the 1930s has been available in different digital editions, notably the first two volumes of the Going Hollywood series released by the British label Jasmine Records. However, the first collection of Bing's film music that I ever purchased is this three-CD set from the French label Chansons Cinema, first issued in 1995 and now long out of print. It only includes the songs featured in Bing's movies from the period between 1930 and 1934—The King of Jazz (1930), The Big Broadcast (1932), College Humor (1933), Too Much Harmony (1933), Going Hollywood (1933), We're Not Dressing (1934), and She Loves Me Not (1934). Unlike the Jasmine series, which often includes music taken directly from the film soundtrack, the sides presented here seem to come from studio sessions, and the sound quality is consistently high bearing in mind the age of the recordings. Overall, this is a very attractive release, and the three discs come in jewel cases housed within a black cardboard box that hasn't fallen apart even though I bought it almost twenty years ago. Some recording information is provided on the back cover of each disc, and the biographical essay on Bing, written by Sarah Leibovitz-Dambre and presented in both English and French, is very well written and informative.

In addition to two discs' worth of Bing's movie tracks from 1930-34, there is a third CD that features a good cross-section of recordings by the Paul Whiteman Orchestra from 1928 and 1929, with Bing as vocalist and Bix Beiderbecke on cornet. These range from Rhythm Boys sides ("That's My Weakness Now," "Out O'Town Gal"), to songs on which he is part of a vocal quartet or quintet, to some solo features ("Coquette," "Reaching for Someone," "S'posin'," "A Bundle of Old Love Letters"). Although there are more comprehensive releases out there covering this period of his career, this is actually not a bad introduction to Crosby's sound with Whiteman. Strangely, on the 1928 "I'm Bringing a Red, Red Rose," Jack Fulton takes on the vocal duties and Bing doesn't seem to be featured at all! Bing's movies from this era are graced with excellent music, so some of the songs included here, such as "Please," "Learn to Croon," "Black Moonlight," "Just an Echo in the Valley," "Temptation," and "May I?" belong in any compilation of his greatest recordings from the thirties. Though not as well known, other tunes such as "Moonstruck," "After Sundown," "We'll Make Hay While the Sun Shines," "Once in a Blue Moon," and "She Reminds Me of You" qualify as overlooked gems from Bing's discography that deserve more recognition. On the whole, and although this music is available elsewhere (in fact, the two volumes from Collectables Records entitled In Hollywood 1930-34 cover almost exactly the same material as discs 2 and 3 here), this is an outstanding set that every Crosby fan should purchase—if able to find it, that is!

Bing with the Rhythm Boys

DISC 1 - With Paul Whiteman: C-O-N-S-T-A-N-T-I-N-O-P-L-E / Get Out and Get Under the Moon / 'Taint So, Honey, 'Taint So / I'd Rather Cry Over You / I'm on the Crest of a Wave / That's My Weakness Now / Because My Baby Don't Mean "Maybe" Now! / Out-o'-Town Gal / I'm Bringing a Red, Red Rose (vcl Jack Fulton) / Coquette / Reaching for Someone / S'posin' / At Twilight / When You're Counting the Stars Alone / I'm a Dreamer, Aren't We All? / A Bundle of Old Love Letters.

DISC 2 - In Hollywood 1930-33: Happy Feet / A Bench in the Park / A Bench in the Park / It Happened in Monterey / I Like to Do Things for You / Ragamuffin Romeo / So the Bluebirds and the Blackbirds Got Together / Song of the Dawn / Dinah / Please / Here Lies Love / Learn to Croon / Moonstruck / Down the Old Ox Road / Thanks / The Day You Came Along / I Guess It Had to Be That Way / Black Moonlight.

DISC 3 - In Hollywood 1933-34: Just an Echo in the Valley / Beautiful Girl / After Sundown / We'll Make Hay While the Sun Shines / Temptation / Our Big Love Scene / Love Thy Neighbor / Once in a Blue Moon / Good-Night, Lovely Little Lady / May I? / She Reminds Me of You / I'm Hummin'—I'm Whistlin'—I'm Singin' / Love in Bloom / Straight from the Shoulder.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

AFRS Basic Music Library Plus Philco Radio Time (Sounds of Yesteryear, 2013)

In the 1940s, the Armed Forces Radio Service (AFRS) began what was known as the Basic Music Library, a series of transcription discs containing different types of music (jazz, pop, classical, country and western, religious, &c.) to be used by the network. Some artists made special recordings for this library collection, but many of the tracks preserved on these transcription discs came from radio shows. By this time, Bing had long been established as a top radio entertainer, and so his work is well represented in the AFRS Basic Music Library, most of his contributions originally broadcast on the Kraft Music Hall show. This is precisely what this recent release from the British label Sounds of Yesteryear includes: 17 tracks from AFRS transcription discs with the October 15, 1947, edition of Bing's Philco Radio Time show thrown in for good measure.

As one would expect, the song selection includes hits of the day ("Going My Way," "Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral," "San Fernando Valley," "People Will Say We're in Love") along with older tunes that Bing enjoyed to sing on the KMH show ("Always," "Put Your Arms Around Me, Honey," "Please") and duets with Eugenie Baird, Trudy Erwin, and the Andrews Sisters. It's always a treat to hear Bing's versions of other artists' hits, as in the case of "Dearly Beloved" (from a Fred Astaire movie), "It Could Happen to You" (from a then-current film starring Dorothy Lamour), and "Wait for Me, Mary" (a chart hit for Dick Haymes). The AFRS transcription discs have also preserved several medleys that give Crosby the opportunity to revive some of his earlier successes, such as the songs from his 1936 movie, Pennies from Heaven, and "An Apple for the Teacher," the latter sans Connee Boswell on this occasion. As usual, there are a couple of tunes that, in my opinion, are below Bing's talent: "Good, Good, Good," a duet with the Andrews Sisters, is an example of this. Dinah Shore guests on the Philco show, which appears here as a single 23-minute track, and she gets to sing the beautiful "I Wish I Didn't Love You So" (a song associated with both Shore and Vaughn Monroe) and even duets with Bing on "Your Flop Parade."

Eugenie Baird
Overall, this is an enjoyable CD, with good sound and some very interesting material, as is usually the case with compilations culled from Crosby's radio appearances. Unfortunately, the liner notes by Michael Highton aren't very extensive, but then not all labels can be compared with Sepia, whose CDs are impeccable when it comes to packaging and notes. In any case, it looks like Sounds of Yesteryear is planning to release more collections like this one (in fact, a second volume is already available as of this writing) which will be welcome additions to the shelves of any serious Bing Crosby fan.

TRACKS: Going My Way / September Song / Dearly Beloved / It Could Happen to You / Always / Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral (That's an Irish Lullaby) / Medley: One Two Button Your Shoe - So Do I - Skeleton in the Closet - Pennies from Heaven / Medley: The Funny Old Hills - You're a Sweet Little Headache - I Have Eyes to See with / Medley: An Apple for the Teacher - Still the Bluebird Sings - A Man and His Dreams / Put Your Arms Around Me Honey / Along the Navajo Trail / San Fernando Valley / Good, Good, Good (That's You, That's You) / People Will Say We're in Love / Nevada / Please / Wait for Me, Mary / Philco Radio Time Oct. 25, 1947: Where the Blue of the Night - Kokomo, Indiana - Almost Like Being in Love - I Wish I Didn't Love You So (voc. Dinah Shore) - Your Flop Parade (with Dinah Shore).

Friday, December 6, 2013

The Voice of Christmas: The Complete Decca Christmas Songbook (MCA, 1998)

About a year ago, I published an article about the Christmas recordings of Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Dick Haymes in my blog on classic jazz and the crooners, The Vintage Bandstand. Part of that piece was devoted to a brief discussion of Bing's Decca holiday sides, included in their entirety on the 2-CD set The Voice of Christmas. Below you will find the Bing-related portion of that article, and its full version is available here.

So pervasive is the influence of Bing Crosby on the way people worldwide perceive and imagine the holiday season that it seems almost unthinkable that there was ever a time when Bing did not warm up our holidays by crooning Irving Berlin's evocative lyrics about treetops that glisten and children who listen for sleigh bells in the snow. In fact, Crosby's soothing voice singing about a snow-covered white Christmas landscape often makes us forget that in at least half the world, the Christmas season, though perhaps still merry and bright, is not that white or that cold at all! Crosby's warm baritone has become as much a part of the Christmas tradition as Santa Claus, fir trees, and kisses under the mistletoe, and therefore, the title of a two-CD compilation of his complete Yuletide classics recorded for Decca, The Voice of Christmas, hardly sounds like an overstatement. Indeed, it is at Christmas that we are most likely to hear Crosby's voice on the radio, at the shopping mall, and anywhere that Christmas music is played, and more often than not, it will be Bing's timeless version of "White Christmas," an Irving Berlin evergreen that has proven so popular that Jody Rosen has devoted a whole book,White Christmas: The Story of an American Song, to chronicling the inception of such a prodigious hit.

The Voice of Christmas, containing Crosby's entire Christmas songbook on Decca, is certainly the perfect place to begin not only one's acquaintance with Crosby's seasonal recordings but also any Christmas music collection. Starting with Bing's earliest Christmas sides, the original 1935 versions of "Silent Night" and "Adeste Fideles" (the latter featuring Bing singing in Latin), and ending with studio cuts of tunes from the 1954 Bing Crosby-Rosemary Clooney-Danny Kaye musical White Christmas, the set is arranged roughly in chronological order and is a treasury of great Christmas recordings, both traditional and modern, well known and obscure, always brought to life by the familiar voice of Crosby in his prime. Among the lesser-known gems on here are "O Fir Tree Dark," "That Christmas Feeling," "Looks Like a Cold, Cold Winter," "The First Snowfall," and "Is Christmas Only a Tree." All the cuts in the Crosby Christmas canon are also featured, including "I'll Be Home for Christmas," "Jingle Bells" (a classic duet with the Andrews Sisters), "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas," "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town," "Silver Bells," and of course, "White Christmas," which is presented in four different versions. It must be remembered that Bing was a pioneer when it came to recording Christmas songs in the pop field, and although he sang countless holiday tunes on the radio and on television, and made further Christmas recordings for other labels (Capitol, for instance), his Decca sides represent the finest of his Yuletide output, making this comprehensive collection absolutely essential. 

DISC 1: Happy Holiday / Silent Night (first version) / Adeste Fideles (first version) / Silent Night / White Christmas (1942) / Adeste Fideles / Silent Night / God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen / I'll Be Home for Christmas / Ave Maria / White Christmas (1947) / Silent Night / The Christmas Song / O Fir Tree Dark / The First Noel / You're All I Want for Christmas / Christmas Carols (Deck the Halls - Away in a Manger - I Saw Three Ships) / Christmas Carols (Good King Wenceslas - We Three Kings of Orient Are - Angels We Have Heard on High) / Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer / That Christmas Feeling / Looks Like a Cold, Cold Winter / A Marshmallow World.

DISC 2: Christmas in Killarney / It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas / Sleigh Ride / Sleigh Bell Serenade / Christmas Is A-Comin' / The First Snowfall / Is Christmas Only a Tree / I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day / Jingle Bells * / Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town * / Twelve Days of Christmas * / Here Comes Santa Claus * / A Crosby Christmas, Part I / A Crosby Christmas, Part II / Poppa Santa Claus / Mele Kalikimaka * / Silver Bells (with Carol Richards) / Little Jack Frost, Get Lost / White Christmas ** / Snow ** / White Christmas (1942 alt.) / Let's Start the New Year Right. [ * with the Andrews Sisters / ** with Danny Kaye, Peggy Lee, and Truely Stevens ]