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 ]

Monday, November 4, 2013

Bing with a Beat (BMG, 2004)

By the mid-1950s, Bing Crosby had been recording for about thirty years, including an excellent body of work for Decca that covers about two decades. He had become an iconic figure on record, on screen, and on the airwaves, and so he felt that perhaps it was time to be his own boss and no longer record exclusively for one label. Coincidentally (or maybe not), it was around this time that he cut two of his most remarkable albums: Bing Sings Whilst Bregman Swings, a 1956 collaboration with arranger Buddy Bregman, and Bing with a Beat, on which he was accompanied by Bob Scobey's Frisco Jazz Band, released by RCA in 1957. It's no secret that Bing grew up fascinated by jazz, particularly of the dixieland variety, so a pairing with trumpeter Scobey, who was one of the stalwarts of the 1950s West Coast dixieland revival, seems like a perfect idea. And the result is a great LP, with both Bing and the band running through twelve delightful charts arranged by Matty Matlock (who also plays clarinet on the session) that leave plenty of space for solos by Scobey himself on trumpet, Ralph Sutton on piano, and Dave Harris on tenor sax. The rhythm section of Nick Fatool on drums, Red Callender on bass, and Clancy Hayes on guitar shines throughout, and with such accompanists, it's no wonder that Bing sounds so relaxed and at ease. He even ad-libs asides to Scobey, particularly on "Dream a Little Dream of Me" ("Bob, you ain't just dreamin'—you is awake!") that prove that he's really enjoying himself in the company of these accomplished jazz musicians.

Clarinetist and arranger Matty Matlock
The album is full of highlights, but a swinging version of "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter" with Bing singing the verse and a fantastic piano solo from Ralph Sutton, the lovely ballad rendition of "Dream a Little Dream of Me," an uptempo reading of "Some Sunny Day" full of lyrical improvisations from Crosby, and the Louis Armstrong-styled "Mack the Knife" are among its very best moments. Most of the program is comprised of songs that, though standards, were already rather old by 1957 ("Exactly Like You," "Whispering"), and Bing also selects some lesser-known tunes that, like "Let a Smile Be Your Umbrella," "Along the Way to Waikiki," "Tell Me," and "Last Night on the Backporch," we don't get to hear very often. The 2004 CD reissue only presents the twelve songs on the original album, without any outtakes, and it also includes a wonderfully detailed essay by critic Will Friedwald, who reminds us that this edition of the Scobey group is mostly a studio band, since only Sutton and Hayes were regular members of the Scobey outfit. In any case, the band sounds really tight, and Crosby exudes such energy that he even manages to make a forgettable tune like "Papa Loves Mama" sound incredibly exciting. This definitely is a strong contender for the title of Bing's best album ever, and as such, it needs to be on the shelf of any serious Crosby fan. And, by the way, if you dig Scobey's playing here and would like to hear some more of his colorful revivalist music, you should check out two interesting compilations of his work released by Jasmine Records: Frisco Jazz 1948-1955 and Frisco Jazz '56.

TRACKS: Let a Smile Be Your Umbrella / I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter / Along the Way to Waikiki / Exactly Like You / Dream a Little Dream of Me / Last Night on the Backporch/ Some Sunny Day / Whispering / Tell Me / Mack the Knife / Down Among the Sheltering Palms / Mama Loves Papa.

Bing and Bob Scobey in the recording studio

Sunday, October 27, 2013

On the Sentimental Side (BCE / Collector's Choice, 2010)

Personally, I've never understood the appeal of the singalong records pioneered by producer Mitch Miller, but the truth is that the public was drawn to them in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Of course, in the wake of Miller's singalong success both on record and on television, Bing Crosby recorded his own take on this type of albums, and his efforts were hugely popular as well. One of these projects was shelved and never released, and for many years, collectors believed that either it had never been completed or else it had been lost to history. However, a few years ago, some tapes containing the results of these sessions were located by Crosby archivist Robert Bader and issued in 2010 as On the Sentimental Side.

The liner notes of this CD, written by James Ritz, explain in detail how the tapes were miraculously retrieved and how, after a few obstacles, they were mixed together for release. As it happened, the basic tracks for the album were recorded in London in March of 1962, but Bing didn't contribute his own vocals until June of that year in Los Angeles. For some reason, after the project was abandoned, the instrumental tracks and Bing's vocals were somehow preserved on different tapes and needed to be synched in order to achieve a satisfactory product for release on this CD. The sound, as always, is magnificent, and Bing Crosby Enterprises have done their usual outstanding job, and so now On the Sentimental Side is finally available on a high-quality digipack issue for the delight of all Crosby completists.

Mitch Miller, the singalong pioneer
As for the music, the title doesn't actually imply that the album is made up of sentimental songs, but of tunes that had a sentimental value for Bing, "songs that Bing grew up on and was intimately familiar with as far back as the 'Twenties when his musical career was in its infancy," as Ritz observes. In keeping with the singalong format, the collection contains twelve medleys of songs such as "My Bonnie / The Band Played on," "Beautiful Dreamer / The Last Rose of Summer," and "Look for the Silver Lining / Say It with Music," with Bing in perfect voice and always accompanied by a choir. Some of the tunes ("Tom Dooley / The Old Gray Mare," for instance) have a folkish air, and in my opinion, Bing's interpretations of Irving Berlin ballads like "Always," "Remember," "All Alone," and "What'll I Do" are the highlights of the disc. They would certainly benefit from not having been sung as part of a medley and with the often annoying choir accompaniment, but then this wouldn't be a singalong record, right? The CD also includes five bonus tracks made with Buddy Cole for radio broadcast, which show what a good idea it would have been to record a whole album of this type of material with Cole and no choir. Overall, while this isn't an essential Crosby release, it does have its worthwhile moments, and if you have little kids, like I do, you can always slip it into your CD player and have the little ones sing along with you and Bing—after all, that's what this kind of record is for, isn't it?

TRACKS: My Bonnie - And the Band Played on / Always - Wishing / Remember - Put on Your Old Gray Bonnet / All Alone - In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree / How Can I Leave Thee - A Bird in a Gilded Cage - The Sidewalks of New York / If I Didn't Care - Blueberry Hill / Beautiful Dreamer - The Last Rose of Summer / Roll on Silver Moon - Now the Day Is Over / Tom Dooley - The Old Gray Mare / Together - What'll I Do / Look for the Silver Lining - Say It with Music / Did You Ever See a Dream Walking - A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody / Because / Love's Old Sweet Song / Smilin' Through / Whither Thou Goest / Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral.

Songwriter Irving Berlin was much admired by Bing. Six of his songs appear on this album

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Bing Crosby Sings the Johnny Mercer Songbook (BCE, 2013)

This is one of the most recent releases by Bing Crosby Enterprises, the other one being Bing's 1953 French-language LP, Le Bing, both of them, as usual, in beautiful digipack presentations and perfect sound. As its title suggests, this CD is a collection of songs written by Johnny Mercer and sung by Bing Crosby. That alone is a good idea, but if we consider that, alongside some classic studio recordings like "I'm an Old Cowhand," "Too Marvelous for Words," and "You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby," this album also contains several previously unreleased radio performances, then the disc becomes a necessary purchase for any serious Crosby fan. The radio tracks are culled from Bing's series for Woodbury Soap, Chesterfield, the Kraft Music Hall, and General Electric and include some gems such as "I Thought about You," "Autumn Leaves," "When the World Was Young," "And the Angels Sing," "Something's Gotta Give," and two fine versions of one of my favorite Mercer songs, "P.S. I Love You," one from 1934 and the other from 1953. This songbook also features some very enjoyable duets with the Andrews Sisters ("Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive"), Louis Armstrong ("Lazy Bones," with Jack Teagarden on trombone), and Mercer himself (their Decca recording of "Mr. Meadowlark"). The beautiful packaging with several pictures, the brief notes by Mercer collector, Howard E. Green, the wealth of unreleased material, and of course, the wonderful songs by Mercer that come alive in Bing's interpretations, make this new offering from Bing Crosby Enterprises a must for Crosby aficionados and appreciators of the Great American Songbook alike. Upon the release of the CD, I published a more in-depth review on the Amazon website, which you can read here.

TRACKS: P.S. I Love You (1934) / I'm an Old Cowhand / Too Marvelous for Words / You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby / Day In, Day Out / I Thought about You / Mister Meadowlark (with Johnny Mercer) / Skylark / Blues in the Night / That Old Black Magic / On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe / Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive (with the Andrews Sisters) / Lazy Bones (with Louis Armstrong and Jack Teagarden) / Autumn Leaves / In the Cool, Cool. Cool of the Evening / Jamboree Jones / When the World Was You (Ah, the Apple Trees) / Glow Worm / Jeepers Creepers / And the Angels Sing / Something's Gotta Give / P.S. I Love You (1953)

Johnny Mercer and Bing on the radio

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

That Travelin' Two-Beat / Sings the Great Country Hits (Collectors' Choice, 2001)

Over three years ago, when I began my other blog, The Vintage Bandstand, devoted to classic jazz and the crooners, the first post that I published was a review of two lesser-known Bing Crosby albums from the 1960s—That Travelin' Two-Beat and Bing Crosby Sings the Great Country Hits, both of them released originally in 1965 on Capitol Records and reissued as a two-fer by Collectors' Choice Music in 2001. The former, in which Bing was paired up with Rosemary Clooney, was, in a way, a continuation of Fancy Meeting You Here, an earlier and more satisfying effort by Bing and Rosie. The latter was one of Crosby's forays into country pop, a salute to the Nashville Sound that was extremely popular in the sixties, including songs by fine country tunesmiths like Don Gibson, Harlan Howard, and Willie Nelson. The CD has now been out of print for a while, but it's highly recommendable, and you can read my in-depth review of it here.

TRACKS: That Travelin' Two-Beat - That Travelin' Two-Beat / New Vienna Woods / Knees Up, Mother Brown / Roamin' in the Gloamin' / Adios SeƱorita / Come to the Mardi Gras / Hear That Band / The Daughter of Molly Malone / The Poor People of Paris / I Get Ideas / Ciao, Ciao, Bambina / That Travelin' Two-Beat (reprise). Sings the Great Country Hits - Oh, Lonesome Me / Heartaches by the Number / Four Walls / Crazy Arms / Bouquet of Roses / Wabash Cannon Ball / Wolverton Mountain / Hello Walls / A Little Bitty Tear / Jealous Heart / Still / Sunflower.

Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra with Rosemary Clooney

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Bing Crosby in the Hall (Sepia, 2013)

Today I am republishing here a review of the excellent Sepia CD Bing Crosby in the Hall that I wrote for the website and originally published here upon the CD's release. At the end of the piece I called for more releases like this one, and it looks like some record companies must have been listening (or so I like to think...) because three more compilations of tracks from Crosby's radio shows are slated to be issued in November. Hopefully they will be as interesting as this one from Sepia!

TRACKS: Josephine / Call Me Up Some Rainy Afternoon / One Song / The Umbrella Man / Penny Serenade / I Get Along without You Very Well / Honolulu / You're the Only Star in My Blue Heaven / I Wonder Who's Kissing Her Now / Scatter-Brain / Looking at the World through Rose-Colored Glasses / (Back Home Again in) Indiana / I Thought about You / Ma! (She's Making Eyes at Me) / Angel in Disguise / Let's Be Buddies / Because of You / Everything Happens to Me / I'll Be with You in Apple Blossom Time / You'd Be So Nice to Come Home to / Hit the Road to Dreamland / I've Got Sixpence / How Sweet You Are / The Surrey with the Fringe on Top / Saturday Night (Is the Loneliest Night of the Week) / Magic Is the Moonlight / My Dreams Are Getting Better All the Time / It Might as Well Be Spring / Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief / G'Bye Now.

Connee Boswell sang with Bing on the KMH
It was with a great deal of excitement that I recently received this new Sepia release from the International Club Crosby, to which I have belonged for a while now. To any Crosby fan, this is a very attractive release, since it includes 30 rare recordings from Bing's legendary Kraft Music Hall radio show. Crosby hosted the program between 1936 and 1946, and during his ten-year tenure, his voice and personality turned it into the most popular show in the nation. The show itself was based on a then revolutionary concept: music interspersed with comic banter and skits, with different celebrity guests every week. It was the perfect setting for Bing's laid-back persona and easy, almost nonchalant approach to the vocal art. The Kraft Music Hall turned Bing Crosby into one of the most successful radio stars of the 1930s and 1940s.

Besides his own recordings, Bing usually performed the popular songs of the day and old evergreens on the Kraft show, and the producers of this excellent CD have had the good sense to offer tunes that Crosby, despite his mammoth recorded legacy, never cut commercially. Gently and ably backed by a studio orchestra conducted by his longtime associate John Scott Trotter, Bing delivers each number in his own personal way, each track showing how perfect his warm baritone was for the medium of radio. On the Kraft Music Hall, Bing was often given vocal support by groups such as the Music Maids and the Charioteers, and over the years, he had outstanding duet partners by the likes of Connee Boswell, Eugenie Baird, Mary Martin, and Marilyn Maxwell, to name but a few. In my opinion, Boswell, a fine solo singer as well as a successful recording artist with the Boswell Sisters, was one of Bing's best duet partners, and she is featured on several tracks on this CD, notably on a delightful version of Matt Dennis's "Everything Happens to Me," which in this case includes some very funny specialty lyrics.

Inevitably, some of the material that Bing sang on the Kraft show was not up to the high standards of his own talent, but he never fails to put across even weak songs such as Kay Kyser's "The Umbrella Man." It is hard for me to name favorites on this CD, since every track is interesting for different reasons, and Bing's interpretations are always appealing, whether he be singing a ballad or an uptempo number. However, highlights of this compilation definitely include "I Get Along Without You Very Well" (written by Hoagy Carmichael), "I Thought About You" (a classic from the pen of Johnny Mercer), the old favorite "Looking at the World Through Rose-Colored Glasses," "Indiana," "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home to" (written by Cole Porter), and a wistful version of "It Might as Well Be Spring." Incidentally, this radio version of Mercer's "I Thought about You" certainly rivals Frank Sinatra's classic rendition on his Songs for Swingin' Lovers album. Crosby also tackles Sinatra's early hit "Saturday Night (Is the Loneliest Night of the Week)" with conviction and turns in lovely readings of "Because of You" (which would become a big hit for Tony Bennett in 1951), Cole Porter's "Let's Be Buddies" (in a duet with Connee Boswell), Gene Autry's gentle country ballad "You're the Only Star in My Blue Heaven," and Irving Berlin's rather obscure early composition "Call Me Up Some Rainly Afternoon."

An ad for the Kraft Music Hall radio show

The excellent British label Sepia has collaborated closely with the International Club Crosby for this release, and the illustrated booklet that accompanies the CD includes well-written, informative liner notes by Malcolm Macfarlane, editor of Bing Magazine, complete with a brief discussion of each of the tracks. Considering the age of these recordings, preserved on 10- and 12-inch acetates stored in John Scott Trotter's cellar and later transferred to tape, the sound quality of the CD is magnificent and has been efficiently restored. This is yet another oustanding Crosby release from Sepia that will definitely make Bing fans like me very happy. Hopefully it will sell well enough that the label will decide to turn 'Bing in the Hall' into a full-blown series like their Through The Years batch of releases. There certainly is enough material to grant such a series, and we would all benefit from it.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Welcome to the Blog! A Portrait of Bing Crosby (Music Collection International, 1997)

Today, on the day that marks the 36th anniversary of Bing's passing on a golf course in Madrid, Spain, I begin this new blog that, as its title indicates, is devoted to brief reviews of Crosby releases that are available on CD. Over the years, I have gathered quite an extensive collection of Bing Crosby material, and although I don't have anything that truly dedicated collectors would covet, I do own a fair amount of CDs, LPs, DVDs, books, and sheet music. However, for this blog, I will concentrate on compact discs, and my intention is simply to write short, informative reviews of the CDs in my collection, hoping that they will be helpful to anyone looking to purchase those discs for their own collections. Comments, of course, are always welcome, and if you have any additional information on a particular release or if you agree or disagree with any of my assessments, please let me know via the comment link at the bottom of each entry. Thanks, and let's all enjoy the impressive recorded legacy of Bing Crosby, for the most part widely available on CD.

DISC 1: Please / How Deep Is the Ocean? / Dancing in the Dark / Sentimental and Melancholy / On the Sentimental Side / Don't Be That Way / Blue Hawaii / Silver on the Sage / Song of the Islands / The Last Round-Up / Black Moonlight / Someday Sweetheart / I've Got the World on a String / Did You Ever See a Dream Walking? / Dinah / Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? / Pennies from Heaven / Down the Old Ox Road / Maybe / Thanks / In My Merry Oldsmobile / Moonlight Becomes You / Remember Me? / It's Easy to Remember

DISC 2: Sweet and Lovely / Too Romantic / This Is My Night to Dream / Temptation / Try a Little Tenderness / Star Dust / Sweet Leilani / I'm an Old Cowhand / Goodnight Sweetheart / The Funny Old Hills / Too Marvelous for Words / Out of Nowhere / (I Don't Stand) A Ghost of a Chance with You / An Apple for the Teacher / Sweet Georgia Brown / If You Should Ever Need Me / Still the Bluebird Sings / Were You Sincere / Sing a Song of Sunbeams / You're Getting to Be a Habit with Me / Only Forever / You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby / The Moon Got in My Eyes / White Christmas.

A publicity photo of Bing in the 1930s

I begin this series of reviews of Bing Crosby CDs with the first one that I ever bought many years ago now. In retrospect, even though it wasn't an official release, I must admit that it represented a great introduction to Bing's music at a very reasonable price. A Portrait of Bing Crosby is one in a series of 2-CD sets issued by the obscure label Music Collection International in the mid- to late-1990s, offering recordings by Crosby contemporaries such as Louis Armstrong, Tommy Dorsey, Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra, Fats Waller, Glenn Miller &c., with good sound, brief liner notes, recording dates, and a total of 48 songs.

The volume on Bing isn't arranged chronologically, but it features songs cut between 1932 ("Please," which opens the anthology) and 1942 ("White Christmas," which closes it) for both Brunswick and Decca. Many of Bing's early hits are covered here, although the cutoff date means that most of his fine 1940s recordings aren't included. Besides his excellent versions of classics such as "Pennies from Heaven" or "Star Dust," we can hear Bing performing country-styled tunes, Hawaiian numbers, jazz perennials like "Sweet Georgia Brown," and even his duets with Connee Boswell on "An Apple for the Teacher" and with the Mills Bros. on "Dinah." The set is now out of print, but as of this writing, used copies are still available from some online retailers, and I would recommend it to those fans looking for a good introduction to Bing's sound of the 1930s and early '40s.

Bing with the Boswell Sisters