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).