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