Radio Bing

Having grown up in the TV era (you remember: that transitional epoch between radio and the WWW), I’ve always found old radio a strangely enchanted neverland. If you dig up media reviews from the 1930s and 1940s, you find the same scowls generated by its successor: Radio was a vast wasteland of slobbering soaps, quiz shows, crime thrillers and sententious commentators-much of it satirized in such movies as Christmas in July, Champagne for Caesar, The Hucksters, Laura and many more. Hollywood loved underscoring faults it could find in radio but not itself.

We antiquarians see it differently, reveling in great big band broadcasts or collections of golden moments or legendary happenings like Orson Welles’ The War of the Worlds production. We do not have to put up with routine idiocies and endless ads directed at “you ladies” who cook and clean-ads that are so remote they have taken on an anthropological value.

Radio became a timid institution after networks ceded power to advertising companies that owned the programming outright and treated the airwaves as-well, much as Clear Channel does today, not as a public resource, but as a private turf. Still, can anyone fail to imagine a touch of lost paradise? What kind of world was it in which the heads of CBS and NBC battled fearsomely for the right to broadcast Arturo Toscanini (NBC won by creating for him his own private symphony orchestra); and when Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Charlie Parker and lots more, including locals we’d rather not know about, could be turned on and tuned in-not on records, mind you, but in the flesh, working ballrooms and nightclubs.

Bing Crosby, the best and longest-lived of popular musical broadcasters, began on the air in the 1920s as vocalist with Paul Whiteman and Gus Arnheim, went solo in 1931, achieved super stardom with Kraft Music Hall before and during the war and refused to fold until 1962, when he syndicated a daily 15-minute show with Rosemary Clooney. Crosby did much of his finest work on radio. For Decca, he recorded songs often chosen for him, many of them dog tunes of the day. On radio, however, he chose the songs himself, and though he was obliged to reprise his latest hits and promote current movies, he was far more likely to sing Ellington and Carmichael on radio than in the recording booth-and to harmonize with Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, Judy Garland and dozens more. Crosby loved nothing better than duets.

But there is a problem with radio and TV shows: The commercial rights are in limbo. Guests, musicians and hosts were paid for the broadcasts, not for subsequent releases on vinyl or CD. So like prostitution, which advertises freely but doesn’t pay taxes because it doesn’t officially exist, old radio shows are released surreptitiously. You find them everywhere-record stores, online-but in buying them you participate in a criminal enterprise that no one acknowledges. As Bing was wont to say, “Keep it shady.”

Which makes the release of the three-disc Swingin’ With Bing! (Shout! Factory) something of an event and sort of justifies a demonstrably false subtitle: Bing Crosby’s Lost Radio Performances. Much of the material was available on LP, almost all of it on CD. This edition, however, has the blessings of the Crosby estate and was supervised by the veteran English producer Ken Barnes (who revived Crosby’s recording career in the 1970s) and remastered by Peter Reynolds-from the original 16-inch transcription discs. Barnes has done something that will make purists cringe. He has taken 75 musical numbers and intros from broadcasts aired between 1946 and 1953 (Crosby’s Philco, Chesterfield and GE series) and edited them into an entertaining montage, ignoring chronology and often using applause as a bridge from one track to another even though the adjacent tracks may be from different years. Except for an unfortunate programming duplication on volume two, the discs play like long and frequently inspired marathons.

The first volume combines Crosby solos on an interesting selection of mostly first-rate tunes and encounters with the Andrews Sisters and Nat Cole, much of it good show-bizzy fun. Volumes two and three achieve show-biz euphoria: They collect all of his on-air duets with Armstrong, whom he idolized, and Ella Fitzgerald, whom he pronounced the greatest of all singers, including a couple of three-ways. For good measure, there is also memorable work by Jack Teagarden (whose intro on “Lazy Bones” elicits one of Bing’s droll ad-libs, “I want to be a-lone”), Joe Venuti, Les Paul, Red Nichols, Ziggy Elman, Dinah Shore (a parody on the occasion of Bing’s 20th anniversary on radio has a few sadly prophetic references to his son Gary-“they say he’s cuttin’ you down”) and the Mills Brothers.

This is pop jazz, no mistake, even shtick-jazz, but they are all in peak form. Ella never sounded more luscious (she and Bing, reluctant blues singers, take complete control of “Memphis Blues”), and Louis steals “Gone’ Fishin'” (so successful on the air that Decca released the performance as a record), turns “You’re Just in Love” into premature hip-hop and sneaks a blazing trumpet solo into “My Honey’s Lovin’ Arms.”

A word of caution to those who have the earlier Bing/Pops and Bing/Ella discs: This Bing-centric set doesn’t replace them, as solo features are not included. There are enough highs here without them: Paradise regained.