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A Bing Bonanza

Bing Crosby's legacy cemented by group of reissues

So Rare: Treasures from the Bing Crosby Archive

Scan the vocal section of any sizeable record store (if, that is, you can actually locate a bricks-and-mortar record store) and you’ll likely conclude that Bing Crosby has fared less well than, say, Sinatra or Fitzgerald or Vaughan in terms of CD releases. Fact is, a plethora of Crosby discs exists, but the vast majority are compilations constructed around his major hit-making years during the 1930s and 1940s.

Harder to find is Crosby material from the 1950s onward, for a couple of logical reasons. His recorded output slowed during this period (remember that Crosby was about a half-generation older than singers, like Sinatra and Fitzgerald, who are often considered his peers, and hit his popularity peak earlier). Also, he ended his longtime association with Decca during the ’50s and, clever businessman that he was, maintained control of much of his subsequent work, essentially leasing his services to a wide variety of labels both major and minor, understandably resulting in spotty rereleases. Yes, two of Crosby’s finest mid-’50s efforts, Bing Sings Whilst Bregman Swings with Buddy Bregman from 1956 and the following year’s exceptional Bing With A Beat have surfaced on CD, as has Fancy Meeting You Here, his delightful, round-the-world romp with pals Rosemary Clooney and Billy May from 1959. Beyond that sturdy trio, reissues have been haphazard at best.

Recently, though, a bounty of Bing’s post-1950 work has surfaced. The sweetest vein of this mother lode comes from Mosaic Records, the venerable breeder of beautifully appointed box sets that make completists’ hearts beat a little faster. Mosaic’s seven-disc collection of The Bing Crosby CBS Radio Recordings 1954-56 includes 160 tracks laid down with keyboardist Buddy Cole and his then trio (guitarist Vince Terri, bassist Don Whitaker and drummer Nick Fatool). Recorded over several marathon sessions, during which Crosby would deliver upwards of 20 tracks in a matter of hours (many in a single take), all were created for inclusion in his 15-minute CBS radio show that ran weeknights at 9:15pm from ’54 through ’56. That’s roughly the equivalent of 13 albums. The material is by and large top-drawer, mixing Tin Pan Alley classics with popular hits of the day. But the set’s greatest appeal is how it captures Crosby at arguably the height of his vocal appeal. After nearly a quarter-century of near-constant use, his voice is in tremendously good shape. But the real charm resounds from Crosby’s progression (begun in the mid-’40s) from crooner to vocal conversationalist, his easy, laidback style suggesting assured sophistication blended with delectable dollops of cornpone. Crosby dips into the Doris Day, Dean Martin, Nat “King” Cole and Clooney songbooks, and borrows liberally from the Sinatra canon, making “Love and Marriage,” “The Tender Trap,” “Isle of Capri” and “You’re Sensational” uniquely his own. And he proves particularly adept at elevating so-so pop material, adding unexpected depth and beauty to the likes of Joni James’ fluffy “How Important Can It Be,” Les Baxter’s sparkly “Wake the Town and Tell the People” and Jaye P. Morgan’s overblown “Danger! Heartbreak Ahead.”

Of the 160 selections, only a handful has appeared previously on LP or CD. In 1956, at the conclusion of Crosby’s association with Decca, the label gathered a dozen of the CBS tracks under the title Some Fine Old Chestnuts. Another dozen followed the year after, this time with the opposing title New Tricks (complete with a fedora-sporting, pipe-smoking Basset hound on the cover). A twofer disc, containing both albums plus five bonus tracks from later ’50s sessions, was released in 1999, but is now out of print. A few additional tracks were released in the UK in the 1960s. But more than 80 percent of the CBS tracks are available for the first time on the Mosaic set.

Not to be outdone, Collector’s Choice has unearthed 121 late-career Crosby tracks (some overlapping the Mosaic material), including a profusion of rare, previously unreleased and new to CD material. The cornerstone of the six releases, the two-disc So Rare: Treasures from the Crosby Archive, actually spans Crosby’s entire career, extending from 1931 radio renditions of “Just One More Chance” and “I’m Through With Love” and an assortment of Kraft Music Hall performances from the early 1940s, to private recordings of “Where the Turf Meets the Surf” (crafted as the theme song for San Diego’s Del Mar Turf Club, of which Crosby was part owner) and “You’re the Gem State Wonder, Idaho” (set to the tune of “Buckle Down, Winsocki,” with Crosby-penned lyrics written for his friend, University of Idaho president Jesse E. Buchanan), an obscure pair of Columbia recordings about Bing’s favourite sport, golf, from 1957 and a sentimental treatment of “That’s What Life Is All About” captured in 1976 during one of Crosby’s final concerts, with Nelson Riddle at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Six of the 36 tracks are culled from the Buddy Cole CBS sessions. The title track, “So Rare,” also features Cole and his trio, but comes from a 1957 session for the Ford Road Show.

If you shell out for the Mosaic set, you can skip Bing on Broadway. All but two of the 19 tracks are from the Cole/CBS sessions. The exceptions, both excellent, are 1954 recordings of “It’s Only a Paper Moon” and “A Cockeyed Optimist” with John Scott Trotter and his Orchestra for The Bing Crosby Show for General Electric.

Prior to the Brazilian craze that swept popular music in the early 1960s, Mexican- and Latin American-themed albums were briefly the rage. Among the mini-genre’s best were Mel Tormé Olé Tormé with Billy May and Rosemary Clooney’s saucy A Touch of Tabasco with Cuban bandleader Perez Prado, both from 1959. The following year, Crosby released the equally fine El Señor Bing, also with May. Available for the first time on CD, the Collector’s Choice disc includes both the mono and stereo mixes of the album, plus six Spanish-themed tracks from the CBS/Cole recordings. Intriguingly, Crosby and May constructed the entire album of paired songs, ranging from a straightforward blending of “Ramona” and “Amapola” to an unusual but effective amalgamation of “Down Argentine Way” and “What a Difference a Day Made.”

Though considerably less popular than the Spanish and Brazilian waves that lapped the shores of American music, there was also a passing infatuation with Hawaiian songs. Crosby was one of the few mainstream artists to devote an entire album to tunes from the 50th state, releasing Return to Paradise Islands on Sinatra’s Reprise label in 1963. Actually, Crosby was no stranger to Hawaiian material. At the very beginning of his career he earned a minor hit with “Song of the Islands” and scored a massive success with “Sweet Leilani” after performing it in 1937’s Waikiki Wedding. (“Sweet Leilani” would also have the dubious distinction of besting the Gershwins’ “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” for Best Song at the 1938 Oscar ceremony). The 1963 sessions, under the deft direction of Nelson Riddle, are surprisingly soft and lovely. The hokum is reserved for the five bonus tracks, recorded in 1961 (yet again with Buddy Cole and his Trio) for radio’s The Crosby-Clooney Show, including “The Cockeyed Mayor of Kaunakakai” and “Yaaka Hula Hickey Dula.”

Among the more regrettable of America’s musical infatuations was its late ’50s/early ’60s affection for sing-along sessions, fueled primarily by Mitch Miller’s remarkably popular Sing Along with Mitch TV show and recordings. Crosby, who introduced many of the old-time hits at the core of the sing-along songbook, jumped aboard the bandwagon in a big way. As James Ritz explains in his insightful liner notes, in 1960 Crosby began a series of albums known as the “Join Bing and Sing” collection. Three LPs – Join Bing and Sing Along 33 Great Songs, Join Bing and Sing 101 Gang Songs and On the Happy Side – were recorded for Crosby’s own Project Records and, perplexingly, were simultaneously leased to both RCA and Warner Brothers Records. A fourth album, On the Sentimental Side was also recorded but was released by neither label and has remained unissued until now. Sweeter and more syrupy that a banana split, the dozen tracks are sure to have only limited appeal to contemporary listeners. Again selections from the Buddy Cole/CBS sessions are added as bonus tracks. An additional track, a fresh take on “Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral,” from the Cole-led 1960 recordings for The Crosby-Clooney Show is also included.

Chronologically last, though certainly not least, is Seasons, the CD debut of Crosby’s career-concluding album, released in 1977. Sounding remarkably robust at age 73, Crosby covers a wide spectrum of seasons-themed material, ranging from lively renditions of “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over” and “In the Good Old Summertime” to tender readings of “Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year” and “Yesterday When I Was Young.” The dozen Seasons tracks are augmented with 13 bonus selections. Eight are from his final recording session, conducted at the BBC just three days prior to his death on October 14, 1977. The remaining five were also recorded in London, on September 14, and feature Crosby’s stirring, spoken-word recitations of popular poems, including Rudyard Kipling’s “If” and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Singers.”

In addition to the six Crosby CD releases, Collector’s Choice has also compiled an excellent, two-DVD collection of der Bingle’s TV specials. Included are: The Bing Crosby Show for General Electric from January 1954, with Jack Benny; The Bing Crosby Show for Oldsmobile from September 1959, featuring all-star support from Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee; The Bing Crosby Show from May 1962, with Bob Hope, Edie Adams and Gary Crosby; and, from April 1970, Bing Crosby-Cool It, with Flip Wilson and Bernadette Peters. The DVD set is billed as The Television Specials: Volume 1, which enticingly suggests there will be more volumes to follow.

In recent years, Collector’s Choice has served as an invaluable source for vocal rereleases, providing fans with dozens of otherwise impossible-to-find CD reissues of albums by Bobby Darin, Peggy Lee, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Johnny Mathis and others. Here’s hoping that they continue to dig into the Crosby vault and extract such rare delights as his 1953 collection of Parisian ditties, Le Bing, 1956’s Songs I Wish I’d Sung the First Time Around and Holiday In Europe from 1961.

If you’d like to share your comments about Bing Crosby or have suggestions for future installments of Hearing Voices, you can reach me at [email protected]

Originally Published