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A batch of reissues and archival releases from Bing Crosby's own vaults is getting a high-profile relaunch. Above, Crosby circa 1956. (Courtesy of Universal Music)

Bing Crosby: From The Vaults, Surprising Breadth

May 13, 2013 (Fresh Air)

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Bing Crosby was the biggest thing in pop singing in the 1930s, a star on radio and in the movies. He remained a top star in the '40s, when Frank Sinatra began giving him competition.

Crosby often sounded funnier, and more at ease, on radio than on records. It's not hard to hear why, with some of the settings record producers put him in — like a '70s funk version of "Georgia on My Mind," heard on the Crosby CD A Southern Memoir. That album comes from a batch of reissues and archival releases from Crosby's own vaults. They've been dribbling out for a while, but the series is getting a higher-profile relaunch. The music is all over the map: Bing goes Latin. Bing goes Hawaiian. Bing sings special lyrics to amuse his horse-racing and fishing buddies.

The sampler So Rare: Treasures From the Crosby Archive sets the tone, with its highs and lows from early and late. Rarities include an unreleased '60s single for Frank Sinatra's label where the producer squeezed Crosby into a Sinatra suit, "Don't Let a Good Thing Get Away." That wasn't a good fit for Crosby, but the best stuff in this series reminds us why we should care. Early on, he learned to swing a tune from Louis Armstrong. But the effect was way different, funneled through Crosby's buttermilk timbre and cool persona.

The CDs Bing Sings the Great American Songbook and Bing on Broadway are the crème de la crème, sparked by a briskly efficient radio rhythm section and made without corporate input. For their marathon recording sessions of tunes to be played on Crosby's 1950s CBS radio show, pianist Buddy Cole's quartet worked up quick and quirky arrangements of pop evergreens, informed by Nat Cole's tight piano-guitar combo and some recent Fred Astaire jazz records.

The Mosaic label put out a big box of these 1950s Crosby sides three years ago, but these single-disc songbooks deserve good homes. The breezy settings are a perfect fit for Crosby, who's caught at the perfect time; excellent recording puts you right in the room. Past 50, Crosby was still in fine voice, and had since purged his style of mannerisms that made him easy to poke fun at. The musicians thought like radio actors, taking on a variety of roles in short order. Buddy Cole kept piano, celeste and organ within reach, sometimes playing two at a time.

Bing Crosby's influence on modern singing is so huge, we barely notice it anymore. It spread out through deadpan crooners like Perry Como, folksy colloquialists like Johnny Mercer and warm, sexy baritones like Billy Eckstine. Later singers who effectively undersell a song are indebted, too, like Nick Drake and Leonard Cohen. Jazz singing could use a fresh dose of Crosby's influence, after so many swaggering baby Sinatras. Bring on the baby Bings.

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