In the history of recorded music, three male pop singers stand above all others: Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley. Like Presley, but unlike Sinatra, Crosby was at his best during the early years of his career--when he was an innovative pop and jazz vocalist.
However, until now that period has not been chronicled on compact disc--which means that the new “The Crooner: The Columbia Years 1928-1934,” should be a blessing for fans, especially since it’s a three-CD set (also available in three-cassette and four-LP versions) containing 65 recordings.
Instead, it’s a big disappointment.
Incredibly, “The Crooner” includes none of the tracks from the three previously released, vinyl-only Columbia albums that concentrated on the best Crosby performances from the period: the two superb, double-disc collections “The Bing Crosby Story, Volume I: The Early Jazz Years” and “The Bing Crosby Story, Volume II: The Hollywood Years,” and “Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra: Featuring Bing Crosby.” (RCA also has put out several albums from this period, none yet on CD.)
“The Crooner” does offer alternate-take recordings of a few of the songs contained on those LPs. However, it mainly consists of tracks from the three worst albums Columbia ever put out chronicling this portion of Bing’s career.
Those were the three volumes called “A Bing Crosby Collection,” released in the late ‘70s as a vault-clearing follow-up to the previously released anthologies--and admittedly dealing with lesser material (plus a few gems like the powerfully grim “I’ve Got to Pass Your House” and the majestic 1933 version of “Home on the Range”).
Collector Michael Brooks, who put together and annotated the new collection and the three sub-par LPs (but not the earlier ones) admitted in the liner notes to one of the LPs that it “might be subtitled ‘The Bottom of the Barrel.’ ” Also in those liner notes, Brooks ridiculed many of the songs, and the ridicule usually fit: Crosby often was handed fourth-rate material that a producer thought might appeal to the lowest-denominator taste of the record-buying public.
For every forget-me-not from the time Bing had to sing a forget-me-please like “Little Dutch Mill” and “We’re a Couple of Soldiers.” Unfortunately, Brooks makes exactly this mediocre material the focus of the first Columbia early-Crosby CD release. Almost every song from these three “bottom-of-the-barrel” LPs is included on the new collection.
Of course, CD/Crosby fans could simply skip purchasing the set and wait for a better one--if it weren’t for the fact that “The Crooner” also contains several top-grade performances that have only been available on English collections and small U.S. labels like Biograph, Sunbeam and Jazum: the Boswell Sisters-Don Redman collaboration “Lawd, You Made the Night Too Long,” the Mills Brothers collaboration “Shine,” and above all--"Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?,” “Street of Dreams” (oddly titled “On a Street of Dreams” here) and “Blue Prelude,” three Depression songs that showcase Crosby’s phrasing at its most moving, plus “Some of These Days,” a stirring example of Bing’s jazz touch.
Crosby aficionados too will want the collection for the previously unreleased alternate takes of “Learn to Croon,” “I’ve Got the World on a String” and others, though they’re sometimes inferior to the better-known takes.
On the other hand, they may find it hard to believe that Brooks and producer Joe McEwen could not include one single Rhythm Boys (the wonderful group Crosby sang in during the Whiteman period) cut, or at least three or four tracks from the “Hollywood” album, or the “Jazz Years” LP. or. . . .
(Reached by phone in his New York office, McEwen said Brooks “came to me with the idea of doing it this way” and he went along with the plan “because Michael’s the Crosby expert.” McEwen confirmed that Brooks could have included tracks from the better collections if he had wanted to. “But it may turn out for the best” that he didn’t, said McEwen, because the two “Story” LPs are “self-contained” and, since they were each two-disc vinyl sets, might make excellent-value one-CD releases. McEwen felt chances were good that those LPs will get their digital remastering “before too long.” The current CD set “may seem like we’re doing things backwards,” but the producer indicated that Columbia will make a real effort to get all of the company’s first-class early-Bing recordings on CD.)
“The Crooner” comes with extensive liner notes by Brooks. However, most of them are simply repeated from the “Collection” series--which results in at least one misstatement: his assertion that “Here Is My Heart” appears “on a Crosby collection for the first time.” To that embarrassment Brooks adds new ones: “Hardly any jazz was recorded in 1932 . . . " he begins one blurb (and he’s talking about all recording, not just Crosby’s!).
“The Crooner” has other annoyances, too--an unnecessarily abrupt switch in sound on “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime” (due to the use of two 78s), the listing of “Paradise” as being previously unreleased, though this version was on “The Early Jazz Years” volume.
But the main problem is the emphasis on inferior early Crosby when so much superior early Crosby has not yet reached CD. Many listeners will be hearing the young Bing for the first time here and will get the impression that he sang primarily dreck--especially since the liner notes give the impression that the collection is representational.
“One really should draw a merciful veil over this number,” Brooks writes in one of his repeated notes (of “What Do I Care, It’s Home”). Too bad he didn’t take his own advice.