Sunday, January 16, 2011

Paradise, Once Lost, Returns

Unlike Frank Sinatra, who elevated the long-playing record album to a near art form after reinventing himself in the early 1950s (with a big assist from Nelson Riddle), the crux of Bing Crosby’s career came in the pre-LP era of the 78 rpm single. In those days a record album consisted of four, five or six of these singles packaged together in a physical album, with record sleeves bound between cardboard covers like pages in a book, and they were usually compilations of previously released material. Partly because of this, Bing’s name rarely comes up when the phrase “classic album” (read: 33 & 1/3 rpm long-playing record) is bandied about, and he has therefore been largely forgotten by at least the last couple of generations of music buyers—unlike the crop of singers who came after and were influenced by him: Sinatra, Dean Martin, Tony Bennett, Sammy Davis Jr., et al., who made the LP format (and nightclubs) their principality.

Bing did in fact record quite a few memorable albums in his later years, but by that time, after his 20-year contract with Decca had run out, he had gone freelance, farming out his talents to a variety of labels starting in the late ‘50s. In the years since his death the contents of those albums were more or less scattered to the winds, showing up on various compilations here and there, if at all.

As they disappeared, so did the legacy of the most popular entertainer of the first half of the 20th century. Did you know that Bing Crosby began his career as a jazz singer and that he popularized the use of the then-new electronic microphone? That he had more #1 singles than any other recording artist, including Elvis Presley, the Beatles and Michael Jackson? That he was among the top ten movie box office attractions for a span of nearly 20 years? That his radio shows (radio being the TV of the 1930s, ‘40s and early ‘50s) ranked in the top 20 for nearly 25 years?

The recently formed Bing Crosby Archives, in conjunction with Collector’s Choice and under the auspices of the Crosby family, is in the process of reversing the unfortunate series of events that has obscured Bing’s achievements. In the past year they’ve released a slew of his albums to CD, along with several dozen pristine radio recordings that hadn’t been heard since the 1950s, plus several TV specials not seen since their original decades-ago air dates. Included in this embarrassment of riches for Crosby aficionados are a couple of early ‘60s treasures, El Señor Bing and Return to Paradise Islands.

Truth be told, though I've been a Crosby fan for just about two decades now, I'd never found El Señor Bing quite enticing enough to pull off of the old record shelf with any level of regularity, and not just because putting a bulky vinyl record on a turntable became an increasingly inconvenient task in a world of first CD, then MP3, technology. But after listening to this newly re-mastered Collector's Choice release a couple of times, it has jumped several notches on the Bing-O-meter.

The longstanding problem with the LP release, which I couldn't quite pinpoint until now, had always been with the original stereo mix. Until the late 1960s, long-playing records were mixed first and foremost for their monophonic releases; their stereophonic counterparts were usually secondary on a producer's list of priorities, and far less studio time was spent on them. Stereo records were the domain of that minority of the record buying public who owned “hi-fi” systems. Unfortunately, the stereo mix of El Señor Bing apparently suffered a bit more than most for that reason. Billy May's orchestral backing, relegated to one of the two channels (symptomatic of early stereo mixes: vocals on one side, instruments on the other—just listen to the first couple of Beatles albums released in the U.K. by Parlaphone), always sounded uncharacteristically tinny and distant, as though it were coming from a radio in the back of the room while Bing sang along. As a result, the vocals simply overwhelmed the accompaniment.

Freshly remastered (though not remixed), this first-time CD release naturally sounds better than its vinyl predecessor, but the real revelation is the bonus mono mix of the album. Here the full, robust Billy May sound comes through loud and clear, in perfect balance with Bing's voice, and the songs resonate much more appealingly to these ears than the stereo versions. Curiously, these mono cuts were mixed without the backing vocals that are on the stereo tracks, as well as other subtle variations. According to the liner notes, they were probably used as a kind of working model of the LP-in-progress. They’re available here for the first time in any format. A handful of latin-flavored 1950s radio recordings in which Bing is accompanied by Buddy Cole and His Trio provides a further bonus, bringing the track total to a generous 26.

When El Señor Bing came out in 1960, "sing-along" records were all the rage among the over 40 crowd, thanks in equal parts to famed (or infamous, depending on your point of view) producer-conductor Mitch Miller's success in this niche and to the older musical establishment's willingness to try anything it could to maintain a foothold in a recording industry that was becoming increasingly dominated by the youth market. Bing duly recorded a series of sing-along LPs during the late Ike and early Camelot years. El Señor Bing fits neatly into that format; each track is sort of a mini-medley, with a duo of Spanish and/or South-of-the-border flavored tunes. Crosby performs them in his usual masterful, mellifluous manner, sparked by May's high-octane orchestration. Bing, who was fluent in Spanish, had also recently built a vacation home in Baja, Mexico for his family, so this project was likely near to his heart.

It’s not quite in the category of such truly great Crosby LPs as Songs I Wish I Had Sung (the First Time Around) (1956), Bing With a Beat (1957) or Fancy Meeting You Here (1958, with Rosemary Clooney), but it’s a very worthwhile and enjoyable collection nonetheless.

There's really nothing I can think of to which Return to Paradise Islands can be compared. It defies any type of in-a-nutshell description, and it evokes no other album that comes immediately to mind. Looking at the undistinguished cover, one could easily dismiss it as a musical travelogue, or perhaps a paean to the then-newly admitted 50th state, or maybe just another collection of Hawaiian tunes. But this tranquil and mesmerizing Bing Crosby-Nelson Riddle collaboration transcends the genre of "Hawaiian" (a musical province Crosby had been no stranger to since virtually creating it in the 1930s), or any other genre for that matter.

Originally issued on Sinatra's Reprise label in 1963 but never released to CD until now, nearly 50 years of dormancy had brought about the unjust interment of Paradise Islands into the nether world of forgotten albums. Despite its A-list pedigree, the original vinyl release suffered audibly from the accompaniment engulfing Bing's vocals—the exact opposite of El Señor Bing’s issues, and a burr under the saddle for many Crosby fans. This has been remedied in a meticulous remastering and remixing job by producer Robert Bader, resulting in a near-perfect listening experience.

Augmenting the original LP material are a Paradise session outtake and five previously unreleased Hawaiian-themed tracks recorded by Bing in 1961 for his radio program.

Hopefully this spate of recent Bing Crosby Archives releases is just the tip of the iceberg. Word has it there’s a cellar full of well preserved audio- and videotape, and celluloid waiting to be tapped. We’ll all be the richer for the continued re-emergence of this vast and important body of work.

© Jon Oye, 2011

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