DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
Bing Crosby was the biggest thing in pop singing in the 1930's, a star on radio and in the movies. He stayed on top in the '40s, when Frank Sinatra began giving him competition. Bing Crosby kept recording until just before his death in 1977. Our jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has listened to a new series of archival Crosby recordings, and he likes some of them a lot.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I FEEL A SONG COMIN' ON")
BING CROSBY: (Singing) I feel a song comin' on. It's a melody full of the laughter of children out after the rain. You'll hear a tuneful story ringing through you, love and glory, hallelujah. And now that my troubles are gone, let those heavenly drums go on drumming, because I feel a song comin' on. You'll hear a tune...
KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Bing Crosby, recorded for his CBS radio show in 1956. It's from the collection, "Bing Sings the Great American Songbook." Crosby often sounded funnier and more at ease on radio than on records, not hard to hear why with some of the settings record producers put him in.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GEORGIA IS ON MY MIND")
CROSBY: (Singing) Georgia, Georgia, the whole day through, just an old sweet song keeps Georgia on my mind. Georgia...
WHITEHEAD: Bing Crosby, 1975, from his CD, "A Southern Memoir." These albums come from a batch of Crosby reissues and archival releases from Bing's own vaults. They've been dribbling out a while, but the series is getting a higher profile re-launch. The music is all over the map: Bing goes Latin, Bing goes Hawaiian, Bing sings special lyrics to amuse his horseracing 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.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T LET A GOOD THING GET AWAY")
CROSBY: (Singing) Have fun, my young go-getter, but hon, till you do better, don't let a good thing get away. Go hop aboard your flight of fancy. You can afford a chase that's chancy, till you face the piper, and it's pay day.
WHITEHEAD: That was not a good fit for Bing, but the best stuff in the Crosby 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 Bing's buttermilk timbre and cool persona.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU BELONG TO ME")
CROSBY: (Singing) Button up your overcoats when the wind is free, take good care of yourself. You belong to me. Eat an apple every day, get to bed by three. I want you to take care good care of yourself, honey. You belong to me .Be careful crossing the street...
WHITEHEAD: The CDs "Bing sings The Great American Songbook" and "Bing on Broadway" are the creme de la creme, sparked by a briskly efficient radio rhythm section and made without corporate input. For their marathon recording sessions, 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.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CRAZY RHYTHM")
CROSBY: (Singing) Crazy rhythm, here's the doorway. I'll go my way, you go your way. Crazy rhythm, from now on, we're through. Here is where we have a showdown. I'm too high-hat, you're too lowdown. Crazy rhythm, here's goodbye to you. They say that when a highbrow meets a lowbrow walking along Broadway, soon the highbrow, he has no brow. Ain't it a shame? And you're to blame. What's the use of prohibition? You produce the same condition. Crazy rhythm, I've gone crazy, too.
WHITEHEAD: The Mosaic label put out a big box of these 1950's Crosby sides three years ago. I hope these single-disk songbooks find good homes. The breezy settings are a perfect fit for Bing, who's caught at the perfect time. Excellent recording puts you right in the room. Past 50, Crosby was still in fine voice. He 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.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAKING A CHANCE ON LOVE")
CROSBY: (Singing) Here I slide again, about to take that ride again, all starry-eyed again, taking a chance on love. I thought the cards were a frame-up, and I never would try. But now I've taken the game up, and the ace of hearts is high. Things are mending now. I see a rainbow blending now. We'll have our happy ending now, taking a chance on love.
WHITEHEAD: 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.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S ONLY A PAPER MOON")
CROSBY: (Singing) Say it's only a paper moon, sailing over a cardboard sea, but it wouldn't be make believe if you believe in me. Yes, it's only a canvas sky hanging over a muslin tree, but it wouldn't be make believe if you believed in me. Without your love...
DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure, Downbeat and eMusic, and is the author of "Why Jazz?" You can download podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org. Follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair, and on Tumbler at nprfreshair.tumbler.com.