Every Christmas that I can remember has been made better by Bing Crosby. Many people can bear witness to the fact that his voice – often called “The Voice of Christmas” – is an integral part of the season. Indeed, Crosby has become probably the most indispensable part of the secular celebrations that take place at Christmas and many cherish his contributions to Yuletide. Often after the holidays – and Elvis Week – are over I will look around and see only a bleak winter stretching out ahead of me. At this time, I will often consider the Christmas that has just been. I will remember the warmth and comfort I got from various films and music and will seek to recreate these feelings. Often I will reflect on the joy I got from Bing’s Christmas music during the season and I will look again to him to sustain me through the dark, cold nights. Doing this in the past, I have been confronted with an uncomfortable thought and a question I’m scared to answer. How much of what I love about Harry Lillis Crosby stems from his recorded output?
I understand, however, that the sum of Bing Crosby – all of the things that he means – is much bigger and better than any of his individual achievements in his various arenas of expertise. Invariably, no matter what he is doing or where he is doing it – and he excelled at all things; radio, records, television, feature films – he was always Bing Crosby, which really makes what he is doing secondary to who he is. His personality exudes charm, grace, style and a nonchalance that makes him infinitely enjoyable and accessible. And despite always looking like an old man and never dressing in the hippest or latest styles, he was cool – he was cool partly because he was not trying to be. And, though he couldn’t have cared less and seemed to put in no effort at all, he did everything well and you are always compelled to pay attention to him. Only could the intangible Crosby aura make up for some of the otherwise difficult to explain things we could discuss about his career.
I love many of his films. But was he dashing and handsome? Or did he look awfully old kissing Rosie or Grace Kelly? Did he stretch out and try his hand at a crime drama or play a cop? No, he didn’t, though he played darker roles in The Country Girl and Man on Fire. There are also bones of contention throughout his recording career despite the fact that his initial records did much to alter popular culture.
I do love his music. I have a CD from Charly Records in England that contains Number One songs from the late-1930’s to the mid-1940’s. This is the golden era for Crosby, the recording artist and this disc is what we in this house call “standard issue”; songs like “Too Marvellous for Words”, “I’ve Got a Pocketful of Dreams”, “Out of Nowhere” and “Pennies from Heaven”, the song that was playing when my oldest son was born. But when I have in the past searched for other Crosby to add to my collection, I have struggled with knowing what to buy and, sadly, with finding records I really like. Anything pre-late-’30’s qualifies as historic and is worth hearing and owning. But at the midway point of the 20th century, it seems he became more an entertainment conglomerate excelling in any and all areas and he became less a recording artist that demanded to be heard, collected and bought. Years ago I bought Bing’s album with Rosemary Clooney, Fancy Meeting You Here (1958). Sadly, one day we were listening and I said to my wife “I wish I liked this album more”. I thought maybe Bing swung with bandleader Buddy Bregman on their record Bing Sings Whilst Bregman Swings (1956) and while the record has its charm it’s lacking something, some zest.
I soon realized that of all the many things that Bing Crosby was he was not an “album artist”. Digging into his discography, I found it is…odd. Through the Fifties and Sixties, Bing released scores of albums but the releases from these years seem haphazard, careless and excessive in number. He recorded soundtracks alone and with various other artists, he released children’s records some spoken word, Christmas records and sing-along records and all of these were released on many different labels. Also what he did was finance recording sessions himself and then lease the results to labels around the world making his recorded output more like a business venture. Sound fiscal events. One may have to accept that maybe going into the studio to record a program of songs with a like-minded arranger was not all that important to Bing Crosby. I may have made the mistake of thinking that everyone made records the way Sinatra did but not even Dean, Sammy or Nat Cole really approached it like Francis did. So, what happened to all the Crosby records sold in the Fifties and Sixties? I’ve sure never seen them in the wild at thrift stores or garage sales. What I do come across regularly though are Crosby’s releases from the 1970’s.
I snatched these records up whenever I found them. Once I got them home and studied them, I was intrigued. When I listened to them, I was pleasantly delighted and also curious. Then I went ahead and ordered online The Complete United Artists Sessions (1997) 3-CD set and a whole new vista opened up for me. Compelling and idiosyncratic. Gentle, pleasant and enigmatic.
Jimmy Bowen (b. 1937) started as a rockabilly singer but soon transitioned to production. In 1968 he decided to form his own label, Amos Records. The first LP released on Amos was Bing’s Hey Jude/Hey Bing!, Crosby’s ridiculously titled foray into the popular music of the time. The pairing of Crosby and “Hey Jude” is often singled out for ridicule but, let’s face it, every singer of the time was releasing “…Sings Hits of the Day” albums. So, the legendary Bing Crosby even released a record on the little-known Amos Records label but this should not be surprising as I’ve already suggested that, since leaving Decca – where Bing had recorded since forever – Crosby was something of an itinerant troubadour, willing to sing for anybody, even for himself. In the late 1960’s Crosby even put out records released on budget label Pickwick and by the mail-order firm Longines Symphonette. Bing Crosby. Budget label. Mail-order firm. What the heck?
He then lighted on Daybreak Records, an imprint of RCA where Frank Sinatra, Jr. was also plying his trade. Bing released one last great Christmas record on Daybreak, A Time to Be Jolly, and then teamed with Count Basie for Bing ‘n Basie. He then took a couple of years off due to ill health before, in 1975, he released two records recorded “at his own expense”, again to be leased to a British company for release primarily in the UK. Then Bing met Englishman Ken Barnes.
After recovering from recent surgery, Bing wanted to get back into the recording studio. When Barnes heard this he flew to Bing’s home in toney Hillsborough to discuss working together. A deal was made with United Artists and Bing flew to London to begin work. Once in the studio, the recording engineer showed Bing the booth in which he would sing. No way am I singing to a pane of glass, said Bing, who wanted to sing out with the orchestra. The problem of the band’s playing leaking into Bing’s mic was solved and they got to work.
Here’s one of the things that I find interesting about these final recordings of Bing Crosby’s. A certain repertoire had to be conjured as Bing was a 70-year-old man and it would’ve come off at the very least as disingenuous to sing about falling in love or any other youthful life pursuits. Songs had to be found whose lyrics contained a certain experience or a retrospective outlook on life. The bulk of the songs would have to be about a certain sharing of wisdom that would sound legit coming from Crosby in the 1970’s.
This was successfully rolled out in the first LP to be released from these sessions, That’s What Life is All About, the very title of which suggests knowledge gained through the years. The title track was co-written by Peter Dacre, a journalist for the Sunday Express and the first Englishman to interview Elvis Presley, and Les Reed. Reed had written many hits for Tom Jones and Englebert Humperdinck. Later, Barnes and Bing added new words. “No Time at All” is a wonderful song written by Stephen Schwartz for the 1972 musical Pippin. The lyrics here again offer sage advice from one who has been through life’s ups and downs; “When you are as old as I, my dear, and I hope that you never are / You will woefully wonder why, my dear, through your cataracts and catarrh / You could squander away or sequester a drop of a precious year / For when your best days are yester the rest’er twice as dear…Oh, it’s time to start livin’ / Time to take a little from this world we’re given / Time to take time, cause spring will turn to fall / In just no time at all”. Delightful.
The title of “I Like to Dance the Way They Used to Dance” speaks for itself in terms of looking back. It was written for a 1975 TV movie by composer Billy Goldenberg, a player in Elvis World who also scored Silent Night, Lonely Night, one of SoulRide‘s film picks of 2020. More of the same themes are heard in “The Good Old Times”, written for Bing by Barnes and the orchestrator for theses sessions, Pete Moore.
Ken Barnes had been working at the same time with Fred Astaire and everyone was able to coordinate their schedules to allow Bing and Fred to reunite and record A Couple of Song and Dance Men, a nice album featuring duets and each man singing solo a song associated with the other. Bing essays “Change Partners” in a wonderful arrangement by Moore that hearkens back to Claus Ogerman’s chart for the song that Francis employed on his perfect album with Jobim. The other group effort from this period took the form of an album of live performances by Bing at the London Palladium. Crosby was joined for these shows by his wife and his children and by Rosemary Clooney.
At My Time of Life arrived in stores in the spring of 1976. Once again, the title track represents a perfect lyric for a septuagenarian to sing. “Puffin’ my pipe and watching the smoke rings fly…Contented, I / That’s the word / Contented, as you can see / And at my time of life / That’s good enough for me”. Bing also sashays through “Heat Wave” which Moore gives a sprightly, vigorous arrangement.
The next LP came later in ’76 and was the last album of new material released in Bing’s lifetime. The appropriately titled Beautiful Memories kicked off with the title track co-written by Englishman Roger Cook (“I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing”). “What I Did for Love” is a grand anthem from A Chorus Line that is given a great treatment here. It’s a wonderful performance though it may be hard to wrap your head around Bing Crosby being mushy and romantic and going to the ends of the earth for love. The more fitting theme of the song, though, is the idea that health and life itself may be transient but one can go forward without regrets and with optimism doing what one loves for the inherent rewards.
Musician and composer Randy Edelman has been married to Jackie DeShannon since 1976. He wrote a fascinating song called “The Woman on Your Arm” that Bing included on Beautiful Memories. It’s a song, frankly, few would attempt to sing. It is a bildungsroman; a story of a life starting in the early years of the 20th century. It’s a tale that most of us husbands can understand; that we men are sustained and often redeemed by good women. The song begins in 1919 and the man works hard at his job but makes little money; this doesn’t matter, though because of the woman on his arm. The years go by and the man’s career improves. His boss ponders this man’s wife and thinks that if a woman of this quality sees something in this guy, there must be something there. Life continues to improve and its hectic nature is made easier by the woman on his arm. Then as the couple dodders off into old age, they see their children leave and enjoy independence, needing them less. Life has changed and the final chapter nears. There is a contented confirmation though that it has all been worth it and that this later phase of life will be as pleasing as all the rest. Why? “‘Cause she’s still there beside you, the woman on your arm”. It’s really quite something and Crosby handles it well.
On October 29, 1976 in Los Angeles, Bing added his vocals to previously recorded backing tracks. He had intended to be present at recording sessions in London in September but business prevented his appearance and this was the only time he did not record with the orchestra for UA. That day, Bing recorded a German drinking song, “Come Share the Wine”, that had been given English lyrics by Oscar-winning lyricist Don Black, he of “Born Free” and a clutch of James Bond theme songs.
Black makes “Come Share the Wine” something of a Twilight Zone experience for the singer. Walking alone through cold, dark streets, Bing sees through the mist a tavern. He is drawn to its warm glow and someone from inside bids him enter which he does, as if passing through a portal. Those inside are singing songs he sang when he was young and he is transported back in time. Enraptured, he joins in singing and the songs conjure memories. He feels the warmth of brotherhood, from the other patrons, yes, but also from the songs and from singing; what he has spent his life doing. It is a mystical experience with his past and here again Crosby is looking back. “Come Share the Wine” was slated for single release but the record company deemed it too similar to “Those Were the Days” and the track lay unfinished until after Crosby’s death1.
Bing Crosby recorded these songs and others, some from the Great American Songbook and some “hits of the day”, for Ken Barnes and United Artists and they constitute the final chapter of an exemplary recording career. I talked earlier about a certain oddity in Bing’s later recorded work but thankfully we have these sessions that returned Bing to the settings he was best suited to. We have Ken Barnes to thank for rectifying a slide of sorts that occurred where Bing’s records of the 1960’s and ’70’s are concerned. Barnes himself – helping me somewhat to understand what it was I found “odd” – said that while Bing never sang badly, the accompaniments were sometimes “lacklustre”. Barnes and Pete Moore provided appropriate and perfectly unobtrusive orchestrations that allowed Bing to shine and gave his final works merit.
It took me awhile to really appreciate these settings, though. I’m much more used to the swingin’ sounds of the early 1960’s or maybe Sinatra and Costa later adding soft rock elements. But here we are in the late 1970’s and while Barnes and Moore do provide Crosby with conventional orchestral settings, because of the era, the songs have an atmosphere I’m less familiar with. It was a challenge to me but one I’m glad I could rise to.
But for me this period is marked by the songs themselves. Bing’s voice – particularly in the lower register – has a resonance and a dark, oaken timbre that, while different obviously from the golden age, has a wonderful glow and hue. But what really puts this work over the top is the songs that allow Bing to reminisce and to basically encapsulate his whole career with some of the standards but also with songs of wisdom that point to his time-worn experience. These songs are life lessons and, much like Jimmy Durante did ten years before this, Bing turns around to observe his legacy and to see what he can share with younger people.
These songs are like “My Way” with humility as opposed to self-stroking bombast. More like “My Humble Way”. Bing Crosby reflects; what have I done? what do I leave behind? Concerning most of the highlights from this era, I could find little info on the songs and few other versions, which helps to make them exclusively Bing’s and specific to this era. This is partly because no one else could really sing these songs with authority. I’m reminded of something I read about Bobby Darin singing “Hello, Young Lovers”. As opposed to a veteran voice like Sinatra’s, Darin couldn’t quite command the lyric in the same way due to his effervescent youth. Some songs require a certain tone coming from a certain singer with a certain maturity. Additionally, all this is fitting considering Bing’s avoidance of syrupy romance in blatant love songs throughout his career. His detachment suits this authoritative sharing of wisdom.
I love these songs but perhaps even more than that I respect them. I may have been frustrated by Crosby’s recording style at a certain point and by a feeling that he was phoning it in or recording for what I felt were the wrong reasons. But – thanks in part to Barnes and Moore – we have this era to revel in. It is the perfect – and the perfectly appropriate – closing chapter to a career without parallel.
10 from Crosby in the 70s
- The Good Old Times
- That’s What Life is All About
- No Time at All
- Heat Wave
- My Heart Stood Still
- Change Partners
- At My Time of Life
- What I Did for Love
- The Woman on Your Arm
- Come Share the Wine
- Beautiful Memories
1. Barnes, Ken. The Complete United Artists Sessions liner notes. United Artists Records. (1997)
The whole ‘age-appropriate’ thing is fascinating, in terms of song content, and how it has evolved over the years. In 1975 there was lots of press speculation as to whether a 40 year old Elvis had any business being a rock singer at that grand old age. And now, Mick Jagger, at 78, can sing about the same things as when he was in his 20s…I guess it is a matter of changing attitudes and expectations of different generations that have grown to older age with their favourite artists.
We were talking recently about Michael Parkinson; Bing was on his show at least once in the 70s – he never used the limo that the TV station provided, but always took a London black cab. He said that he never had to pay for them, because the cabbies invariably wanted to express gratitude for all the pleasure he had brought them over the years, and gave him a free trip. Parky asked him what happened if the cabbie didn’t recognise him right away, and Bing replied that he just started to sing White Christmas from the back seat and it never failed. 🙂