Bing Crosby Enterprises Gives Audiences a Window into the Past

Bing Crosby Enterprises in conjunction with Sirius XM Radio have exposed a burgeoning generation of listeners to Bing Crosby’s radio shows which originally aired from the 1930’s to the 1950’s. Known for his smooth voicing and baritone register, Bing Crosby achieved national and international acclaim by the early 1930’s, and his work continues to make him a highly regarded luminary on a global scale.

Sirius XM Radio channel 40s on 4, whose format features the pop hits of the 1940’s, began broadcasting Crosby’s original radio shows courtesy of Bing Crosby Enterprises (BCE) in 2011. The new program called Bing’s Basement gives listeners a window into the past. “Bing’s Basement began late last year at Christmas time,” recollects Crosby historian Martin McQuade. “It grew out of the success which Sirius enjoyed airing Crosby Christmas shows and songs with the on-air participation of Regis Philbin as well as Kathryn and Mary Crosby.”

Christmas with Bing has been an American traditional. It’s a holiday that seemed to have a special meaning for the singer-actor, and it showed in his broadcasts. “Bing was raised as a devout Catholic,” McQuade professes, and was “taught by the Jesuits at Gonzaga. They instilled in him a deep and earnest humility and generosity,” which the people who were closest to Crosby would say were traits he carried with him all through his life.

McQuade observes, “Bing was the first singer to regularly perform Christmas songs. In fact, before ‘White Christmas’ there were very few secular Christmas songs. ‘White Christmas’ changed that. The song’s unparalleled success triggered all the popular yuletide songs to come. Of course, there were the carols, and at first Bing was reluctant to record them feeling it would be blasphemous to do so.”

The actor who played Father O’Malley in the 1945 film The Bells of Saint Mary’s was “finally persuaded,” McQuade recounts, “to record ‘Silent Night’ once it was agreed that the profits, which became astronomical, would go to the Catholic missions.”

Crosby’s rendition of such secular Christmas staples as “Silver Bells” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” transcended the barriers that divided cultures by religion. BCE worked with Sirius XM to put Crosby’s shows back on the radio with a repertoire that attracted people from multiple cultures and creeds. McQuade discerns, “Sirius also saw the ratings increase with the broadcasting of complete Crosby radio shows with exceptional fidelity due to the master tapes provided by the Crosby estate. Appropriately, many of the selections for Bing’s Basement are rarities derived from the Crosby archive. I have assisted with show ideas and song research. Fellow Cosby historian Arne Fogel crafts and hosts each show. Bing’s Basement airs monthly to coincide with a specific holiday. The next installment is a Thanksgiving show.” The hope is that the show will eventually be a weekly fixture on Sirius.

In addition to working with Sirius XM Radio, BCE has released several Crosby collections, the latest being two new CD’s that dip into the vast repertoire of Crosby’s recordings, once again giving audiences a window into the past. Le Bing is a re-issued release with eight tracks that Crosby recorded in 1953, and includes a number of bonus tracks he recorded over the years in the States. The 2013 re-issued album has liner notes written by Martin McQuade who offers his insights about the recordings. The songs all have a single theme coursing through them as the original album was intended to be a Valentine Day card to postwar France.

McQuade reveals, “France was very dear to Bing because of his intimate acquaintance with the French people during his World War II trip. The album was well received. Billboard (magazine) featured the following review in its December 4, 1952 issue: ‘That the French touch is a good one is proven by Bing Crosby, whose latest release from Decca (Records) is a new set Le Bing. Bing sings French favorites, all in French and all very nice, too. This set could move well’.” McQuade points to the amusing fact that the original LP bore the droll suggestion: “Any person who dares to find fault with Bing’s French are advised to send their complaints to The United Nations.”

As the Billboard review pointed out, Crosby sings many of the songs in their native French. He impressed the world with his fluency and knowledge of the language, which is characteristic of Crosby’s nature, as McQuade illustrates. “Bing was always interested in learning other tongues. He spent time in France shortly after the Normandy invasion in the summer of 1944, entertaining the troops, and (again) in 1952 filming George Seaton’s Little Boy Lost. These trips helped to cultivate his mastery of French.”

Le Bing was recorded in the aftermath of filming Little Boy Lost and in the wake of the death of his first wife Dixie. McQuade purports, “Little Boy Lost was a break-through for Bing inasmuch as it was the first thoroughly serious dramatic role he undertook. The screenplay was concerned with a widowed father searching for his lost child through postwar France. The on-location undertaking must have deeply affected Bing since during his absence, his wife Dixie was very ill, and shortly after Bing’s return would die from cancer.”

“In 1954, after Little Boy Lost” McQuade tells, “Bing wrote in his autobiography Call Me Lucky: ‘Even though Dixie was desperately ill, I went to Paris last summer to make Little Boy Lost. She demanded that I go, and once more her doctors said you’d better do it. Every day you’re here, she’ll think you’re staying because of her, and it’ll make her uncomfortable’.”

McQuade recently received a note from Nicole Maurey, Bing’s co-star in Little Boy Lost, stating how very pleasant he was during the filming, notwithstanding the enormous strain he was under.

He recalls another passage from Call Me Lucky. “With the exception of my own, France is my favorite country. For a variety of reasons, of course, not the least of which is the food but principally for its people. I admire their individualism, that unyielding opposition to any invasion of their personal rights or liberties. They don’t have many, but they certainly cling to what they have. In France, it seems to me everybody minds his own business, and as long as what he’s doing in no way interferes with his neighbor, he’s not bothered.”

“In 1954,” McQuade references, “Seaton would draw from Bing his finest dramatic role, that of the alcoholic has-been actor Frank Elgin in The Country Girl, for which he received a third Best Actor nomination.”

Crosby’s duet with vocalist Jane Morgan performing “C’est Si Bon” is a bonus track on the re-issued Le Bing. McQuade provides, “They recorded the song for Bing’s General Electric radio show. She was very popular at the time, and would achieve renown in 1957 for her recording of the international favorite ‘Fascination’.”

Audiences will likely detect a gentleman-like demeanor in Crosby’s vocals when he duets with female vocalists; however, a playful side in him shines through when he sings with his male counterparts like his son Lindsay. The father and son’s duet on a song composed for Little Boy Lost, “Cela M’est Egal” (If It’s All the Same to You) and their exchanges on the medley of three comedic minstrels, which speak about the French influence during World War II, flaunts the pair’s flare to indulge in their frolicking spirit. The medley features “And He’d Say Ooh-La-La! Wee Wee,” a jingle which, as Crosby tells the audience, addresses “the American dough boy’s problems with the French language.” McQuade explains, “That was a term used for American infantryman fighting in France during the First World War.”

Crosby worked with the renowned arranger Paul Durand on the original eight tracks of Le Bing. McQuade speculates, “Bing most likely selected Durand, who had achieved fame for his accomplishments for Edith Piaf. Durand also composed ‘All My Love’ (Bolero), and ‘Mademoiselle de Paris’, which Bing had recorded in English prior to Le Bing.

For the tracks that were added to Le Bing on its re-issued release, long-time friend John Scott Trotter worked on the arrangements. “Bing first started working with Trotter in 1937,” McQuade notes. “Trotter had been the arranger for the Hal Kemp Band and was enlisted as Bing’s conductor on his Kraft Music Hall (variety program) after Jimmy Dorsey left that position. He remained with Bing on radio until 1954. He also was Bing’s arranger/conductor on scores upon scores of Decca recordings, also until 1954.”

“Trotter was an innovator in the field of arranging for popular singers,” McQuade asserts. “He diminished the orchestral melody line, and gave the majority of it to Bing, allowing his voice to shine. He also softened the instruments, especially the saxophones, so as to not interfere with Bing’s voice. Trotter was absorbed with classical music, and once confessed that he incorporated passages from Gustav Mahler in his arrangements for Bing.”

BCE’s second release, with liner notes by Howard Greene of Disney studios, is a compilation of vintage recordings called Bing Sings the Johnny Mercer Songbook, an assortment of the lyricist’s timeless tunes. McQuade chronicles, “Mercer first met Bing when he was performing at The Cocoanut Grove in Los Angeles, circa 1930. Bing had dated Mercer’s wife Ginger before their marriage. Mercer once remarked how transformed he was when he heard Bing’s 1927 recording of ‘Old Man River’ with Paul Whiteman, remarking that this represented a new informal jazz style of singing.”

“Mercer would always cite Bing as the very best of rhythm singers,” McQuade muses. “In fact, he would become a member of Whiteman’s third group of Rhythm Boys, formed after Crosby, Barris and Rinker disbanded. When Bing was filming Rhythm on the Range in 1936, he selected ‘I’m an Old Cowhand’, with words and music by Mercer, for the score. This gesture, as well as Bing’s hit recording of the song, secured Mercer’s career in Hollywood and ensured a 40-year friendship.”

Bing recorded Mercer’s song “Lazy Bones” with trumpeter and fellow baritone vocalist Louis Armstrong, a native son of New Orleans who had a big hand in shaping the New Orleans jazz sound. The song is a slow paced romper meant to put a smile on the listener’s face. The current collection features a very rare performance of this song, which McQuade imparts, “Bing considered Armstrong to be the quintessence of jazz. Their friendship began in the late ’20s and flourished through the years, especially on radio and on screen, i.e. Pennies from Heaven (1936) and High Society (1956). They recorded ‘Gone Fishin’ in 1950. This was actually recorded for one of Bing’s radio shows, on which Armstrong appeared on several occasions with his All-Stars. They also jointly appeared on the landmark CBS-TV special, The Edsel Show, in 1957 – and they waxed an outstanding album in 1960, Bing and Satchmo. Their friendship was a mutual admiration society.”

Armstrong once remarked, “Bing’s singing is like gold pouring from a cup.” This should give audiences a glimpse into the admiration Armstrong had for Crosby.

Crosby’s musical output spans from the late ’20s to the time of his death in 1977. BCE gives audiences a window into the past with these two new releases and the company’s efforts with Sirius XM Radio. BCE is also exposing viewers to Crosby’s lengthy repertoire on the official website, www.bingcrosby.com, which is presently showcasing a snippet of one of Crosby’s TV shows with actor/singer Maurice Chevalier making a guest appearance and rehashing his memories of Crosby when the crooner sang with The Rhythm Boys.

“Chevalier met Bing when he shared the bill with The Rhythm Boys at Ziegfeld’s New Amsterdam Theater, circa 1928,” McQuade illuminates. “Bing would frequently reminisce about his Rhythm Boys days. On the five-record Musical Autobiography, a momentous survey released by Decca of Crosby’s recording career as of 1954, Bing mentions his colleagues throughout. Bing remained friendly with both (pianist Harry) Barris and (vocalist Al) Rinker.” Shortly after the trio performed with The Paul Whiteman Band, Rinker’s sister Mildred Bailey, a jazz vocalist, was discovered by Whiteman and accompanied his band on a number of tours.

McQuade cites, “Barris appeared in featured roles in several Bing movies. Bing would frequently revisit the early hits which Barris wrote for him, such as ‘I Surrender Dear’ and ‘Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams’. Bing recorded Rinker’s song ‘Suspense’ in 1947.”

From Crosby’s days in The Rhythm Boys to his work covering Johnny Mercer’s songbook, and his articulation of national songs extolling the French culture and values, the malleable vocalist transcended the delineations that divided countries, religions, social classes, and music genres. “Bing never was restricted by any particular style,” comments McQuade. “He grew up listening to everything, from hymns to classical to ragtime. His voice was so flexible and his timing so unerring, he could assimilate to any type of music.”

Martin McQuade’s relationship with Bing Crosby Enterprises has been a wonderful boon in his life. He was noticed when he served as a curator for Hofstra University’s Crosby Centennial Conference in 2002, and soon thereafter began working with Bing’s widow, Kathryn, on Bing retrospectives at The Players’ Club, the New York Public Library, and The Film Society of Lincoln Center. Since 2009, McQuade has been sharing his expertise with Robert Bader, vice president of Bing Crosby Enterprises, who has overseen many auspicious releases derived from the enormous Crosby archive. Folks can find Martin McQuade performing the music of Bing Crosby and the hits of the 1940’s live throughout Bay Ridge, Brooklyn at such hot spots as Hunter’s Steak and Alehouse, The Remy Lounge, Greenhouse CafÃ?©, and the Schnitzel Haus.

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