Bing Crosby: Through the Years, Volumes One-Nine (1954-56)

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Bing Crosby: Through the Years, Volumes One-Nine (1954-56). Sepia Record 1111, 1122, 1129, 1139, 1146, 1158, 1167, 1178 &1185 (www.sepiarecords.com).

Few voices in the recorded annals of American popular music are as instantly recognizable as that of Harry Lillis "Bing" Crosby (1903-1977). It is a voice that is an indelible and singular sound in the aural history of the U.S. in the twentieth century, the result of an unparalleled career spanning more than fifty years. During that time, Crosby handily conquered all old and new entertainment forms with the exception of Broadway (although he did appear in concert on Broadway near the end of his life). On movie screens, radio in its heyday, television from its inception, and, most particularly, in recordings, Crosby introduced--or made his own--much of the canon of American popular music from the 1920s to the 1970s. His golden period and, arguably, the era of his finest work and greatest influence, were the years between his emergence in the mid-1920s as one of Paul Whiteman's "Rhythm Boys" and the end of World War II. Only an Al Jolson, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Tony Bennett, or Ella Fitzgerald could claim a similar level of accomplishment as a singer in the pre-rock'n'roll twentieth century--and only Jolson or Sinatra were as broadly influential.

Crosby made nearly 100 movies, including one that won him a Best Actor Academy Award in 1944 (Going My Way), and he appeared on countless radio and television shows. Most impressive is the fact that he recorded over 2,000 released commercial vocals, apart from numerous radio, television, and concert recordings. He scored 42 "number one" hits and his recording of Irving Berlin's "White Christmas," introduced in the 1942 film Holiday Inn, sold in excess of 100 million copies, setting a titanic record that still stands. Crosby's career was unique during his aforementioned golden era and among his peers, and his choices of musical material uncannily reflected the national mood in the middle of the twentieth century.

After World War II, Crosby increasingly, and too often, recorded inferior material and inane novelty songs, and adapted his once vital "crooning" style to the more "relaxed" manner typical in the postwar era. This approach, sad to note, was the equivalent of a vocal lobotomy--his voice continued to echo that familiar sound American audiences knew so well, but in this period he truly earned his nickname, "The Groaner." The vitality, humor, and emotional depth so persuasive in his earlier vocalizing, was significantly diminished, even though the clarity of his lyrical interpretations remained impressive. Recurrences of his vocal vigor occurred when he turned to an earlier standard or when he performed on radio or television with a singer whose vocalizing he respected and undoubtedly felt challenged by (Jolson, Garland, Peggy Lee, Rosemary Clooney, etc.), but the deadness of much of Crosby's later singing paralleled a slow but precipitous decline in his leading position among American singers. It must be stressed that this decline was less to do with changing musical styles after World War II than with his own alteration of his personal style, although public affection for Crosby remained strong until his death. Revelations of his alleged abuse of his children--and the continuing evolution of American popular music--has further undermined his legacy in recent decades.

In what must be seen as a contribution to restoring Crosby's predominance, Sepia Records has released a series of nine (thus far) single-disc Crosby releases collecting vocals (many for the first time in the CD format) from 1950-1956, the aforementioned period of decline in Crosby's style. Sadly, it generally does not enhance his reputation. Sepia's Bing Crosby: Through the Years series is inherently disappointing, despite the label's typically elegant re-mastering and packaging. Archivally speaking, Crosby's work in any era deserves preservation and commercial release in the most accessible and best possible ways, but only the most die-hard Crosby fan will find consistent pleasure among the tracks on these discs. …