It would hardly be considered a stretch to credit Crosby as one of the inventors of the art of popular singing. Crosby was among the first performers to conversationally and intimately sing as an extension of speech; he also pioneered the technique of the microphone so a singer wouldn’t have to belt to the rafters. Despite these accomplishments that seismically shifted the sound of American music, the late crooner is often overlooked, with a lower profile than other deceased legends like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin or Elvis Presley. Yet one time of year that Crosby gets all of the attention he deserves is the month between November and January. If one singer embodies the sound of Christmas, for my money, it’s Bing Crosby.
The Crosby Christmas Sessions (Collector’s Choice Music CCM2161) has been released as part of the second wave of Collectors’ Choice’s ongoing Bing Crosby Archive collection. This comprehensive reissue series intends to restore Crosby to his proper place in the pantheon via a number of new-to-CD recordings, including rare radio broadcasts and unreleased tracks. While each reissue so far has brought a number of treasures to light (whether expanding long out-of-print LPs or creating new compilations), the crown jewel may be Christmas Sessions.
Crosby’s first Christmas recording was “Silent Night” in 1935; he continued to popularize seasonal favorites through 1977, the year of his death, when he and David Bowie teamed for their now-legendary medley of “The Little Drummer Boy” and “Peace on Earth.” In between, he was one of the first singers to record Meredith Willson’s “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” in 1951 and joined The Andrews Sisters for what may be the most famous recording ever of “Jingle Bells” in 1943. The Crosby Christmas Sessions can’t be truly definitive, as Crosby recorded for a staggering number of labels, most notably Decca. (It was Decca that compiled Merry Christmas in 1945, an album which has amazingly remained in print since then! As of this writing, it is currently the No. 1 seller in three categories on Amazon.com under the new title White Christmas!) But it succeeds in offering a blend of familiar tracks and true rarities designed to appeal to both the casual holiday listener and the die-hard collector, no small feat. Read about these holiday chestnuts after the jump!
The centerpiece of The Crosby Christmas Sessions may be seven tracks recorded on November 30, 1952 for radio's The Bing Crosby Show for General Electric. These tracks play like a lost LP of the time, all presented in remarkably high fidelity. Too few know that Crosby was a technological innovator and a major investor in the Ampex company; he was the first performer to pre-record his radio shows, and he meticulously preserved them on magnetic tape. He spread the seven holiday selections across both the 1952 and 1953 holiday broadcasts of the show, and those tapes positively sparkle in this collection! The Crosby Christmas Sessions draws heavily on this vast archive of radio performances.
The earliest track heard is a 1949 take of “Here Comes Santa Claus” with Peggy Lee, and this is just one of many duets, as Crosby frequently called on his famous friends. Ella Fitzgerald joins the singer for enjoyable renditions of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (1952) and “Silver Bells” (1953), while Frank Sinatra appears on both “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and the brassy, joyful “We Wish You the Merriest,” both from the rare 1964 Reprise LP 12 Songs of Christmas. (The full album has only seen CD release as part of a U.K.-only limited edition of Sinatra’s Nothing But the Best compilation from 2008 as Reprise 8122 79883 3.)
The unfamiliar tunes might very well become a part of your annual holiday tradition; the gentle swinger “Just What I Wanted for Christmas” and “The Secret of Christmas” both come from the pen of Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen and originate from a 1959 session for Columbia Records. (The latter was re-recorded by Crosby for 12 Songs of Christmas, but the earlier version appears here.) Making a long-overdue official CD debut is the 1965 Reprise single “White World of Winter,” written by Mitchell Parrish (“Stardust”) and Hoagy Carmichael. It’s a mystery to me how this prime effort wasn’t rewarded with chart success, as it’s immediately catchy and a total, tuneful delight. Bing even promoted it, to no avail, on the Christmas episode of Hollywood Palace that year! But better late than never, as “White World” takes its place alongside a number of classics on this disc.
The 19 tracks on Sessions are a fine mix of the religious and the secular, much like the classic Merry Christmas album. “Jingle Bells” is heard not once but twice, displaying Crosby’s versatility and adaptability. The “fast version” from that 1952 session gives Barbra Streisand a run for her money in taking the song at a breakneck pace, while 1960’s “slow version” from A Christmas Sing with Bing is more leisurely. More amazingly, neither version is modeled after the famous duet with the Andrews Sisters! Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” still the best-selling single of all time as performed by Crosby, makes its obligatory appearance from the November 1952 session, as well.
It’s appropriate that the album concludes with the iconic David Bowie duet, as Crosby always strove to remain on the cutting edge. In fact, you can see Collector’s Choice’s new reissue of 1975’s A Southern Memoir (CCM 2160) for a bizarre funk take of “Georgia on My Mind” in which Crosby emerges largely unscathed! “The Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth,” which debuted on the television special Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas, is more restrained but was no less shocking upon its initial broadcast a mere month before Crosby’s passing at the age of 74 on, appropriately, a golf course. Bowie, born months after Crosby first recorded “White Christmas,” shows admirable respect for the elder statesman, though it's likely that neither gentleman knew that a true perennial was being filmed. No multitrack exists for this recording (the producers were reportedly taken by surprise by its popularity) so this track was remastered from the original 2” videotape. Merrie Olde Christmas is included with others on The Television Specials, Volume 2: The Christmas Specials, a DVD recently released as part of the same Archive collection.
Producer Robert S. Bader has expertly assembled this collection under the supervision of Collectors’ Choice’s Gordon Anderson and Crosby’s widow Kathryn. Bader has supplied a fine essay detailing the recordings’ histories, and there are rare memorabilia reproductions, including a Christmas advertisement of Crosby, Perry Como and Bob Hope hawking that perfect gift, a carton of Chesterfield cigarettes! (Yes, the times have indeed a-changed.) For further listening, Decca’s The Voice of Christmas (MCA/Decca MCAD2-11840, 1998) is a comprehensive two-CD collection of every holiday track recorded by Crosby at the storied label between 1935 and 1956, including the entirety of the Merry Christmas LP. Capitol in 2006 offered the plainly-titled Christmas Classics (Capitol 09463 63928 2 0), an oddly-abridged version of Crosby’s 1962 Warner Bros. LP I Wish You a Merry Christmas rounded out with some bonus tracks including “Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth” once again. Varese Vintage gets honorable mention for 2007’s A Crosby Christmas (Varese Vintage 302 066 848-2), which draws on his radio broadcasts in less-pristine versions, and for those really adventurous Christmas music enthusiasts, there’s The Bing Crosby Christmas Album (PolyGram Distribution 520211, 1995). Under its nondescript cover and title, it contains the rare 1971 album A Time to Be Jolly, a more modern, groovy set of tunes devoted to the holiday so beloved by the artist.
You won’t go wrong with whichever vintage release you choose this holiday season, but The Crosby Christmas Sessions deserves a special place atop the discography for restoring a number of “lost” tracks to print in a classy package befitting a true voice of Christmas, Bing Crosby.