Welcome to Part One of a two-part series exploring the recent line-up of Christmas releases from Real Gone Music!
1954’s White Christmas, quite simply, remains one of the most beloved holiday musicals to ever hit the silver screen. Built around the songbook of Irving Berlin – who lived to the age of 101 in 1989 but was already a Grand Old Man of American music by 1954 – the film starred Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, Danny Kaye and Vera Ellen. Such a quartet promised an evening’s entertainment filled with song and dance, and the movie more than delivered. But what it couldn’t deliver was an accompanying soundtrack album.
Bing Crosby was a Decca recording artist and Rosemary Clooney was on Columbia. (This wasn’t the first time this particular problem plagued an Irving Berlin musical. The 1950 Broadway production of Call Me Madam starred Decca’s Ethel Merman. Yet due to RCA’s holding the rights to the cast album, that label’s Dinah Shore subbed for The Merm on record, leaving Ethel to record her own version of the score with Dick Haymes at Decca.) Crosby and Kaye appeared along with Trudy Stevens (dubbing dancer Vera Ellen) on the nominal soundtrack release, with Decca’s star Peggy Lee subbing for Clooney. As for Rosemary, she, like Merman before, was left to record a “studio” version of the score to her big hit musical. Clooney’s 8-song, 10-inch record has just been reissued and expanded by Real Gone Music (RGM-0309) in a wonderful new edition.
At Columbia, Clooney couldn’t exactly replicate the film’s performances. The full minstrel sequence required a large ensemble; songs like Crosby’s “What Can You Do with a General” and Kaye’s “Choreography” weren’t exactly extractable or particularly suitable for her talents. So on the album overseen by Mitch Miller, Clooney reprised her stunning “Love – You Didn’t Do Right by Me,” turned “Snow,” “Gee, I Wish I Was Back in the Army” and “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep” into solos, took over for Crosby on “White Christmas” and Kaye on “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing,” and extracted “Mandy” from the minstrel show. Notably, she also reprised “Sisters,” but with her own sister and onetime singing partner Betty Clooney happily filling in for Vera Ellen. The latter is one of the album’s undisputed highlights; if the album versions of “Snow” (a quartet in the film) and “Count Your Blessings” pale in comparison to the movie arrangements, the strength of Clooney’s vocals on these quintessential Berlin songs keeps them wholly enjoyable. Clooney was an innate jazz singer, a quality which would come to the fore in her later years. Her interpretive skills, pure tone and sly vocal wit elevated even the most absurd novelty material foisted on her by Miller; matched with Irving Berlin, the results could hardly be less than delightful. Rosemary Clooney in Songs from the Paramount Pictures Production of White Christmas, as the full title goes, isn’t a true “Christmas album,” but it’s certainly right for the season – or any other.
After the jump: more on White Christmas, plus a look at a rare title from Frank DeVol and the Rainbow Strings!
For its previous CD release from Collectables, Clooney’s White Christmas album had been paired with her 10-inch album of songs from the film Red Garters. Real Gone has done that edition one better, though, with seven rare radio performances of holiday songs recorded by Bing Crosby’s production company including a Crosby/Clooney duet on “Silver Bells.” (An entire set of duets between Bing and Rosie is also available.) Not only do these additional tracks from 1952-1957 up the holiday quotient here, but they’re in pristine sound and feature Clooney at her loveliest. “Happy Christmas, Little Friend” is a rarity from the pen of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, and was the official Christmas Seals song of 1953. “Home for the Holidays” has an odd, organ-driven arrangement but has a sensational vocal; “Jingle Bells,” “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and Berlin’s “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” are all loose and fun with jazz accompaniment from Buddy Cole and His Trio. All but one of these bonus cuts is previously unreleased; three are simultaneously appearing on the accompanying CD in the most recent Blu-ray/DVD edition of White Christmas.
Real Gone’s reissue replicates the original cover art, recoloring the rather unattractive yellow cover with a more seasonally-appropriate green. Tom Pickles provides the fine new liner notes, and the remastered sound is expectedly top-notch. Clooney’s solo White Christmas may not replace her work in the movie, but it’s an essential companion and an enjoyable listen in its own right.
Frank DeVol’s The Old Sweet Songs of Christmas was the composer, arranger and bandleader’s third instrumental album of “Old Sweet Songs” for Columbia Records, following The Old Sweet Songs and More Old Sweet Songs. All three albums were released by the prolific artist in 1960, at a time when the market for “beautiful music” was still a viable one. And this 28-song, 12-track release is, indeed, beautiful. DeVol’s arrangements as played by his Rainbow Strings eschewed brass and woodwinds, lending a lush, sumptuous and stately quality to the entire LP. The absence of any “modern” instrumentation, too, gives The Old Sweet Songs of Christmas (RGM-0310) a timeless quality matched by few releases of its era.
As did many popular vocalists of the day including Columbia’s Andy Williams, DeVol used one side of the original LP for sacred music and one side for secular, with six medleys per side. Whether on a reverent “Away in a Manger” or a festive “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” however, DeVol’s orchestrations are classy, straightforward and luscious. The Old Sweet Songs happily conjures up visions of a simpler time gone by. It’s appropriate that DeVol – an Academy Award-nominated veteran not just of diverse films like Pillow Talk, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane but of television shows such as My Three Sons and The Brady Bunch – saw his album utilized as the soundtrack every year to the WPIX New York Yule Log broadcast. A beautifully recorded album with the Columbia Records stereo sound, The Old Sweet Songs of Christmas has been faithfully remastered by Maria Triana at Sony’s Battery Studios, and features an informative appreciation of the album from Chip Arcuri of The Yule Log website. “They don’t make ‘em like they used to” is certainly an overused adage, but it couldn’t be more appropriate than in describing this classic and frequently joyous album.
Both releases are available now!