To a kid in the 70s, Bing Crosby seemed like the biggest square. Two reasons: 1) We didn’t know about his near-death David Bowie duet (we weren’t about to watch the Bing Crosby Christmas Special on TV); and 2) He was the biggest square. We built our whole lives against the sweaters and the pipes—Crosby epitomized the normative cultural conservatism that even post-hippie/pre-punk teens instinctively knew to rebel against. He was the boring unhip great-uncle, the musical Mr. Rogers.
Only Mr. Rogers turned out to be pretty cool. And if part of Crosby’s lack of cred derived from a staid persona (carefully crafted, but the truth of time suggests Daddy Dearest allegations were unfounded), a major factor is the challenge in assigning his style within the great streams of 20th century American music. Not really a jazzbo (although he had clear jazz bona fides—check out Bix’N’Bing with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra for a sample of Crosby standing solid alongside Beiderbecke), no country (his version of “I’m An Old Cowhand” runs away from all aspects of the Ponderosa full pace), everything that rock and roll rebelled against until indie rock finally flattened requisite anti-popism as a core tenet of rock credibility
All this ignores the flipside, that the Binger was a former not a follower—his influence on early country vocalists can’t be overstated (Floyd Tillman essentially claimed Crosby’s vocal template as his own), and both Elvis and the Beatles were deeply indebted to Crosby’s laconic burbling and delight in wordplay. So, when the rebel in me more easily reaches for Pops or Billie Holiday or Frank Sinatra when I crave pure vocal pop, I’m better off for working through my Bing Crosby issues.
Better off because I can fall for Universal Music Enterprise’s Bing Crosby Sings the Johnny Mercer Songbook. Crosby really thought he could sing anything and, since he recorded often, his corpus requires filtering. Using Mercer as a guide easily does the trick. Although Mercer was a near-contemporary, Crosby was already well-established by the time that Mercer made it to Hollywood to begin his career as a lyricist extraordinaire and vocalist of some repute. Mercer’s wordy, onomatopoeic songs seem perfectly made for Crosby’s lyrical chops and sense of humor.
Crosby recorded Mercer’s songs at least 100 times, yet this collection gathers 22 tracks that are mostly previously unissued, often from radio sessions that have been sonically scrubbed for this release. Presented chronologically, spanning 1934 to 1953, with tunes you know well (“Jeepers Creepers”, “That Old Black Magic”, a sublime “I Thought About You”) and maybe ones that you don’t (“Jamboree Jones” got my attention). Crosby holds his own like few could on a goofy live duet with Satch, and “Too Marvelous For Words” goes on the next mixtape I make for my wife. This is that rare reissue, one that works for collectors and newbies equally. Granted, I usually want to hear Public Enemy or ZZ Top next, but not until the last note of the “P.S. I Love You” reprise finishes up the CD.