Vocal Recordings to Hear Before You Die

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A Centennial Anthology of Decca Recordings

Bing Crosby

The thing you have to understand about Bing Crosby,” the jazz clarinetist and bandleader Artie Shaw once said, is that he was “the first hip white person born in the United States.”

That’s hard to fathom now. Crosby (1903–1977) is the picture next to the word “milquetoast” in the modern dictionary, a singer whose overriding feyness is remembered more than his agile baritone, whose association with a tame age of popular music overshadows the fact that he phrased with a jazz musician’s control of nuance. That’s what Shaw was responding to: Instrumentalists listened closely to Crosby, because unlike just about every other singer of the 1930s, the proto-crooner from Spokane, Washington, came across as one cool customer, forever relaxed. He was one of the first recording artists to communicate subtlety on tape, to not merely sing a song but impart a mood.

This excellent two-disc overview of Crosby’s peak career years is full of those moods—thoughtful renditions of standards, ballads that melt into thin air. To lose your Crosby preconceptions, cue up one of his early soundtrack performances, “Pennies from Heaven.” Though he’s supported by a huge orchestra, Crosby outlines a very slight pulse, setting a pace that is subtle yet unfailingly steady. His verses have a musing way about them, and later, at the point where the song crests, Crosby doesn’t pour on extra emotion. Instead, he hums a bit of the tune, endearingly, as though envisioning a trailing shot in a film. There are plenty of other selections—from the perennial “White Christmas” to offbeat island exotica (“Blue Hawaii”) to songs celebrating a carefree life (“I’ve Got a Pocketful of Dreams”)—that could, in a moment of generous revisionism, bolster Bing’s hipness quotient. But when you really listen to this graceful singer, it’s clear he didn’t care about hipness. The truly hip never do.

GENRE: Vocals.
RELEASED: 2003, Decca/MCA.
KEY TRACKS: “Stardust,” “Pennies from Heaven,” “Blue Skies,” “White Christmas,” “I’ve Got a Pocketful of Dreams.”
FYI: Crosby had thirty-eight #1 hits, more than the Beatles (twenty-four) and Elvis Presley (eighteen).

At Carnegie Hall

Harry Belafonte

A decade into his recording career, the singer Harry Belafonte had mastered what was then common practice for live performers: Rather than merely sing hits, artists would cluster songs into thematic groups, creating miniature music-theater tableaux. Belafonte’s shows opened with a set entitled “Moods of the American Negro” and contained a segment called “In the Caribbean” that featured his hits “The Banana Boat Song (Day-O)” and “Jamaica Farewell,” and another spotlighting folk songs from “’Round the World.”

The evening was tightly scripted and cleverly connected, and yet on this landmark live set drawn from two benefit concerts in April 1959, the dapper Belafonte manages to make it sound impromptu. He’s electric even when he whispers, and when he puts his full lung power behind a song like the a cappella opener “Darlin’ Cora,” he’s downright devastating. He obviously enjoys hearing the way this famous hall cradles his instrument. (Indeed, this is a gem of a recording, with more warmth and dimension than was common at the time; details like the crack of Danny Barrajanos’s conga drum are gloriously free of distortion, and the forty-seven-piece orchestra is there when needed, but never intrusive.)

Belafonte was riding a string of hits, notably the island idyll “The Banana Boat Song (Day-O),” at the time of this appearance; that song and another bit of island wisdom, “Man Smart (Woman Smarter),” helped keep this album on the charts for three full years. As both a singer and actor, he’d developed a reputation as a maverick (a few albums later his The Midnight Special would be the first recording of a young harmonica player named Bob Dylan), primarily for confronting racial issues often glossed over at the time. Whether this singer’s singer is delivering African American spirituals, the keening Irish ballad “Danny Boy,” or his singalong debut hit “Matilda,” it is his ability to communicate the soul of a people that gives Belafonte’s interpretations such stirring power. Still.

GENRE: Vocals.
KEY TRACKS: “Darlin’ Cora,” “Matilda,” “Man Smart (Woman Smarter),” “The Banana Boat Song (Day-O).”

Four Freshman and Five Trombones

The Four Freshman

Anything can be hip, anything can be square. Consider, for example, this curiously great document from the Four Freshmen. To one generation, it’s nice easy listening. To another, it’s a creamed-corn stain on an expensive white linen shirt. One jazzer might think “squaresville,” and another might hear these limpid, empathetic vocals as pure quiet sophistication, the gentle and confiding empathy sought by such memorable singers as Chet Baker.

There may never be a cure for rampant hipsterism, but the next time you want to try to tame the arrogant smugness within, put this on and see if you might find something valid in it. There’s certainly lots going on: sumptuous vocal blends running the gamut from well-scrubbed unisons to neatly pressed four-part harmonies, conveying tightly drawn and highly specific emotions. On this program of standards and show tunes, the four voices slide and weave, changing the chordal character of the tune as the interior voices resolve. (To hear a particularly agile example, listen to the lively, shape-shifting reharmonization of the oft-neglected “I Remember You.”)

This album is one of several the group did with specific themed backing (one CD reissue pairs this with the more blaring Five Trumpets effort). It’s the best of them, and one of the great underappreciated records of the transitional period during the middle ‘50s when pop and rock were on opposite trajectories. Brian Wilson, the songwriter and architect of the Beach Boys’ sound, has often acknowledged borrowing ideas for his group’s vocal blend from the Freshmen. You don’t have to listen closely to pick up that connection, but if you do listen closely, you’ll hear dazzlingly choreographed vocals, delivered with a swooning sincerity that seems almost alien in this age of machine-gun brashness. Which, to one way of thinking, might qualify the Frosh as “hip.”

GENRE: Vocals.
RELEASED: 1956, Capitol. (Reissued 1998, Collector’s Choice.)
KEY TRACKS: “I Remember You,” “Angel Eyes,” “Speak Low,” “Guilty.”

Blue Light ‘til Dawn

Cassandra Wilson

Cassandra Wilson started out as a jazz singer, doing gigs with several innovative bands (including Brooklyn’s experimental M-Base collective) and at the same time recording typical jazz-singer let-me-entertain-you stuff—“Night and Day” and “Blue Skies” and shooby dooby dooby. Eventually the Mississippi-born New York–based vocalist, who reigned among the elite jazz singers of the 1980s, became restless, and began to look beyond torch songs for inspiration.

So she looked outside of jazz for inspiration. In interviews, she’s recalled how she began seeking new challenges for her voice, a mighty instrument blessed with husky overtones and an alluringly smoky woodish hue. She began to integrate gospel and blues and pop songs into her performances, eventually assimilating them into music that blurs genre distinctions entirely. Blue Light ’til Dawn is the first album to capture that shift. It features wondrously spare, molasses-slow versions of Robert Johnson (“Come On in My Kitchen,” “Hellhound on My Trail”), Philly soul (Thom Bell and Linda Creed’s “Children of the Night,” a hit for the Stylistics), pop (Van Morrison’s “Tupelo Honey”), and torch song (“You Don’t Know What Love Is”).

Working with a small group of inventive New York jazzers, emphasizing hand drums and percussion over trap set, Wilson cultivates the opposite of dazzle—hers is an inviting, shadow-filled sound that calls from a lonesome bayou. Atmosphere dictates everything that happens on these tracks, and helps knit together pieces from disparate ends of popular music. It also guides Wilson’s vocals: Her sullen “Hellhound” wanders far from typical blues woe, yet winds up an apt, weary summation of it all the same.

Blue Light became an adult contemporary hit, and set Wilson on the course she’s pursued since. Subsequent albums find her personalizing ever more unusual tunes (the Monkees’ “Last Train to Clarksville”). The records are all engrossing and shaped by extremely sensitive musicianship, but Blue Light has something more—the renegade energy of one who, having taken a flying leap, is just discovering a new mode of expression.

GENRES: Jazz, Vocals.
RELEASED: 1993, Blue Note.
KEY TRACKS: “Tupelo Honey,” “Hellhound on My Trail.”