One of the most high-quality oldies labels in the States, Collector's Choice Music is where several major labels have farmed out some of their best classic material. Striking for its selection of first-class hard country reissues, as well as a stunning array of pop vocals and big band releases, Collector's Choice does have the advantage of a strong on-line presence, along with a reliable mail order department. Here are some recommendations for cool stuff from the CCM catalog.

The Collector's Choice series of Big Band reissues is fascinating because of their emphasis on vocalists, as opposed to bandleaders. Singers whose legacies have been intertwined with (or even buried under) the fame of the big bands they worked in are now being given their due in a way that wasn't possible back in the day when swing was king. Here are a few recommendations from many new retrospectives out on CCM, as well as some non-swing pop and rock CDs as well.

Pop Music & Big Band

Bing Crosby "Lost Columbia Sides: 1928-1933" (Collector's Choice, 2001)
Only in recent years has Der Bingle been getting his propers as a pioneer and paragon of early jazz vocals. Anyone reading Gary Giddens' excellent Crosby bio, Pocketful Of Dreams, might also want to pick up this outstanding 2-CD set as a companion disc, which illustrates Bing's swing at its early best. As the liner notes point out, Crosby largely defined the jazz vocals genre in the late 1920s, as the music was only starting to emerge out of the twin shadows of art song and blues music -- only later on did he get pegged as a pop vox cornball. Here's a glimpse of Crosby as a young turk, cruising alongside the Paul Whiteman and Duke Ellington bands, as well as several smaller ensembles. Naturally, he's not as fiery as the hardcore jazz bands that were around at the time, but he's definitely swinging and in touch with the hipster scene of the day. Plus, it's just such great Tin Pan Alley material, fine songs from yesteryear... the arrangements may seem a little tinny to our modern ears, but the musicianship -- including Crosby's canny crooning -- is flawless. Highly recommended!

Bing Crosby "That Travelin' Two-Beat" (Collector's Choice, 2001)
A generous reissue of two late-vintage Crosby albums on Capitol, The Great Country Hits (1963), and That Travelin' Two-Beat, a Dixie-tinged, internationally themed 1964 collaboration with Rosemary Clooney. The country covers leave something to be desired; it's all good material, but Bing's vocals are just a little too jovial and burnished, and the arrangements are straight cornball pop... On the other hand, the Clooney duets are fun, as Irish, Scottish, Mexican and German oldies all get the old-school New Orleans treatment, courtesy of Billy May and his orchestra, who were in a particularly manic mood. It's goofy, fun stuff from the twilight years of squaresville.

Dolly Dawn "You're A Sweetheart" (Collector's Choice, 2001)
Not a major talent, but an appealling pop singer of the swing era, Dolly Dawn was one of the hundreds of "girl" singers running about about in the late 1930s, as the big bands really started to take off. She had the good fortune to wind up fronting George Hall's Taft Hotel Orchestra, a rather bland band which nonetheless landed a daily noontime radio broadcast on the CBS network. Because Hall rarely used innovative arrangements, the musical end of these recordings tends to be rather flat, although Dawn's vocals are usually perky and fun -- appropriately, she benefited from Hall's lack of oomph in a rather unusual way: Hall was one of the first vocalists to really become the sole focus of a band, back at a time when bands and musicians were supposed to be the real draw in the dance halls. In many ways, the rinky-dink nature of these recordings is a big part of their charm: we're so used to hearing the great singers and great bands of the era (Ellington, Fitzgerald, etc.) that its the lesser lights that really bring out the charm of the material. At any rate, this is cute stuff, really fun in small doses, and well worth checking out!

Bob Eberly "The Best Of Bob Eberly With Jimmy Dorsey" (Collector's Choice, 2000)
If the name sounds familiar, it should -- Bob was the brother of Ray Eberle, the featured vocalist in the Glenn Miller Orchestra. (Bob was the one who changed the spelling of his name...) No slouch himself, Eberly tied his star to the Dorsey Brothers band, and when the Dorseys went splitsville, he stuck with Jimmy. Thus, these tracks are are less punchy and swinging than a lot of other big band, but still pretty solid. In some ways Eberly was a bit of a throwback to the '30s crooning of Russ Columbo and Bing Crosby - lugubrious and schmaltzy without trying to swing. This stylistic divide is highlighted on a couple of duets with Helen O'Connell, who was there to spice up the proceedings. Great old cornball stuff, with plenty of standards and a fair share of more obscure tunes as well, recorded between 1936-43, when Eberly enlisted in the war effort.

Helen Forrest/Benny Goodman "The Complete..." (Collector's Choice, 2001)
One of the sleekest and most compelling singers of the big band era, Helen Forrest landed in Benny Goodman's orchestra after a stint with Artie Shaw. This sumptuous 3-CD collection gathers all their collaborations from 1939 to 1941, when she left Goodman for another gig in Harry James' band. Forrest was a consummate singer, equally comfortable with ballads and uptempo material, and her work was entirely free of the unevenness that sometimes spotted the work of other big band singers. Apparently, though, she intensely disliked working with Goodman, who by all accounts was absorped in his music to the expense of human relations within his band, and without. None of those tensions are audible on these recordings, though -- this is classic Goodman material, with tight, sharp arrangements by Eddie Sauter, and first-rate material provided by all the great songwriters of the day. Goodman never slowed down the pace to try and craft the kind of sensitive accompaniment that Shaw gave Forrest -- in fact, he saw vocal tunes as a distraction from the hot swing he was hooked on, a mere concession to pop commercialism. Forrest made the most of the verse-chorus-verse constraints of Goodman's arrangements, and these recordings are top-flight swing from start to finish. Recommended!

Glen Gray & The Casa Loma Orchestra "The Complete Okeh and Brunswick Hits" (Collector's Choice, 2001)
A name which frequently elicits distain from jazz purists, bandleader Glen Gray rivaled Paul Whiteman as one of the most famous "commercial" dance band artists to tame and co-opt the explosive jazz sound of the 1920s, offering a more genteel version of the raucous rhythms of the Prohibition era. Gray also helped pave the way for the "big band" boom, both as a businessman running a large band as a tight ship, and because his orchestra was the training ground for some of "white" jazz's best soloists (including crooner Bing Crosby). This CD features some of the Casa Loma Orchestra's best early recordings, from 1931 to 1934, and traces the progression from a would-be "hot" band into a decidedly "sweet", schmaltzy pop band. Gray abandoned the flash and sizzle of the Dorseys in favor of the polish of the hotel ballrooms... A nice sampling of one of the corniest (but most successful) Depression-era bands.

Connie Haines "Singin' And Swingin' " (Collector's Choice, 2001)
The squeeky-voiced Connie Haines played opposite young Frank Sinatra in Tommy Dorsey's early '40s orchestra: Ole Blue Eyes sang the schmaltzy romantic material and Connie -- in an interesting turnaround -- sang the uptempo, bluesy "rhythm" numbers. This disc collects some of her best live performances on various radio dates. Lotsa fun stuff, including a couple of tracks with Dorsey's crack vocal ensemble, the Pied Pipers, and plenty of punchy big band arrangements to back her up. Since Dorsey ran such a tight, professional organization, these live performances aren't much different than the studio versions that are out on other Dorsey collections. But this album does focus in on Haines herself -- a long overdue recognition of her talent, and it's pretty enjoyable from beginning to end. Recommended!

The King Sisters "Swingin' On A Star" (Collector's Choice, 2001)
For those who found the Andrews Sisters sound too rough-hewn and not "pop" enough, came the King Sisters, the Salt Lake City siblings who were the vocal centerpiece of Horace Heidt and Alvino Rey's prewar bands. This disc gathers some of their wartime 1944-45 Armed Services recordings, made after Alvino Rey had actually enlisted disbanded his orchestra... It's an able recap of their repertoire along with plenty of popular hits of the day, such as the title track and Bobby Troup's "Route 66..." Not as jazzy as other big band-era vocal groups, but a fair glimpse of things to come in the postwar vocal world.

Dorothy Kirsten "Three Classic Albums From..." (Collector's Choice, 1997)
An interesting outing for the folks at Sony's reissue department -- This disc gathers together three early '50s LPs recorded by a light opera singer with a penchant for singing standards. The first two - Songs Of George Gershwin and Songs Of Jerome Kern -- were arranged by Percy Faith and are super-slushy and a little on the slow side; the third , Tropical Love Songs, is a little more adventuresome, although Kirsten seems to have had her greatest affinity for the works of Kern. It parts this is charmingly stilted; elsewhere it's quite heartfelt. At any rate it's a nice glimpse into a very different view of "pop" music... and definitely something off the beaten path. If you'd be interested in a non-torch song presentation of standards singing, then you might want to give this a try.

Art Lund "Band Singer: The Best Of Art Lund" (Collector's Choice, 2000)
For several years, this fellow was something of an also-ran in the big band scene. He was a featured vocalist with the Benny Goodman orchestra from 1941-46, but time and time again songs that he recorded with Goodman were scooped up by rival bands, who scored with the hit version first. This fab collection includes several such songs, some of which (like "I've Got A Gal In Kalamazoo") remained unreleased until now, because the label figured, "why bother?" Pity for folks back then, but nice for us right now, since Lund was a great singer, in the classic, cornball schmaltz style of the times. Another strong entry in CCM's fascinating big band series.

Jack Nitzsche "The Lonely Surfer" (Collector's Choice, 2001)
Classic cheeseball schmaltz from the late SoCal pop arranger Jack Nitzsche, who is best known for his work with Phil Spector, as a soundtrack composer, and as a studio musician for the Rolling Stones and Neil Young. This 1963 album, and the hit single of the title, are sort of a middlebrow spoof on the surf fad of the early 'Sixties, melding the Fender guitar style of the times with weighter mainstream pop arrangements -- syrupy strings and the like. It's great in small doses, though the formula does play itself out after a while. (For more info on Nitzsche's career, check out the Slipcue Obituary Section.)

Helen O'Connell "Sweetheart Of Song" (Collector's Choice, 2001)
All too short, but still rather sweet, this 10-song sampler showcases O'Connell as the "girl" singer in the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra. Bright-toned and sassy as all getout, O'Connell blows her corny-sounding bandmate Bob Eberly out of the water on several tracks, while generally projecting a good nature and a lot of what they used to call "pep". The sound quality on some of these songs is kind of iffy -- the notes don't say so, but I'd guess at least some of these recordings were from radio broadcasts. All things considered, it's pretty fun stuff! One highlight is her version of "Six Lessons with Madame LaZonga," a theme revisited years later by country singer Hank Snow, in his 1950 hit, "The Rhumba Boogie".

Tony Pastor & The Clooney Sisters "The Complete" (Collector's Choice, 2000)
Saxophonist Tony Pastor was an alumnus and former star performer of Artie Shaw's swing orchestra... During one of Shaw's periodic creative regroupings, Pastor hit out on his own, and scored a major coup in 1946 by signing up the Clooney Sisters -- Rosemary and Betty -- as featured vocalists in his already-thriving big band. Somewhat unfairly, Pastor is mainly remembered as a footnote in the early career of George Clooney's older auntie, but he was a compelling performer in his own right. This CD concentrates on his more comedic side -- with plenty of bouncy Louis Prima-flavored novelty tunes (for his more serious ballads and instrumental numbers, you'll have to look for the radio transcription discs reissued several years ago on the Circle label...) Inevitably, Rosemary Clooney became the real star of the show, although this collection is particularly cool for bringing sister Betty back into the limelight. (And whatever happened to Betty, you might ask? Well, apparently in the '50s she pulled a Lucy and married latin dance bandleader Pupi Campo, then dropped out of the public eye...) For some perky, fun old big band pop, this just can't be beat.

Jo Stafford "On Capitol" (Collector's Choice, 2000)
Among the dozens of swing gals and singing starlets of the 1940s, Jo Stafford stood out as one of the most natural, relaxed vocalists of the era... Comfortable with up-tempo jive and slushy sentiment alike, Stafford led the transition from big band to pop vocals. Along with her husband, the equally versatile Paul Weston, Stafford helped define the post-war pop sound, combining a legitimately bluesy jazz sensibility with a semi-squaresville style of presentation. Stafford was one of Capitol Record's earliest stars, and this CD is a nice cross-section of her work. This is actually a bit of an odds-and-ends collection, but it's got plenty of great stuff. One highlight is the stunningly sexist "Housework," an Irving Berlin song from 1949 in which Rosie The Riveter recants her career ambitions, in favor of "baking the pie/that will keep my guy/at home..." Yow! Who could ask for more??

Jo Stafford "The Columbia Hits Collection" (Collector's Choice/Corinthian, 2001)
When Stafford and Weston moved over to Columbia Records in 1950, the proclivity for novelty tunes far outpaced the straight romantic material. Country covers were particularly big, as seen in several early '50s Hank Williams songs, done cornball pop style, and remakes of hits by Lefty Frizzell and Pee Wee King. The arrangements are generally not as classy or considered as the Capitol material -- Sinatra's muse suffered suffered mightily under the Columbia system around the same time -- but there are still great moments here. Sometimes it's just fun to hear the corny techniques they tried in the studio; on other songs they would let Stafford loose on a legitimate ballad, and she would invariably shine like a diamond. Overall, this 29-song sampler of her Columbia years is pretty sweet.

Martha Tilton "The Liltin' Miss Tilton" (Collector's Choice, 2000)
Tilton started off her career singing with the Benny Goodman Orchesttra in 1937, and during her two years with Goodman she became nationally known as one of the best big band singers. Tilton's style, though, was less swing than pop, and along with other singers such as Doris Day and Peggy Lee, she soon proved to be well-suited to the pop vocals style that emerged out of Hollywood, in the wake of the swing scene. This spiffy 44-song, two-CD set covers all of her recordings for the Capitol label, made from 1942-55, when the new style was solidifying. A lot of the songs are from Hollywood films, as well as singles cut with bandleaders ranging from Gordon Jenkins and Paul Weston to Dean Elliott and Frank DeVol (and even a track reuniting her with Goodman, when he moved to the label in the '50s). It's great stuff, packed with standards and languid pop songs full of the charmingly repressed eroticism of postwar pop. An excellent retrospective of one of the now-forgotten pop stars of yesteryear.

Helen Ward "The Complete Helen Ward On Columbia" (Collector's Choice, 2000)
During Benny Goodman's early years as a king of swing, New York native Helen Ward was his featured female vocalist. Ward brought a peculiarly All-American girl-next-door charm to her performances, as well as a fairly choppy, undisciplined style that's almost unimaginable in our modern era of computer-perfected pop. Her career was choppy as well: as Goodman's star really began to rise, Ward retired from show biz in 1939, apparently at the insistence of her first husband. She recorded sporadically thereafter, mainly for the Columbia label, which is where she and Goodman first met... This 2-CD set collects all of her Columbia recordings, from a handful of 1935 78s cut with Benny Goodman (before the band moved to the Victor label...) to the '50s reunion of Goodman's big band, and several appealling one-off appearances made in the early years of WWII. Ward's singing style changed subtly in the late 1930s, and jazz diva Billie Holiday seems to have been a clear influence, bringing a broader, more languid approach to the melody. Ward returned to this relaxed, melodic approach later on, as heard on the long out-of-print Percy Faith LP from 1953 that closes oout this collection. Arguably, Ward was better suited to this crooning style than to the bouncy, rhythm-oriented numbers that fill these discs, but throughout she has an undeniable charm, as she cruises through the hits of the day. Nice stuff.

Ted Weems "Greatest Hits" (Collector's Choice, 2000)
One of the most antiquated sounding (and delightful) of these recent "sweet band" reissues, this disc features early works from the 'Twenties and 'Thirties by this Dixie-tinged, comedy-oriented bandleader. Ranging from his debut 78 (recorded in 1923!) to his best-known instrumental hit, "Heartaches", this is an infectiously cheerful collection, full of a couple dozen of the sort of perky, tinny-tones tunes that turn up as campy novelties in movie soundtracks from time to time. This is decidely pop music, as opposed to "real" jazz, and it's all the more enjoyable for it. At one point the Weems band included Red Ingle, who carried the wacky goofball banner high, with the postwar hit, "Tim-Tay-Shun". Fun stuff -- fans of Spike Jones and the like might wanna check this disc out.

Margaret Whiting "The Complete Capitol Hits" (Collector's Choice, 1999)
The daughter of Richard Whiting, one of the earliest Tin Pan Alley tunesmiths to hit it big in Hollywood, Maggie Whiting had an early and fortuitous opening into show-biz high society. When songwriter Johnny Mercer, a friend of the family, started up Capitol Records in 1942, Whiting was one of his early signings, and as the wartime recording ban became a thing of the past, she became one of the guiding lights in Capitol's campaign to re-shape the world of pop vocals. The label was a key player in the entertainment industry's seismic shift away from instrumental-oriented hot swing dance bands towards pop vocals as the dominant commercial style. Whiting, with her slushy, emotive, and eminently "white" torchsong style, typified the new pop vocals style. This excellent 2-CD set gathers together no less than 45 of her best songs, recorded between 1945-1956. Naturally, there are a ton of classic standards, many of which were originally in films and musicals of the time. Capitol was also a haven for some of the most dynamic and accomplished country music in the postwar era, and early on Whiting was teamed up with the softspoken cowboy singer, Jimmy Wakely -- no less than eight of their duets are included here ( ...and they are all quite nice. For more of Wakely's capitol material, check out the super-cool Capitol Vintage series.)

Lee Wiley "Night In Manhattan" (Collector's Choice, 2001)
This disc reissues three separate 10" LPs recorded for Columbia in 1951-52: Night In Manhattan, Lee Wiley Sings Victor Youmans, and Lee Wiley Sings Irving Berlin. Wiley is a superior torch singer, although these recordings may strike modern-day fans as a bit stark or severe... They certainly are a wisp of a much older style of presentation, arch and even austere, the arch delivery of a seasoned performer momentarily dislodged from her nightly cabaret gig and transplanted into a studio sound booth... Yet Wiley has a great knack for bringing out the lyrics, even when her presentation is not as melodic or lush as we are used to in our singers. Sadly, although the booklet faithfully reproduces the original cover art from all three albums, there are no accompanying liner notes to describe Wiley's importance to jazz vocals, or the high regard with which she is held by her fans -- Night In Manhattan, which features arrangements by Bobby Hackett, was actually a huge hit in the early '50s, going gold and garnering many cover versions of the lyrics Wiley composed. (Here's a link to a rather critical profile on the Songbirds website that may help put her career in context...) If you like standards, particularly for the interpretation of lyrics, then these are great recordings to check out.

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