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When Mike met Bing - Coombe Hill Golf Club, October 1960
The approach of October 14 each year inevitably causes all of us to think back to the sad day in 1977 when Bing passed away. For me, it always takes me back not just to that fateful day but to a week that contained the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. October 8, 1977 marked the final night of Bing’s two-week engagement at the London Palladium and through a combination of great good fortune and considerable largesse on the part of former ICC secretary, the ever-genial Frank Murphy, it was a night when I fulfilled my ambition to meet Bing. The place was his Palladium dressing room, just a few minutes before he was due on stage. The encounter was short but indelibly memorable. One of us - there were four in the party who were granted the audience although now the only other one I can remember was Frank - asked Bing if he was heading straight home now that the run had ended. No, Bing explained, he was going to Brighton on Monday and then to Spain to “play a little golf.” The rest, sadly, is history.
But this year, when October 14 dawned, I found myself thinking of an anniversary that was due to fall the day after. A friend of mine had just joined the exclusive Coombe Hill Golf Club in Surrey, on the outskirts of London, and I had been invited to play there on the 14th but my thoughts were immediately engulfed by another avid fan’s encounter with Bing that took place there on October 15. The year in question was 1960. The day before, Bing had arrived in London from Rome and his picture appeared in several of the Saturday morning papers. One of them caught the eye of Michael Holliday, “Britain’s Bing Crosby”, a star in his own right by virtue of his uncanny vocal resemblance to Bing, but above all else, a Crosby fan to whom Bing was nothing less than a god. Holliday was soon on the phone to the top London hotels, using his star status to glean from several telephonists, confirmation - or not - that Bing was in residence. When he called the Savoy, he struck gold and soon, he was talking to his hero, a conversation partially recorded on Mike’s reel-to-reel tape recorder. When Bing casually mentioned that he was “doing some recording” later that morning, Mike almost jumped down the phone line. Bing was vague - probably quite genuinely - about where and when, but when the conversation finished, Holliday was straight onto his contacts in the music press to discover that the session was planned for later that morning at the Decca Studios in West Hampstead. “But,” Holliday’s informant, the Daily Mirror journalist, Patrick Doncaster, had said, “they might not let you in, you know, since you record for Columbia.” Decca and EMI’s Columbia labels were the head to head protagonists in the UK pop music scene and Doncaster’s warning was a portent of what would become one of the great missed opportunities in popular music.
Over the course of recent weeks, I have paid several visits to the home of Geoff Milne, the renowned collector and Crosby enthusiast, now in his 90th year. Geoff once had the dream job, working for UK Decca and overseeing the British releases of Bing’s American Decca catalogue and later, producing Bing’s Feels Good album in London. He was there that day in October 1960 and remembers it well. The news that Bing was going to work at West Hampstead however came as much of a surprise to him as it did to Michael Holliday and it was only a last-minute call from another Decca colleague that caused him to head out to the studio. When he got there, Bing was already at work and Holliday was sitting in the control booth, having charmed his way into the building. Geoff sat down next to him and the two watched the master at work. It was a laboured and ultimately fruitless session with none of the recordings that Bing made that day making it on the final cut of the planned Holiday In Europe album. As the session drew to a close, an idea came into Geoff’s head. How about an impromptu duet between Mike and Bing. He asked Holliday if he was game. “His eyes lit up,” Geoff recalled and he put the idea to Dick Rowe, Decca’s chief A&R man (infamous in history for turning down a demo tape of the Beatles before they signed with EMI). “No chance,” was Rowe’s reply, explaining to Geoff that World War III would break out if if the news ever got out that he had recorded a Columbia artist in the Decca studios. “He shouldn't even be in here,” he added, much as Doncaster had foretold. And as that moment passed, the chance of a Bing Crosby- Michael Holliday duet was lost forever.
Bing finally got around to finishing the Holiday In Europe album in May 1961 and it remains to this day, a curious beast. It was Bing’s last set of new recordings issued on the Decca label in the US, although as with his other work at that time, the recordings were owned by Bing’s Project Records and leased to Decca. As such, I imagine that the master tapes lie in the infamous Crosby basement and it surprises me, at least, that they have not been given a higher priority in the BCE re-issue program. It was a true ‘concept’ album, with a far more modern sound to it than anything he had done for before, save perhaps the Bregman Swings album, and it had an interesting mixture of songs, some familiar, some not. It was particularly nice that Bing got around to recording “C’est Si Bon”, a song that somehow got missed for Bing’s 1953 Paris-based Le Bing album. Crosby discographers have faithfully relayed that Bing’s vocals were overdubbed to orchestral tracks laid down by Malcolm Lockyer, the British conductor who had overseen the October 1960 session. The original intent, it seems, had been for the album to be recorded in Europe, but where and when is unclear. The session in London in October appeared to be a one-off and certainly not part of a planned suite of recordings to deliver a full album, so quite why the original concept changed remains a mystery, one that it would be nice to see resolved. Perhaps it was just down to Bing’s priorities. “Recording sessions always had to fit in with Bing’s golf plans,” Geoff Milne recalls, “not the other way round.”
Meanwhile, back to Coombe Hill. When Bing had left the Decca Studios, he told Michael Holliday that he was off the play golf there as a guest of the British impresario, Val Parnell. Holliday dashed to his home in Surrey, collected his wife Margie who was also a Bing devotee and the two of them met Bing again later in the day at the golf club. Val Parnell was the man behind the iconic British TV show Sunday Night at the London Palladium. Not knowing that Holliday had appeared on the show the previous year, Bing said to Parnell that he should put Mike on the show. “No, no” said Mike - he knew Parnell well - “you should put him on the show,” pointing to Bing. “Me?” said Bing. “Naw, I’m through.”
Happily, we know he wasn't .
Article first published in the Winter 2014 BING!, the official journal of the International Club Crosby.
To view a gallery of photos of Mike and Bing together, click here.