February 23, 1953
MUSIC: Girl in the Groove
Times have changed for the brick building at 207 East 30th Street, Manhattan that was once the Adams Memorial Presbyterian Church. The stained-glass windows are bricked up, the pews are gone, and in place of the organ there is a glassfronted control room which bristles with switches, plugs and dials. Instead of such rousing hymns as Onward! Christian Soldiers and Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus, the old building resounded this week to the throb of a popular-music combo. And near the spot where a vested minister once stood at sermon time a perky blonde in her stocking feet poised herself before a microphone and sang a little number about a fellow who wouldn't take his hand off her knee.
The words & music might have been a mild shock to turn-of-the-century parishioners, but they were everyday business —and mighty good business—to Columbia Records, which leased old Adams Presbyterian five years ago for a recording studio. And for Rosemary Clooney, the long-legged blonde at the microphone, it was nothing more or less than her millions of fans have come to expect. Clooney and Columbia are partners in a booming U.S. business which can best be described as the manufacture and sale of the American ballad.*
With six other big record labels last year (Capitol, Coral, Decca, Mercury, M-G-M, RCA Victor), Columbia shared in the pressing of something like $100 million worth of popular music. The product, boosted around the world by disk jockeys, record-players, TV, movies and old-fashioned stem-winding phonographs, is as ubiquitous as the American candy bar, the milkshake and the neon-lighted jukebox. And to ballad buyers, the voice of Rosemary Clooney, 24, has become as familiar as the voice of F.D.R. was to their parents.
Putting It Across. By Metropolitan Opera standards, Songstress Clooney is as innocent of musical training as a rosebreasted grosbeak. She never bothered to learn to read notes ("I can tell whether the tune goes up or down, but I can't tell how far"). She disdains such long-hair affectations as warming up her voice ("What have I got to warm up?"). But in common with the new postwar generation of ballad vendors, including such contemporaries as Patti Page (Mercury), Peggy Lee (Decca), Joni James (M-G-M), Jo Stafford and Doris Day (both Columbia), Rosemary knows how to put a song across.
As she prances up to the mike, Rosemary drops her cough drop into her palm, makes a moue at the control room and opens her mouth. If the tune has a bounce, her slim Irish face lights up and her trim, spring-legged figure jigs happily; her smile can be heard as well as seen. If the words are sad, her face takes on a little-girl-lost look. The moment her stint at the mike is through, she pops her candy back in her mouth, swigs at a bottle of Coke.
Turks in the Well. The Clooney voice is known to the trade as both "barrelhouse" and blue. i.e., robust and fresh, with an undercurrent of seductiveness. It can spin out a slow tune with almost cello-like evenness, or take on a raucous bite in a fast rhythm. In a melancholy mood, it has a cinnamon flavor that tends to remind fans of happier days gone by— or soon to come. Moreover, thanks to the malocclusion of the Clooney jaw, her voice carries just a hint of a lisp. A word like "kiss" comes out a bit like "kish," and "caress" like "caresh." Like Bing Crosby, who attributed some of the distinctiveness of his early bu-bu-bu-boos to a node on his vocal cords, Clooney gets a sound that no competitor quite duplicates. In the ballad business, where distinctiveness is worth more than a clear high C, her voice is instantly recognizable.
Much of the ballad public, with a passion for oversimplification, prefers to believe that Rosemary Clooney was created overnight by one record, an Armenian-American calypso called Come On-a My House ("I'm gonna give-a you everything . . ."). Come On-a My House did make the public Clooney-conscious. Whipped up by Author William Saroyan and his cousin Ross Bagdasarian on a cross-country automobile junket more than ten years before—and purposely patterned after ancient Armenian folk songs — Come On-a went nowhere until Clooney's recording. Then it leaped from the ranks of the mere hits ( any disk that sells 200,000 copies) into the enchanted circle of million-copy smashes. The song itself has been likened by at least one fan magazine writer to the sounds a drunken Turk might make shouting down a well. The fact is that Clooney did as much for the song as the song did for her.
Rosemary Clooney does not have a "stage" voice. Like Dinah Shore and half a dozen other microphone huggers in this era of the electronic vocal, Rosemary has been turned down for Broadway shows. But by all the signs, her steady success is assured so long as the ballad business lives, as it lives today, by making records.
Gone Are the Days. During the '20s '30s and part of the '40s, music publishers got along well enough without much help from the record industry. In the early days, such a hit as Glow Worm might sell two or three million copies of sheet music for them. After it was launched in vaudeville or a Broadway show, its principal salesman was a fast-talking song plugger whose job it was to visit bandleaders and coax or coerce a performance out of them. If he could get a song on Kate Smith's radio program he had done a good week's work. His pitch might run from "Please play this song— if only to ease the pain of my ulcers" to "What prizefight or show would you like to see?" Although such a plugger was usually no musician, he was blood brother to the tired-looking gent behind music-store counters, pumping out sheet music on the piano.
Today the key plugger is a suede-shod salesman with a Windsor-knotted tie who goes by the Tin Pan Alley title of "professional manager." His job is to convince record manufacturers that his publisher's song is headed for the bestseller lists. There is plenty of music for record men to choose from; after a weary week of listening, they are ready to believe that every third person in the U.S. is a would-be tunesmith. But since the only way to be sure of not missing a hit is to listen to everything, most companies assign experts to plow through the plankton-like mass of material. The Tin Pan Alley title for the top picker in each record company is "A & R man" (for Artists and Repertory). The A & R man's job is to be music-hungry seven days a week, while maintaining a gourmet's selectivity.
Listen for the Throb. At Columbia, the A & R man is spade-bearded, sagacious Mitchell William (Mitch) Miller (TIME Aug. 20, 1951), a long-hair (Eastman School) who for the last two years has guided his label to the No. 1 position among pop-record producers. Once a week he throws open the doors of his audition room in the hope of hearing a tune that is "right" for one of his stable of singers — Johnnie Ray (Cry). Jimmy Boyd (I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus), Frankie Laine (High Noon), Jo Stafford (Jambalaya), or Clooney. In four or five hours, he receives a parade of professional managers, may sample 50 or more new songs while he sits spooning yoghurt or munching hard-boiled eggs.
Mitch Miller listens for simple tunes and simple ideas—something insistent and fundamental enough to throb its way into the distraught ear of the 14-22 age group, which buys almost all the records worth counting. If Miller were to summarize his prescription for teen-age appeal, it might very well go like this: "Keep it simple, keep it sexy, keep it sad."
The popular American ballad has, in fact, been written to much this
prescription for generations — though the degrees of moroseness and
suggestiveness vary with presumably deeper tides. People no longer actually
perish in the contemporary ballad, as they did in Stephen Foster's day,
Nelly was a lady,
Last night she died . . .
In today's sad songs, people merely sob or suffer from wounded pride. Moreover, Nelly is no longer a lady Stephen Foster would have understood. She tells her boy friend: "Come on-a my house," or howls "hold me, thrill me, kiss me."
Clooney's record romances are warm but strictly licit. When she tried Come On-a My House the first few times, she just couldn't make it sound right. Mitch Miller descended from the control room and gave her a bit of advice: "Think of it this way, Rosie. You're asking that boy over to your house because you're going to marry him." That made everything all right.
Find a "New" Sound. When Miller has found a song for a singer, he calls in the musical arranger, looking for the best way to lift the tune out of the humdrum category. The first objectives: a "new" sound effect—e.g., reverberating echoes or the use of such unlikely instruments as braying French horns or a jangling harpsichord —and an insistent rhythm. To top off the arrangement, Miller asks for a full, rich sound. Sometimes this can be had by a clever distribution of instruments, sometimes it calls for a big orchestra and a massed chorus.
What happens next is standard procedure at all record companies. Advance copies are sent out to as many as 2,000 of the nation's 5,000-odd disk jockeys—the real middlemen of the ballad business. No A & R man can soundly predict how a new disk will take. But company salesmen as a group are good prognosticators, and certain cities, such as Philadelphia and Boston, seem to be particularly seismographic in detecting the rumble of an approaching hit. If the signs are good, the company may press as many as 150,000 copies in the first edition, and then pray for the record to hit. Last year the seven major labels went through all this 2,868 times. Of that number, 81 songs (2.8%) wound up as hits.
Kentucky Melody. Rosemary Clooney comes from historic ballad country, about ten miles upstream from the place where Eliza nipped across the ice ahead of the bloodhounds. She was born on May 23, 1928, the daughter of a house-painter, in Maysville, Ky. (pop. 8,600). Her sister Betty came along three years later and, two years after that, a brother, Nicholas. Later her parents separated, and Rosemary, moving from relative to relative and town to town, has never settled down since (though, nowadays, two blocks of a Maysville street is officially known as "Rosemary Clooney Street").
Grandfather Andrew J. Clooney, one-time Democratic mayor of Maysville, set her to singing. One Maysville legend is that the Clooney Sisters, aged 6 and 3, made their debut from his electioneering platform, and wowed the voters with a performance of Home on the Range. In any case, the ham in Rosemary was smoked out early: she was in fourth grade when she played the wicked queen in Snow White and terrified the audience with her intensity.
Growing up, Rosemary and sister Betty were always close and almost always singing. An argument about which one was to take the melody and which the harmony might start in the bathroom before 8 in the morning and continue all the way to school. When Rosemary was 17, they fell into a sister singing act at Cincinnati's WLW and were on their own.
For $20 a week each, the girls were on daily call to sing everything from hillbilly tunes to a soporific midnight show called Moon River. Then one day Bandleader Tony Pastor came through Cincinnati on the lookout for a new singer. The Clooney Sisters, swimming in a local pool when the summons came, rushed out and sang an audition with hair plastered down around their faces, but their voices landed them the job.
Chaperoned Show Business. It was show business, all right, but the Clooney Sisters hardly lived a glamorous life. They drew $125 a week apiece, but sent most of it home. They were featured performers, but, even on the bandstand, they dressed in peasanty blouses run up by their economical grandmother Guilfoyle. They were on the road most of the time, playing dance halls, Italian socials, college proms, barn dances in tobacco warehouses until 2 a.m. Afterward they would pile into their bus and ride through the night to the next stop. The girls were chaperoned by their Uncle George Guilfoyle. He would hold the second seat in the bus for the girls (Bandleader Pastor would have the front one), and Uncle George would guard protectively from the third.
Rosemary got most of the solos because her voice was in the busiest range—Betty's was three notes lower. In 1946 she made her first solo recording, a long-winded little item called I'm Sorry I Didn't Say I'm Sorry When I Made You Cry Last Night. It so impressed the Pastor band managers, Joe Shribman and Charlie Trotta, that they became her personal managers. "You could feel heart in that record," says Shribman. Three years later they guided her into the big time: she got a contract with Columbia Records.
Worldly World. She found herself in a jungly world of high-pressure pluggers, struggling songsmiths and all-important disk jockeys. It was a world where she came to "own" only 75% of herself, with her managers and booking agents owning the other 25%. Above all, it was a world where the click or smash hit was the ultimate goal where clearance (by payment to publishers' societies ASCAP and BMI) was necessary for permission to play a song on the air; a world where cut-ins (giving a performer a share of a song's profits), hot stoves (open bribes) and other forms of payola were standing operating procedure; a world of concern with P.D. (public domain, the graveyard, or seventh heaven, where tunes land when their copyrights run out); of romance (a verb meaning to shower disk jockeys and musicians with attentions in return for performances).
But blue-eyed Rosie was ready for anything her world could throw at her.
She was nice to the press and romanced the disk jockeys. She made a children's
record in which she did not sing a note, instead spoke in motherly tones
to a mewling harmonica. She was not surprised to find that her first hit
had lyrics that ran:
Beautiful, beautiful brown eyes,
Beautiful, beautiful brown eyes,
Beautiful, beautiful brown eyes,
I'll never love blue eyes again.
Double Mozzarellas. Her managers keep her on an allowance, but she has managed to slake part of her thirst for furs (including a $7,000 Aleutian mink coat after the success of Come On-a My House), to keep a three-bedroom house in Beverly Hills and share an apartment in Manhattan's dressy Hampshire House with Jacqueline Sherman, 27, a well-to-do Chicago girl who is her friend, duenna and general chief of staff. On free evenings, she hits the theater and nightclub circuit like any other customer (current steady escort: Actor Jose Ferrer).
One of her enthusiasms is Italian food, and her appetite, for such a willowy (5 ft. 6 in., 120 lbs.) creature, is remarkable. One recent evening she ate, in order of their appearance: an antipasto salad, a heavy Mozzarella cheese appetizer, a heaping plate of lasagna, a chocolate eclair, a dish of sherbet, an after-dinner drink of rum, brandy, chocolate and creme de cacao. Still feeling a little hungry, she then ordered another portion of Mozzarella. With the same verve and energy, she keeps the long-distance wires hot to some 60 disk jockeys, as well as to her sister Betty (a nightspot singer who records on the Coral label) and several other members of the Clooney and Guilfoyle families of Maysville, Ky.
Miss Crosby? After she made Come On-a My House, it was inevitable that Hollywood would talk itself into discovering Clooney. Her biggest appeal, after all, is to the very teen-age audience that the moviemakers are trying to lure away from television sets. As for practical Rosemary, she has always had her eyes firmly fixed on the movies. "It gets me out of the hit-record class," she says. "Even a B-player is hot stuff in Monessen, Pa. On records you're only as good as your last release."
Paramount gave her a screen test, coldly classified her appearance as "unprepossessing" but took a high shine to her fetching voice. After a breaking-in period, she was funneled into a script called The Stars Are Singing that had aging Heldentenor Lauritz Melchior, youthful Soprano Anna Maria Alberghetti (TIME, May 8, 1950) and a performing dog to recommend it, but little else. To Rosemary the director parceled out a couple of routine songs, Haven't Got a Worry and Lovely Weather for Ducks, and a reprise of Come On-a My House; it began to look as if the already overloaded script might topple.
It was saved by the impact of the untutored but emphatic Clooney personality. At night, when the daily shots were screened, it became apparent that she was pulling the yarn together. Paramount took a new tack: in the course of shooting, it reoriented the picture toward Newcomer Clooney.
Meanwhile, the technicians had gone to work on the "unprepossessing" Clooney features. From a cameraman's standpoint, she had several flaws. Her nose was too wide, her legs too skinny. Her face was too long and jaw a bit prognathous. With careful placing of the lights, most of the faults disappeared. Her long face was doubly "corrected," by arrangement of the lights and by designing a wardrobe which featured high, square-cut necklines and bow ties on her simpler dresses.
By the final version, she couldn't have looked prettier to Paramount tycoons if she had been fitted with Lana Turner's head. When Paramount's advertising director saw the finished product in Manhattan, he turned to his secretary and bade her take a wire to Producer Irving Asher in Hollywood. "Say this," he instructed. "This girl is Miss Crosby! Don't let anybody teach her to act!"
Back to Church. The Hollywood juggernaut got rolling. The Stars Are Singing got its world premiere in Maysville three weeks ago, with national release set for early March. And Paramount has already assigned her to several more pictures; in Here Come the Girls (with Bob Hope) she blossoms as a dancer, too.
Rosemary Clooney has a thoroughly serious attitude toward success in Hollywood. But she is not for a moment forgetting her work at the old Adams Memorial Presbyterian Church. She is making as many recordings as she ever did. In a world of stupendous and colossal plugs, the one she values most just now is a simply worded little statement by Mister Crosby himself. He made a detour from his own path to shuffle around to her set one day. "I just want to tell you," Bing said, "that I think you're the best singer in the business."
* The latest ballad, like the earliest, is simply a singable song that is also danceable, In Tin Pan Alleyese, the word has a more limited meaning: the slow, romantic number, as distinct from the rhythm tune and the novelty song.