"American beauty "

Published in the Asbury Park Press 5/21/00


Rosemary Clooney, with her pure American voice, is one of the last surviving stars of a glittering circle.

When she left her hometown of Maysville, Ky., for a career in New York, Clooney entered the ranks of an elite group of pop singers whose recordings became standards. She worked with Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. She knew Tony Bennett when he was still Anthony Benedetto.

8 p.m. Thursday
WHERE: Brookdale Community College
Lincroft section of Middletown
TICKETS: $30, $50, $75
INFO: (732) 741-1027

The heyday of that scene has been gone for decades, with Clooney as one of the few traditional pop singers still performing. (Bennett is another -- he'll play Aug. 30 at the PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel).

On Thursday, fans of great 20th-century pop will have a rare opportunity to hear it up close. Clooney, who turns 72 on Tuesday, is scheduled to perform at the gymnasium of Brookdale Community College in the Lincroft section of Middletown, in a benefit concert for St. Leo's Elementary School in Lincroft.

Clooney agreed to do the benefit as a favor to Rosemary Acerra, daughter of arranger and conductor Nelson Riddle. Clooney recorded some of her best work with Nelson Riddle, including the 1960 album "Rosie Solves the Swingin' Riddle" on RCA and "Love" on Reprise in 1963.

"With a bad arranger, I'm just an average singer," Clooney writes in "Girl Singer," a lively autobiography, written with Joan Barthel and published last year by Doubleday. "But with a very good arranger, I can be a very good singer."

Acerra, who lives in Tinton Falls, has wanted to organize a fundraising concert for St. Leo's since 1983 because her children attended the school. Originally, she had planned for her father to perform.

"Dad would come out several times a year for visits," Acerra said. "He loved this area from high school days, when he played trombone with a small band of guys."

The benefit was postponed because of Riddle's tour with Linda Ronstadt in 1984. After that, his health deteriorated. He died of cardiac and kidney failure in 1985.

"Rosemary Clooney has been a good friend," Acerra said. "I speak with her often. Last summer, I spoke with her about the idea of the benefit and she said she would like to help."

In 1996, Clooney released "Dedicated to Nelson," an album on Concord Jazz based on her work with Riddle on the syndicated series "The Rosemary Clooney Show" in 1956 and 1957.

Clooney and Riddle were much more than colleagues -- they were close friends and, for a time, were in love. Frank Sinatra advised Clooney to end the affair, for the sake of Clooney's five children and Riddle's six. But professional projects, as well as personal feelings, kept Clooney and Riddle together.

"When we recorded 'Love,'" Clooney writes, "we were at the height of our feelings for one another. Tears ran down my face as I stood at the microphone ... Every time he caught my eye over the heads of the orchestra, my heart leapt. Each song was more pointed and poignant than the last, many of them elegiac in tone -- 'How Will I Remember You? -- and all of them laden with yearning, with regret lurking just around the corner."

Although they soon divorced their first spouses, Clooney and Riddle went on to marry other people. Still, Clooney has said that, except for the births of her children, her time with Riddle was the happiest of her life.

As for Riddle, Clooney quotes a transcript of a radio interview he gave in 1985, shortly before his death: "I still haven't lost the feeling for her. I've lived two or three miles from her for decades, and I never make the trip and I'm not about to. I remember; that's all that's important. We cannot help each other at this point."

As a child, Acerra was naturally upset about the affair. "I was very loyal to my mother," she said. "My mother believed so intently in my dad's talent -- he was very shy about his talent."

But as an adult, Acerra said she saw how complicated the situation was.

"My mother and father had a very stormy marriage," Acerra said, "and at one point during the break-up of their marriage, Rosemary and Dad were too close. But it grew beyond the passionate feeling and they were able to keep the friendship."

Acerra called Clooney "an absolutely amazing woman" who survived, among other things, a turbulent marriage to the actor Jose Ferrer, who was unfaithful to her countless times.

A casual listener would never detect the many trials of Clooney's life in her music. Clooney's voice, like Ella Fitzgerald's, was always smooth and assured. Her voice blossomed in songs such as "Tenderly," by Walter Gross and Jack Lawrence, which became her trademark ballad.

If people know one song made famous by Rosemary Clooney, it's "Come On-A My House," a bouncy number that in 1951 became her breakthrough hit. Clooney took an instant dislike to that song, recoiling against the affected lyrical style. She has since made her peace with the oddball hit.

"It's no longer a song I like or dislike," she says in her autobiography, "it's somebody's memory, summer of '51, on some beach somewhere. It's a part of their youth that they're remembering and I respect that."

Clooney recorded another novelty song in 1954, "Mambo Italiano," which capitalized on that decade's craze for all things Latin. The comical, catchy song outlasted the fad, appearing in the 1988 movie "Married to the Mob" and on the recent "Mob Hits" compilation CDs.

These playful songs are the exception. The bulk of Clooney's music is romantic and mature, delivered with an intuitive sense of rhythm. The former "girl singer" sounds wise on her albums, dishing out pristine examples of songs that transcend time.