The Clooney versions

Perfect Voice/ Singer Rosemary Clooney seems to always hit the right notes, from string-laden ballads to swinging big numbers

by Ray Comiskey for THE IRISH TIMES - June 16, 2001

Ruby Braff, one of the supreme melodists in jazz, is a great player whose work, to borrow the poet Philip Larkin's phrase, comes in on the ear like honey. He's also volatile, direct, sometimes irascible and impatient, and apt to say what he thinks unmediated by diplomacy. On one celebrated occasion he was in the audience in Ronnie Scott's club in London, listening to a world-famous jazz singer using her vocal pyrotechnics to pummel a song into submission. Irritated beyond endurance, he finally gave out an exasperated "just sing the song, baby".

It's a safe bet he would never have had to urge Rosemary Clooney to do the same. She's not a jazz singer and would never claim to be one, but she can perform with total aplomb in almost any context, from string-laden orchestras to swinging big bands and small jazz groups. She just pours her immense personal warmth - and anyone who talks to this down-to-earth, immensely likeable lady can feel that enveloping warmth right away into what she's singing and fit right in. Tony Bennett has that ability, too. So had Sinatra, Crosby and Nat King Cole. But that now-departed trio came up through the jazz world, and though Clooney, who comes from a slightly later generation, worked with a big band early on, she came to fame when singers had replaced bandleaders as the pop stars of the day. Under the guidance of Columbia's Mitch Miller, a classically trained oboist who did much to infantalise the American public's taste in pop, she hit the big time with things such as Come On-a My House, Mambo Italiano and This Ole House.

There were good songs, too, but these pieces of trivia are the ones that recall her early heyday. That was in the 1950s. But Clooney was always capable of much better than pop ephemera. She proved it with a series of LPs, including the mid-1950s classic, Blue Rose, with the Ellington big band. Later, after personal troubles and seismic changes in the music industry pushed her career into reverse, she hauled herself back and created a second and - for my money - even finer singing career over the past 25 years, performing for the most part with small jazz groups for the Concord label, where she settled in as if to the manner born. And she did it without changing her style one iota.

"You know something? I don't want to, either," she says. "I want to be able to sing with the best players in the world - and I do, I really do. It's been such a wonderful time for me because I don't have the improvisational skills that Ella (Fitzgerald) had or that Mel (Torme) had, and that true jazz singers had. I don't have the knowledge of music that, for instance, Jo Stafford has, you know."

So how does she learn new songs? "By listening. My accompanist now, and conductor, is a man by the name of John Oddo." A superb pianist, Oddo is the kind of quality, schooled, experienced - his early career was in Woody Herman's big bands - exceptionally talented musician commonplace at this level, but little known to a wider public.

"Instead of going over and over the thing with me in rehearsal, he makes a tape for me. And when he sings..." she pauses and there's a throaty laugh, "I'm gonna make a big album out of this for his son one day because it's so funny. He has the funniest voice in the world, but I can understand it. And I learn the songs from John Oddo's singing."

One of the things that sets singers apart from other musicians is that, whether they like it or not, when they take on songs, they have to deal with words.

"That's what comes first with me," she says firmly. "I think Bing sang that way. I think Bing cared about the lyrics. Maybe not as much as Frank. Sinatra, I think, really cared about lyrics. I think he really epitomised the kind of singer I wanted to be. I wanted to be the kind of singer that would get the story across.

"Bing one time said in my presence: 'I think that we really have to approach this as a story. We have to be an actor and we have to do the three acts in three minutes'." She gives another seasoned-in-the-wood, throaty laugh.

"Were you not around when I did the show in Ireland with Bing? The Gaiety?" she asks, showing impressive recall for the name of a theatre she must have played over a quarter-century ago. "I have to tell you something. That was the biggest crowd I've ever seen in my life - and they really wanted to get close to Bing."

To tell the truth, I couldn't afford the tickets, but I did meet the musicians afterwards - and thereby hangs a tale. The backing band was British, among whom was a fine drummer, Bobby Orr, whose party piece was to place a pencil against his teeth and play - perfectly - The Flight Of The Bumblebee, I told her.

"Nooooo?" The word was long drawn out, low and disbelieving. "I wish I'd known that. That would've passed the time between shows. Oh, my God, it's hysterical. Musicians are wonderful that way. They have these weird turns. It seems to me the really good ones have the good sense of humour. And, God knows, they're dedicated. And you'll learn something, too."

It's fairly rare, I aver, to meet a good musician who's really stupid, though you might well encounter a vain one.

"Oh, yeah," she laughs. "Did you ever meet Buddy Rich? Oh, my, he was an exceptional, exceptional ego, really big." Rich was a child prodigy, a big band leader regarded as being the most technically gifted man ever to sit at a drum kit.

Did she ever perform with him? "Yes, I did, as a matter of fact. With a big band. He was just wonderful. You felt the rhythm. He was never ostentatious when he was playing. I didn't have to fight him, you know, to get attention, because he was so supportive. He was everything you could hope for. He was just a genius."

He was also pugnacious. There is a recording of him lambasting his band after a concert, turning the air blue. And there was also a legendary fight between him and Sinatra, with Rich skimming cymbals at him like frisbees. His humour was aggressive, too. When he was dying in hospital a doctor asked him if he had any allergies. "Country and western music," he answered. That prompted a touching memory from her.

"I was calling the hospital - it was UCLA - to see how his condition was. I didn't expect to be put through, but dammit, they rang his room and he picked up the phone and I said: 'Buddy?' And he said: 'Yeah?' And I said: 'It's Rosemary.' And he said: 'Rosemary, I'm dying.' And I was so shocked I said: 'I didn't mean to bother you.' And he said: 'No. But do you know something? I'm really scared.'

"To have that conversation, I felt so awful, you know. I talked to his daughter about it, but it was something that I couldn't take back. You know, they rang that damn room and he picked it up."

Wasn't he really out front with everything, though? "Yes, he was. He felt it and there was no editorial sense at all between the thought and the mouth."

Oddly enough, that last remark is a clue - though not the only one - to the potency of her singing. Though she clearly respects good material and works to get its interpretation just right, when she does a song it has a direct, almost conversational feel, as if the words had just occurred to her. Great popular singers have that gift, and they can use it to deal as effectively with intimate songs as ones that deal with the big occasion or with wider issues.

Just think of Sinatra and the ultimate, self-pitying saloon song, One For My Baby. Or Billie Holiday and the great anti-lynching poem, 'Strange Fruit'.

Or Ella, using her little girl voice to bring a chilling, child-like, knowing innocence to Cole Porter's Love For Sale. Or Bing making White Christmas his own. Or, as she points out herself, Nat King Cole delving with deceptive smoothness into the world-weary depths of Billy Strayhorn's Lush Life.

"Billy Strayhorn? I worked very closely with him when we did Blue Rose and I just can't tell you what he meant to me."

Strayhorn did the arrangements, which the band recorded in Chicago, and took them to LA where she overdubbed her vocals under his expert and intuitive supervision. "Working with him was devastatingly good," she says with considerable emotion.

Although his Lush Life is not on that album, she has sung this incredibly tricky and sophisticated song. "I tried to sing it away from a piano with my drummer, Joe Cocuzzo and, by God, I did it! I've never tried it since. I got away with it once. In the meantime, I'm not gonna try it again." Amazingly, Strayhorn wrote this while he was still a teenager. "I know he was. A baby," she says. "Can you imagine?" She went into the lyrics. "I used to visit all the very gay places/Those come what may places/Where one relaxes on the axis of the wheel of life/To get the feel of life."

Strayhorn was uniquely - and sadly, because of the era he lived in - equipped to write such a song, sated as it is with melancholia. He was both black and gay.

She's probably right about Nat King Cole's version of that great song. But if there's any song that somehow epitomises what alchemy she can bring to a performance, it may be Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn's The Second Time Around. It's just a duet with the beautiful guitar of the Canadian, Ed Bickert, but to it she brings a marvellously lived-in voice, a lifetime's experience of the vicissitudes of life and love - and her own great talent. It was made for Concord 15 years ago and - shades of what Bing once told her - it's just over three minutes long.

And I can't imagine anyone else singing it. As far as I'm concerned, they wouldn't dare.

An Evening with Rosemay Clooney and Michael Feinstein is at the National Concert Hall, next Wednesday at 8 p.m.