May 11, 2001

A dash of Rosemary

By Kimberley McGee


She's an original diva with a strong sense of family and a fierce determination to carry on.

Rosemary Clooney, who turns 73 on May 23, will perform with the Big Kahuna and the Copa Cat Pack at 2 p.m. today at UNLV's Artemus W. Ham Concert Hall.

Clooney began singing with her sister, Betty, in Cincinnati in the late '40s. She recorded her first hit, "Come-On-a-My House," in 1951 at age 23.

In 1954 she starred as Bing Crosby's love interest in "White Christmas." Her duet with Crosby on the title song became a classic. Clooney's 1997 re-release of "White Christmas" topped jazz charts.

And 50 years later she is still recording albums, performing and traveling to croon at concert halls around the country.

Much of her rise, subsequent fall and reinvention as a jazz singer is detailed in her 1977 biography, "This for Remembrance."

In the book, Clooney described her battle with drug addiction, her nervous breakdown and two divorces from actor Jose Ferrer.

Throughout her life there have been two constants, music and family. She works to maintain a close relationship with her grown children, 10 grandchildren and extended family, including her nephew, actor George Clooney.

Hollywood legends and legendary celebrity moments are weaved through her rich life story, which she offers up easily in her familiar voice.

The ever-touring Clooney talked with the Las Vegas Sun by phone on a recent afternoon from her Beverly Hills home, where she has lived since 1953.

Las Vegas Sun: How did you come to work with the Hawaiian swing band Big Kahuna and the Copa Cat Pack?

Rosemary Clooney: My manager manages them. I knew the leader, however, who is a wonderful arranger. I've worked with him before, his name is Matt Catingub. He's the son of Mavis Rivers, who was a wonderful jazz singer. She was extraordinary, and I was a great fan of hers, so I had that in common with him.

He got together with these young men, picked the finest group that he could. Aside from the fact that they are good players, they have an enthusiastic approach to it that only you could feel if you lived in the '40s or '50s and worked with the musicians then.

I've done concerts with symphony orchestras and small jazz groups, but to have a group that travels together of this size, with seven brass and five saxes and four rhythms, is unheard of today. When I first started that's what musicians did, they toured. But you don't find very many now.

Sun: With such a long list of hits, how do you choose the songs you'll sing?

RC: There's usually some song that is personal to me. We have a new album coming out with the Copa Cat Pack. It will be out in September. I'll have quite a few songs that are personal. There's a song that Fred Astaire wrote that was taken out of a picture and never used at Metro (Studios). I had this letter that was from Fred ... where (Fred) was talking about a song called, "If Swing Goes, I Go, Too." I wanted to do that. It's kind of a surprise. It's not the best song in the world, but what can you expect from the finest tap dancer that ever lived? He doesn't have to be a good songwriter.

Sun: Why do you continue to perform?

RC: I feel like I'm starting, really, all over again. It's strange. I've been with (Concord Records) for 20 years or so and each year the albums have been different. I've done one of Gershwin, of course, and Cole Porter and Hammerstein and all the ones you'd expect. But also I did one when I'd been in the business 50 years called "Demi-Centennial." I loved that because each song had some personal reference for me. The first song that I ever recorded was called, "I'm Sorry I Didn't Say I'm Sorry When I Made You Cry Last Night." I liked it.

I think I like my work. I think outside of my family it's the most important thing in my life. I'm used to it. I started singing when I was 16, professionally, so it's something I've done my whole life. I had five children but I worked up until, oh, six weeks before the babies were born. I didn't stop then, either.

Sun: How often are you on the road?

RC: I go away on weekends usually. I worked in Seattle last weekend and got home Sunday night.

Although, my nephew's birthday was last Sunday -- George (Clooney). George was 40 last Sunday. Everybody came down. My brother and my sister-in-law and my son, Miguel, and everybody. They were all gone by Sunday night. So, by the time I got home the house was empty.

(The party) was small by standards we talk about today. It was about 10 or 12 people.

Sun: During the concert you tell stories and talk about your life.

RC: With 10 grandchildren there's always something to say. I have three in New York with two sons living there, and seven here. Four from my son, Gabriel, and Debby Boone-Ferrer, and my daughter has three boys. I see them often.

It's very important to me.