"A Dame Who Sang a Good Song"

By NAT HENTOFF - Wall Street Journal - July 2, 2002

Rosemary Clooney -- who died at 74 of lung cancer in her Beverly Hills home Saturday -- burst into national consciousness in 1951 with a joyously infectious recording of the William Saroyan-Ross Bagdasarian novelty song, "Come-on-a-My House." Forced to sing it by producer Mitch Miller, she hated the number as a "cheap way to get people's attention." But in selling a million copies, the recording got her a lot of attention. When she was in New York on a gig with Buddy Rich's band, the song seemed to be playing everywhere. "It was the most euphoric feeling I'd ever had," she recalled.

Although it took years for Ms. Clooney to be recognized as a jazz singer -- a definition with which she did not agree -- it was evident from her first hit that she was a natural swinger with a playful sense of the beat. The Maysville, Ky., native was only 18 when she got a grounding in big-band swing, spending three years on the road with tenor saxophonist-singer Tony Pastor, an ebullient jazz entertainer.

Signing with Columbia Records in 1950, she was billed as "the next Betty Hutton" (the boisterous blond bombshell, formerly of the Glenn Miller band) and seldom got a chance to sing "the sad ballads" she wanted to. But her affecting command of ballads -- and the warmth of her personality -- came through in the 1954 movie "White Christmas," starring Bing Crosby. Three years before, Crosby sent a letter to Paramount that got her the part: "How about a dame called Rosemary Clooney? She sings a good song and is purportedly personable."

From then on, there was hardly any musical context -- in films, recordings and on television -- into which she did not fit with an easy assurance that came not only from her musicianship but also from the adventurousness of her approach to singing: from Hank Williams's "Half as Much" to a 1956 album, "Blue Rose," with Duke Ellington and his orchestra. That session included what "The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD" -- the most reliable of such aids --calls "one of the most gracious and thought-through versions of 'Sophisticated Lady' on record."

In performance, when she was in charge of her repertory, Ms. Clooney had none of the show-biz accessories of singers trying to be glitteringly larger than their lives. Bobby Short, hearing her for the first time, was exhilarated by "a voice so clear, so true." And director Mike Nichols noted, "She sings like Spencer Tracy acts."

During the 1960s, however, Rosemary Clooney's career waned with rock 'n' roll's takeover of much of the music industry, and her private life grew increasingly dissonant, with a failed marriage and other emotional storms that led to a nervous breakdown.

But, working weekends in Holiday Inns, she started to build a new career. Her longtime friend, Bing Crosby, invited her to tour with him in the 1970s. And signing with the then-small, jazz-based Concord Records label, she was finally able to record a series of comprehensive songbooks devoted to "The Lyrics of Ira Gershwin," "The Music of Cole Porter," "The Music of Harold Arlen," "The Music of Irving Berlin," "The Music of Jimmy Van Heusen," "The Lyrics of Johnny Mercer" and the compositions of "Rodgers, Hart and Hammerstein." Concord, she said gratefully, "let me sing what I'd always wanted to sing."

In recent years, in concerts and various settings worthy of her accomplishments, Ms. Clooney -- without the physical allure of her initial ascent to renown -- was a life-weathered singer able to connect with the experiences of her audiences with wit and grace, and more movingly and hopefully than ever before.

"I've lost some on top," she said of her range five years ago, "but my lower register is better. I'm now filtering the songs I sing through a 68-year-old sensibility; I understand more, and my interpretation is better." As Charlie Parker once said of all music that lasts: "Music is your own experience, your thoughts, your wisdom. If you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn." Or your singing.

"After all I'd been through," Rosemary Clooney said, "I discovered I understood what was in those songs I'd always wanted to sing."