Clooney's secret: A voice like no other


Atlanta Journal-Constitution Staff Writer

To mark her 70th birthday in 1998, singer Rosemary Clooney entered a Los Angeles studio to record James Taylor's "Secret of Life." Backed with a Johnny Mandel arrangement and full orchestra, Clooney's deeply burnished voice advises listeners that the secret of life "is enjoying the passage of time." It was a message she took to heart in the last 20 years of her life.

When she died Saturday night at age 74 of lung cancer, surrounded by son Miguel Ferrer, nephew George Clooney and other family members, the veteran vocalist passed away as an adored icon of an era.

In the late 1970s, Clooney fought her way back from a prescription pill addiction, a stint in a psychiatric ward and lowly gigs at Holiday Inns to reinvent herself as a jazz vocalist. From 1977 through last August, she recorded more than 20 albums for the Concord Jazz label.

The company allowed her full artistic control over the themes of the records, and she picked her favorite selections from the great American songbook -- Rodgers and Hammerstein, Irving Berlin, songs made famous by her pals Bing Crosby, arranger Nelson Riddle (with whom Clooney had a torrid affair) and Cole Porter.

Like her peers Tony Bennett and Mel TormŽ, Clooney at last had the complete freedom to record what she wished, and she built a long-lasting song catalog for new generations of listeners. Many of the releases were nominated for Grammy Awards. As she playfully pointed out in her 1999 autobiography, "Girl Singer" (Doubleday, $24.95), Bennett beat her in the category every year.

"She always reminds me of that!" Bennett said, laughing, during an interview with the AJC in January. "But what she doesn't tell people is that when we were kids [in 1948], she beat me in an Arthur Godfrey talent show. She's my sister. I love her."

Her final recording for Concord, 2001's "Sentimental Journey: The Girl Singer and Her New Big Band," earned her yet another Grammy nomination, along with a lifetime achievement award this year.

Clooney was catapulted to fame in 1951 by a novelty song she hated, "Come On-a My House." She agreed to record it only when Columbia producer Mitch Miller threatened to fire her. The record ended up selling more than a million copies and netting Clooney an initial royalty check for $130,000.

Her effortless singing style set her apart from other vocalists of the era. Clooney's breathy delivery could easily have accompanied the cumulus clouds she immortalized in the hit Berlin song "Blue Skies."

Some Atlantans fondly recall another single she recorded for the label, "Peachtree Street," a novelty duet with Frank Sinatra, who gamely attempted a Southern accent for the effort. In her autobiography, Clooney wryly noted that Dinah Shore had wisely passed on the tune: "Dinah was right. When 'Peachtree Street' hit the stores in April 1950, it was dead on arrival."

Generations of movie fans annually watch a pencil-thin, blond, blue-eyed Clooney fall for Bing Crosby in the 1954 holiday classic "White Christmas."

Atlanta cabaret owner Libby Whittemore never does a Christmas show without performing "Sisters," a song written by Berlin and performed in the film by Clooney and actress Vera-Ellen.

"I worshipped her; she's the queen," Whittemore said Sunday at Libby's Cabaret in Buckhead. "I'm very sad."

Whittemore recounted a chance encounter with "the Cloon" when Whittemore was a performer at Atlanta's Upstairs at Gene & Gabe's in the 1980s. Clooney came in for a late dinner, and Whittemore was coaxed into singing for her.

Longtime Whittemore pal and "Della's Diner" playwright Tom Edwards once trailed Clooney in a Los Angeles grocery store to tell the singer that his friend back in Atlanta loved her so much that she had Clooney's "Mambo Italiano" on her answering machine. Clooney's response: "Why that song?" Reflected Whittemore: "Maybe it was the harpsichord solo on that record."

Onstage Sunday night, Whittemore paid tribute to the singer by performing her hit "Give Me the Simple Life."

In the 1950s, Clooney became a star in both television and movies. Her career was sidelined by her marriage to Oscar-winning actor Jose Ferrer and the births of their five children. The pair eventually divorced.

After providing her nephew George a place to flop while he got bit parts in '80s sitcoms such as "The Facts of Life," the vocalist was rewarded when he became a star on "ER." She did two guest shots as a singing Alzheimer's disease patient. The role earned her an Emmy nomination.

In the closing chords of "Secret of Life," Clooney concludes by marveling that life is "a lovely ride." For half a century, she allowed grateful listeners on the journey with her.


Rosemary Clooney: Girl Singer (Concord, 1999): A must-have, two disc-set tracing Clooney's multi-decade recordings for Columbia, RCA, Reprise and Concord. Includes her biggest hits like "Come On-a My House," "Tenderly," and "Sisters" and errors like "Peachtree Street."

With Duke Ellington: "Blue Rose" (Columbia, 1956, reissued in 1999): Possibly the most innovative album of Clooney's career. Featuring arrangements by Ellington collaborator Billy Strayhorn, the singer tackles the complexities of "Sophisticated Lady" and other Ellington band standards. She scats her way through the title track without a proper lyric sheet. Clooney and Ellington's band were actually recorded separately because the singer was in the midst of a difficult pregnancy at the time.

With Bing Crosby: "Fancy Meeting You Here" (RCA, 1958, reissued in 2001): A travelogue song cycle with her pal from "White Christmas," includes "(I'd Like to Be) On a Slow Boat To China" and "You Came a Long Way From St. Louis."

"Rosie Solves the Swingin' Riddle!" (RCA, 1960, reissued in 1997): A big band record with uptempo arrangements by Nelson Riddle. One of her finest recordings.

"Love" (Reprise, 1963, reissued 1995): You can almost hear the studio windows fogging up on this album of love ballads arranged by Nelson Riddle who was carrying on an affair with Clooney while this was being recorded. The sparks resulted in some of her best singing and his most imaginative song stylings. Almost worth the money just for Clooney's ultra-glammed up smoldering portrait inside where she posed in white with a lit cigarette and a glass of champagne.

"70" (Concord, 1998): A greatest hits collection of the singer's finest work for Concord Records, marking the singer's 70th birthday. Includes two tracks recorded for the project, "Secret of Life" and "Our Love Is Here To Stay" with k.d. lang and Linda Ronstadt.