Rosemary Clooney

Actress and singer who was 'a symbol of good modern American music'

01 July 2002 - by Spencer Leigh London Independent

Rosemary Clooney, singer and actress: born Maysville, Kentucky 23 May 1928; married 1953 José Ferrer (three sons, two daughters; marriage dissolved 1967), 1997 Dante DiPaolo; died Beverly Hills, California 29 June 2002.

In the early 1950s Rosemary Clooney was a leading entertainer and, despite her often recording novelty songs, her talent was appreciated by her peers. Frank Sinatra said, "Rosemary Clooney has that great talent which exudes warmth and feeling in every song she sings. She's a symbol of good modern American music."

Clooney was born into a troubled family of Irish Catholics in Maysville, Kentucky, in 1928. Her father, Andy, was an alcoholic and her parents separated, got back together and then divorced whilst she was young. Her mother, Frances, travelled for a chain of dress shops, so relatives would take turns at raising Rosemary and her younger siblings, Betty and Nick. Her grandfather was involved in politics and she and Betty sang at rallies.

When Rosemary was 13, her mother moved to California to marry a sailor and took Nick with her. Her father, who worked at a defence plant in Cincinnati, Ohio, cared for Rosemary and Betty but left one night to celebrate the end of the Second World War and never returned. He had taken the household money, so the girls collected soda bottles and bought school meals with the refunds. With the rent overdue and the utilities about to be cut off, they won an audition on the radio station WLW, whose powerful transmitter allowed them to broadcast over several thousand miles. They received $20 a week for singing on air every night with a big band.

The bandleader Tony Pastor heard the Clooney Sisters and invited them to join him on the road. Rosemary made her first solo record in 1946, "I'm Sorry I Didn't Say I'm Sorry When I Made You Cry Last Night". Betty returned to radio in Cincinnati in 1948 but Rosemary stayed with the band. Billie Holiday told her,

I was always a fan of Tony Pastor and I used to listen to you when you were singing with him. I felt comfortable with your voice and I became a fan. You sing from the heart, I like that.

Holiday became the godmother to Clooney's first child, Maria.

In 1949 Clooney appeared on the television show Songs for Sale with Tony Bennett and was spotted by the A&R manager for Columbia Records, Mitch Miller. Based in New York, she had success with the children's songs "Me and My Teddy Bear" and "Little Johnny Chickadee". She also recorded "Peach Tree Street", "Love Means Love" and "Cherry Pies Ought to be You" with Frank Sinatra, but she said, "Frank liked my sister Berry more than me. He asked her out and I got to be the third wheel." In 1951 she recorded a hit duet with Guy Mitchell, "You're Just in Love" from the musical Call Me Madam. In 1954 she played a saloon singer in a film musical with Mitchell, Red Garters.

Mitch Miller was captivated by an Armenian folk song that had been given a playful lyric, "Come-on-a My House", by the dramatist William Saroyan and his cousin Ross Bagdasarian in the musical The Son. Clooney thought it was trite, did not want to sing in a mock-Italian accent and disliked the innuendo of such lines as "I'm gonna give you a pomegranate". Miller threatened to terminate her contract if she did not record it and, to add to the novelty, the record featured Stan Freeman's amplified harpsichord. "Come-on-a My House" topped the US charts for six weeks and established Clooney as a star. She copied the record in another hit, "Botch-a-Me", and the harpsichord was also featured in her delightful novelty "Too Old to Cut the Mustard", with Marlene Dietrich, who was even huskier than Clooney.

As well as the novelties, Clooney had success with the waltz "Tenderly", which became her signature tune, the folk song "Beautiful Brown Eyes" and the poignant country ballad "Half as Much", which also topped the US chart. "Half as Much" also appeared on the UK's first record chart on 14 November 1952 and reached No 3.

When the songwriter Stuart Hamblen found the body of a prospector in a rundown hut, miles from anywhere, he was inspired to write "This Old House", which was a transatlantic chart-topper for Clooney in 1954 and was later revived by Shakin' Stevens. "Mambo Italiano" was also a UK No 1 in 1954 and, 46 years later, Clooney found herself back in the charts when it was sampled by the production team Shaft for a hit single. The novelty song was also given a stunning new arrangement by Lesley Garrett that made it sound as though it was part of West Side Story.

Clooney's first film was a guest spot in the musical The Stars are Singing (1953), and then she appeared alongside Bob Hope and Tony Martin in Here Come the Girls (1954). During its making, she had a romance with the dancer Dante DiPaolo, who then appeared in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. But she then eloped with José Ferrer, the Oscar-winning actor from Cyrano de Bergerac (1950), as his third wife – he was 16 years her senior. They sang "Mr and Mrs" in the biographical film about Sigmund Romberg Deep in My Heart (1954) and they also made a Top Ten novelty single which featured "Man" by Rosemary Clooney and "Woman" by José Ferrer on the other, also 1954.

The couple bought George Gershwin's former home in Beverly Hills and hosted celebrity parties, inviting their neighbours Lucille Ball, James Stewart and Jack Benny. Their first child was born in 1955 and they had five children in six years. Clooney did not reduce her commitments – she starred with Bing Crosby in White Christmas (1954) and recorded several radio programmes with Crosby. Their playful albums Fancy Meeting You Here (1958) and That Travellin' Two Beat (1964) found both singers at their best. Clooney had her own television series in 1956-57, which featured the Hi-Los vocal group and had arrangements by Nelson Riddle; together they made the best-selling album Ring Around Rosie (1957).

Her successful singles included a novelty about pregnancy, "Where Will the Dimple Be?" (1955), and "Mangos" (1957) from the musical revue Ziegfeld Follies. She topped the US charts with an intriguing version of "Hey There" (1954) from The Pajama Game, which featured her reciting over her vocal. In 1956 she recorded "Memories of You" with the Benny Goodman Trio and made an album, Blue Rose, with Duke Ellington. Once rock'n'roll had taken over the singles chart, she made the switch to being an albums artist successfully with Clap Hands! Here Comes Rosie (1960) and Rosie Solves the Swingin' Riddle! (1961). She did some fine work too for an all-star recording of Finian's Rainbow (1963) for Frank Sinatra's Reprise label.

Clooney raised five children whilst being a television, radio, film and recording star. She became addicted to tranquillisers, sleeping pills and alcohol. Her marriage to Ferrer was not ideal, anyway – he had a fling on their honeymoon and was a womaniser – and they separated in 1961, divorcing in 1967. Clooney was not, however, totally innocent as she had a long-standing affair with Nelson Riddle.

Fund-raising for Bobby Kennedy in 1968, Clooney was traumatised when he was assassinated only yards from where she was standing. Her psychiatric problems became public knowledge. At an engagement in Reno, she cursed the audience and stalked off the stage. She called a press conference to announce her retirement and sobbed uncontrollably. Hours later, she was caught playing a dangerous form of Russian roulette on the wrong side of a mountain road. She was admitted to hospital in Los Angeles (Phil Silvers was a fellow patient) and remained in therapy for several years, but did some work in small hotels and making television commercials.

In 1973 Dante DiPaolo and Clooney stopped at the same red light and she shouted her phone number to him. Their friendship was rekindled and a romance started, although they did not marry until 1997.

In 1976 Bing Crosby asked her to join him on his 50th anniversary tour. It was his final tour but it marked her comeback and they sang "On a Slow Boat to China" together. She was to record a tribute album, Rosie Sings Bing, in 1978. Her sister Betty died in 1976 and she established the Betty Clooney Centre in Long Beach, California, for brain injuries, performing regular concerts for funds. She talked candidly about her problems in her autobiography, This for Remembrance (1977), which was made into a television film, Escape from Madness (1982), with Sondra Locke miming to Clooney's vocals. A further memoir, Girl Singer, appeared in 1999.

In 1977 Clooney made an album of contemporary songs by Paul Simon and James Taylor, Nice to be Around, for United Artists. She then signed to Concord Jazz and made a series of albums, starting with Everything's Coming Up Rosie (1977). She avoided novelty songs and, perhaps because of her problems, her voice sounded richer, warmer and more experienced than before.

Her critical rating soared with these albums, especially her tributes to songwriters including Ira Gershwin (1979), Cole Porter (1982), Harold Arlen (1983), Irving Berlin (1984), Johnny Mercer (1987), Jimmy Van Heusen (1987) and Richard Rodgers (1989). Her duet partners included Keith Carradine ("Turn Around"), Diana Krall ("The Boy from Ipanema") and k.d. lang and Linda Ronstadt ("Our Love is Here to Stay"). She was very happy with her new career and said,

Singing has taken on the feeling of joy that I had when I started, when my only responsibility was to sing well. It's even better now as I can pick the songs and the arranger asks me how I want to do it.

In 1990 she toured in a Christmas show featuring many members of her family, including her daughter-in-law Debby Boone, with the Minnesota Symphony Orchestra. Her brother Nick became a US television personality and his son George Clooney a major film star. She received an Emmy nomination for her appearance with George in the medical drama ER. Her son Miguel Ferrer is a screen heavy, who has appeared in many films.

She played to a full house at the Royal Festival Hall with Michael Feinstein as part of an international tour in 2001 but earlier this year she had a lung removed following a diagnosis of cancer. Clooney was nominated for a Grammy in 2002 for her album with Big Kahuna and the Copa Cat Pack, Sentimental Journey, and at the same time received a Lifetime Achievement Award.