A Wonderful Singer - And Terrific Woman

by David Hinckley of the New York Daily News - July 1, 2002

Rosemary Clooney, who survived an unhappy life as a "girl singer" and went on to become a great interpreter of popular standards, was a wonderful songstress and a fabulous woman.

"She was a mensch," said Jonathan Schwartz, who played Clooney's music yesterday on WNYC and XM Satellite Radio, and was a close friend of the singer, who died late Saturday in Beverly Hills of lung cancer. She was 74.

"Everything about her had a lived-in feeling — her house, her food, her two very large dogs, her songs. She sang the greatest songs with the greatest wit."

Despite her stardom and the respect she inspired among musicians, friends say one of her greatest talents was being down-to-earth.

"She was a singer who made an incalculable contribution to American popular song by her extraordinary and wise interpretations of the classics," said singer Michael Feinstein.

Much of Clooney's most acclaimed work came in the last 20 years, after she took the unusual step of leaving the big-time record world to sign with the tiny Concord label.

"They let me sing what I'd always wanted to sing," she said in 1995. "The great pop and jazz standards."

She built a more enduring audience singing Gershwin and Cole Porter in small clubs and theaters than she did when she was the hottest pop singer in the country.

Her recording of "Come On-A My House" was No. 1 for eight weeks in 1951, and while she bitterly resisted what she considered a silly novelty record, it swept her to stardom.

Her first royalty check was for $130,000 and soon her classic blond beauty caught the eye of movie and television producers.

She co-starred with Bing Crosby in "White Christmas" in 1954, and had a TV variety series in 1956.

She married Jose Ferrer and had five children between 1955 and 1960. Collectively, she said later, all this created the pressure that led to a suicide attempt, a breakdown in 1968 and a stretch in a psychiatric ward.

She returned to the stage in 1975, at the urging of Crosby. "After all I'd been through, I discovered I understood what was in these songs I'd always wanted to sing," she said.

"Her singing was so accessible and so honest," Schwartz said. "You knew instantly what she was singing about."

The Clooney Sisters

Born to a show-business family in Kentucky in 1928, Clooney started her career with her younger sister. Betty. They debuted as the Clooney Sisters on Atlantic City's Steel Pier in 1947 before Rosemary went solo in 1949.

She signed with Columbia, where music director Mitch Miller forced her to sing "Come On-A My House."

After she returned to standards, she worked to increase public awareness and appreciation of that unique style.

Clooney also bought the house where George Gershwin lived in Beverly Hills, Schwartz noted, as well as the piano on which he wrote his last song, "Our Love Is Here To Stay."

"She and I would go to that piano and sing," Schwartz said. "And we would end the evening with a big plate of spaghetti. She had a difficult emotional life, but she was always a joy to be around. I loved her dearly."

Clooney is survived by her husband Dante DiPaolo, whom she married in 1996, her children, sister, brother and 10 grandchildren — and, of course, her famous nephew, actor George Clooney.

E-mail: dhinckley@edit.nydailynews.com



Original Publication Date: 7/1/02