Clooney carried a torch for music

By Elysa Gardner, USA TODAY - By Rose Prouser, Reuters (6/30/2002 - Updated 09:12 PM ET )

The woman whom Tony Bennett called "the most beloved singer in America" led a life defined by personal and professional struggle. But Rosemary Clooney's voice was a source of comfort and joy for generations of music fans, and the fortitude she maintained right up to her final battle with lung cancer was equally inspiring. Clooney, who lost that battle Saturday at age 74, rose to fame in the early 1950s as an accessible, pleasant-looking "girl singer" — a term she would adopt decades later, with irony, as an album title

But like Frank Sinatra, she evolved from a pop idol into one of the most adroit and distinctive interpretive vocalists of the 20th century. Clooney's singing was a perfect marriage of warmth and wit, with a tone that could be both sultry and nurturing and a sense of rhythmic intuition admired by jazz and pop connoisseurs alike.

"She went through a lot of changes in her life, and her voice changed with her," says musician and club owner Michael Feinstein, Clooney's longtime friend and colleague. "It wasn't a beautiful instrument at the end."

But her power and clarity of expression remained constant, as did the dedication that kept her a prolific live performer until her recent illness. "It was difficult for her to travel in later years, and sometimes she would complain about going on the road," Feinstein says. "But once she got to a gig, something always came alive in her. Music was where her heart was."

Music played a more practical role in Clooney's youth, which was made financially and emotionally unstable by an alcoholic father and a mother who remarried, leaving the singer and her younger siblings, Betty and Nick, to essentially fend for themselves.

As teenagers, the girls performed together as the Clooney Sisters. In 1949, Betty left the act, and Rosemary signed a record deal and began working with producer Mitch Miller.

According to Feinstein, the young Clooney was "forced by her record company to sing pop fluff," such as her breakthrough hit, the 1951 No. 1 single Come On-A My House. "At first she refused to sing that song. But Mitch Miller said, 'If you don't, you're fired.' She longed to sing classic material, but they wouldn't let her."

Clooney's growing popularity, enhanced by her appearances in films such as White Christmas with Bing Crosby and Here Come the Girls with Bob Hope, eventually helped her gain more autonomy. Working with such giants as Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington and Nelson Riddle, Clooney proved an expert purveyor of elegant standards, particularly the kind of haunting ballads featured on her 1963 masterwork, Love.

Clooney's affinity for torch songs was informed by her marriage to actor Jose Ferrer, whom she divorced after giving birth to five children. A subsequent prescription-drug dependency helped contribute to a nervous breakdown the singer suffered in 1968.

Clooney bounced back in the '70s, though, joining Crosby for his last major tour, securing a new record contract and publishing an autobiography, Girl Singer, that inspired a TV movie. In 1995, she earned an Emmy nomination for appearing on ER — opposite nephew George Clooney — and celebrated her 50th year in show business.

"Her warmth and sparkling personality will be greatly missed," Bennett said.