Clooney's art was in her commitment to the songs

New Jersey's Courier-Post Staff - Tuesday, July 2, 2002
Read Christina's article from December 23, 1990

A friend once summed up Rosemary Clooney's art like this: " It's not about the singer; it's about the song."

Since Clooney's death Saturday at 74, obituary writers have focused on the obvious: the swift rise to fame, the five children in five years, the husband who "broke my heart in increments," the messy emotional breakdown and the hard-earned comeback.

But you can't talk about the legacy of Rosemary Clooney without noting this: The girl singer, as she liked to call herself, became a worldly interpreter of great American music, mostly on albums recorded in the last two decades for Concord Jazz.

Jazzmen took notice; so did Manhattan cabaret types, not an easy group to impress.

It is not a cliche to say Clooney's repertoire of songs - written for the most part by musical poets such as Cole Porter, Lorenz Hart, Richard Rodgers, Johnny Mercer and George and Ira Gershwin - is timeless.

But so is the way she sang those songs. Her voice had its limits, especially in later years as her weight ballooned. She wasn't a belter or a scat singer. She simply weaved a tale, bringing the experience of her life to every line, and - here's a concept - making every lyric clear and meaningful.

"She's one of the best friends a song ever had," said the inscription on an award given her by the American Society of Composer, Arrangers and Producers.

"If Rosemary Clooney really were just a band singer," wrote Peter Reilly, of Stereo Review magazine, "she'd be no more than a sentimental memory in the popular music world."

It could have happened. Clooney hated the song that started it all in 1951, "Come On-a My House." She described it as "a drunken chant." But like the dutiful contract artist she was, Clooney recorded it, along with other novelties, like "Botch-a Me," "Mambo Italiano" and, yes, " Pet Me Poppa."

(Even the great Sinatra once had to bark like a dog for a novelty song in the '50s. Clooney also had legitimate hits with "Tenderly" and "Hey There.")

Audiences don't forget the songs of their youth, even the bad ones. So Clooney - always warm and genial on stage, down to earth off - sang "Come On-a My House" whenever fans asked. She chuckled when someone confused her with Patti Page and requested "How Much is That Doggie in the Window?"

Clooney accepted it because, even when reduced to singing in Holiday Inns, she remained in the public's memory. Not for nothing was she chosen the spokeswoman for Coronet paper towels in the '70s. People liked her - it was as simple as that.

"Virtually everybody could identify with her, with her life," said Bob Craig, program director for nostalgia station WPEN-950 AM in Philadelphia. "She was like your aunt or mother."

"There's so much in Rosemary's voice ... the good and bad times ... maybe a hint that while we won't get out of it alive, we may get out of it intact," wrote Clooney's brother, Nick, on the liner notes for one of her albums.

"A wry understanding that the most important thing of all may be the moment frozen in time by a song."

For all her early success, Clooney's professional rebirth with Concord cemented her place in musical history. To listen to those Concord albums is to re-learn America's best music.

Think "Thanks for the Memory" is just Bob Hope's theme song? Clooney sings it as the smartly written lover's lament it was: Thanks for the memory, of candlelight and wine, castles on the Rhine/the Parthenon and moments on the Hudson River Line./How lovely it was.

On "Have I Stayed Too Long at the Fair," Clooney tells of the trials of fame and life on the road: Here in New York, I'm many worlds away from people who are dear to me./Here in New York, I'm learning every day, how very sad a carnival can be.

Clooney's Mothers and Daughters album, released five years ago, is distinctive for its take on motherhood, from a woman whose star-crossed life meant she wasn't always there for her children. In "And I'll Be There," she sings: Though you may not always see me/I'm right there by your side...If the rainbows fade, don't you be afraid/for I promise you I' ll be there.

Rosemary Clooney has left the stage, but the music plays on. Many years from now, when they're still talking about great songs and great singers, she'll be there.