"Her audience thought of her as a friend -- Rosemary Clooney: A singer rivalled only by Sinatra"

by Robert Cushman, National Post, July 06, 2002

The first time I spoke to Rosemary Clooney I started by telling her, truthfully, that she was my favourite singer. It seemed the best way of starting, and apparently she thought so too since she laughed in a gratified (and, to me, gratifying) "I-think-I-might-enjoy-this-interview" kind of way. She laughed a lot.

This was in October, 2000, and she was on the phone from her house in California, about to leave for a tour that included a night at Roy Thomson Hall: her last ever gig in Toronto, as it turned out. We talked for an hour. Two things stay with me apart from the laughter. One was when I mentioned The Way You Look Tonight, a favourite song of mine that she had never recorded and that I thought she should; she immediately started singing it for me, as the most natural way of carrying on the conversation. (Breaking into song in the middle of speech was apparently something she did often.) She also interrupted me when I began likening her singing to Frank Sinatra's. "I'm not as good," she said firmly.

Maybe not, but I can't think of anyone in the pop-jazz-cabaret-standards spectrum who comes closer: Nobody else who so personalized her material while still respecting its native contours, nobody so adept at using rhythm to illuminate the meaning of a lyric, nobody with a voice so beguilingly layered.

It would have been interesting, if intimidating, to meet Sinatra, but it was never a consuming ambition of mine. (Just as well, since it never happened.) I really wanted to meet Clooney. Reading the tributes that have appeared in print and on the Internet since her death last Saturday at the age of 73, I have discovered that many others felt just as I did. Her audiences thought of her as a friend.

Applied to most pop singers, that would be cloyingly sentimental, but in this case it isn't. Clooney, more than any other performer, brought out, exemplified, the humanity in that most human of artistic monuments, the Great American Songbook. I did get to meet her in person, after her Toronto performance. She had a lot of physical problems even before the lung cancer that took her life, and her weight didn't help, and one wished that during her performance (which had mostly been superb) she had sat down more; the audience certainly wouldn't have minded, any more than we minded her sensible habit of wearing her glasses on stage. She was sitting, and obviously weary, in her dressing-room, but still she was a delight. "Miss Clooney --", one of her fans began. "Please," she said. "Rosemary." And so, for the rest of this story, it shall be.

As a performer, Rosemary dispensed a unique blend of joy and intelligence, wit and warmth: nice, but no pushover. Her humour, comfortably self-deprecating, bubbled over between numbers, playfully alluding to her million-selling career in the '50s without ever turning into a nostalgia act. ("I'm going to sing Hey There so you'll remember which one I was"; "Come On-a My House was based on an Armenian folk-song and sung by an Irish-American, so naturally we did it in an Italian accent"; "Don't try watching White Christmas if it isn't Christmas.")

She also talked a lot about her five children, her grandchildren on whose unruliness she was hilarious ("The kid's outta the will!") and, latterly, about her famous nephew, George.

There were other things in her past that she didn't allude to on stage: the strains of juggling the children, the career and a marriage (two, actually) to the philandering José Ferrer; the affair with Nelson Riddle, who orchestrated two of her best early albums; the breakdown that sent her, after witnessing the murder of her friend Robert Kennedy, into a mental hospital.

Most of her audience, though, was probably aware of them (there have been a couple of unsparing, though also unwallowing, autobiographies) and appreciated, even shared, the way she had turned herself around, into a new person and a new musician, with a happy new relationship, eventually a marriage, that was a large part of her salvation.

For the last 20 years she recorded for Concord Jazz, turning out an album a year, nearly all of them excellent, and constituting a legacy unapproached by any recent singer in the idiom. Working for a jazz label, and with small, stellar groups of musicians, liberated her; she may not have improvised but she swung, and her beat was unforced and irresistible. It enabled her to combine what had previously been disparate aspects of her musical personality. Before, there had been the infectious singer of up-tempo jollities and a sedate, mournful dispenser of ballads, plangent but lacking an edge. She needed to grow into her voice, or it needed to deepen to catch up with her. Even the best of her earlier albums (Blue Rose, with Duke Ellington; Love, with Riddle) pale in comparison to the Concords. Now, even her torch songs had a pulse and a tang; her version, for example, of One for My Baby, the ultimate saloon song, is the only one to compare with Sinatra's. Meanwhile, her comedic numbers were wryly incomparable. She made I Wish I Were in Love Again, the great anti-love song, sound swift and unanswerable, ending it with a laconic, spoken "Damn," the aural equivalent of a shrug of the shoulders. She sang Dave Frishberg's I Want to Be a Sideman with a delicious sense of the lyric's incongruity when coming from a woman and a matching embrace of its truth to the life of any working musician.

Her final album, Sentimental Journey, released last year, kicks off with the best version I've ever heard of That Old Black Magic, the only one that's neither tossed-off nor self-consciously torrid, and the only one in which the images -- the icy fingers and the elevators -- take on a solid existence. It also includes an awkward new song about Sinatra that's immediately redeemed by a real tribute: a performance of They Can't Take That Away from Me, whose first line is "The way you wear your hat"; for the nonce Rosemary changes "the way you sing off-key" to a decisive "on key." (Compare the way she just perceptibly isolates "the song that Crosby sings" in These Foolish Things, as a tribute to another colleague and mentor.) Yes, the breath grew short (to paraphrase September Song, another of her great ones) but she worked around it. Maturity -- a kind of sensual grandmotherliness -- became her; it seemed like wisdom. Late in her career, she was able to sing James Taylor's The Secret of Life, and sound as if she might actually have found it.

I envy those who really knew her. No singer can have been more loved.