Rosemary Clooney: May 28, 1928 - June 29, 2002

A personal appreciation

by Bernhard Vogel

"Without Frank Sinatra, my life wouldn’t be the same. Nor would any other singer’s life". Rosemary Clooney made her point very clear when asked about The Voice days after Sinatra’s passing in May 1998. From a totally different angle, I agree with her. Without Frank Sinatra, my life wouldn’t be the same, either. That’s a line of course probably all of us would agree upon. However, in this case there is a different meaning to it, as far as I am concerned...

Belonging to a generation to which Jazz and Swing was not exactly "hip", as they call it today, being raised in a strictly „non-musical“ household while growing up in a country offering little to no chance to catch Frank or his likes on radio or television on a regular basis unless haunting for it, Frank Sinatra’s music was my special entrance to the wonders of the Great American Songbook. Through his songs I learned about the likes of the Gershwin brothers, Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Cahn & van Heusen, Irving Berlin and many others. Through his records I got acquainted with the orchestral talents of Nelson Riddle, Billy May, Gordon Jenkins, Tommy Dorsey, Harry James etc. At some point, I started to listen to other singers who did Frank’s kind of music, both vocally, and instrumentally. I started to embark on Big Band trips with the likes of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton and Benny Goodman. I started to listen to Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sammy Davis jr., Tony Bennett, just to name a few. I discovered Judy Garland, whom today I’d name my personal musical hero right after Sinatra. And one day, I started to listen to Rosemary Clooney.

The main attraction was her part on the 1963 "Reprise Musical Repertory Theatre" set, the 4-LP box of which I bought a copy second hand about seven years ago (only recently, it has been re-issued in a marvelous 4-CD-set by Reprise). The duet with Sinatra on "Some Enchanted Evening" was excellent, of course, but then there was a beautiful song I hadn’t heard, a haunting melody, a ‚chaser‘ you might call it (the German expression would be „ear-worm“), something grabbing my ear ever since I first heard it: "Look To The Rainbow", by Yip Harburg and Burton Lane, from the score of "Finian’s Rainbow". At the time, I was Sinatralised enough to recognise that some outstanding lyrical talent was singing that song. For sure there were some other great recordings? Having just joined the web I asked my Sinatra friends. There were responses, and tape switchings, and purchases. Today I have most of Rosie that’s on CD (I think), and I wouldn’t want to be without it. That’s why, in a Clooney sense, Sinatra changed my life.

All of these thoughts, however, come to mind today on a sad occasion, with the press agencies spreading the news that Rosemary Clooney is gone. And I’m including all this on what is supposed to be a personal farewell, because I think it might illustrate pars pro toto what a great loss the world of music has just suffered.

The headlines of her professional life will for sure be distributed through the tickers for the next couple of days: Born in Kentucky. Difficult youth. Young star attraction as part of "The Clooney Sisters" with Tony Pastor’s Orchestra. Commercial hit parade climber with some not too timeless, err, songs sponsored by Mitch Miller. So-and-so career into the mid-Sixties. Trauma from her being a close-up eye-witness when Senator Robert Kennedy was assassinated at The Ambassador. Breakdown, drugs and hide-away for years. Comeback and harvest recordings. Shiny actress, partner of Bing Crosby in "White Christmas". Mother of five, and grandma of ten.

And uhh, yes, aunt of George Clooney ("everybody swoon". Boy we’ve had that, haven’t we).

I am not going to follow that scheme. For sure, there’s nothing wrong about it. Any obituary has to include the above. And yet: I’m afraid many of them will just stick to it. Maybe some will add José Ferrer, stormy marriage, even twice. Private downs, musical ups. Same old story.

Rather, I would like to highlight a few individual recordings I have fallen in love with, that in my opinion, may as well reflect the greatness of her musical talents - and her real talent, I think, was herself being a Jazz vocalist.

Clooney has earned much praise, and rightfully so, for her output on the Concord label (from 1976 onwards), but it was all there as early as 1956, when she did one of her all-time best albums, "Blue Rose" with The Duke Ellington Orchestra (recently re-issued on Columbia/Legacy CK 65506). Comparisons have been drawn to Sinatra’s 1968 effort with Ellington, placing Rosie on top - I won’t disagree, but still, take into consideration that the 1956 album was made with overdubs only, with Rosie being pregnant and not able to go to a live studio session with Duke. As a result, the Ellington organisation laid down orchestral tracks - all of them impeccably done, of course - and Rosie worked "alone" with the tapes to do her part. Great advantage? Right, and wrong. Wrong because this way there’s no chance of creating a ‚special something‘ in-promptu atmosphere between the singer and the band. Plus, there’s the danger of a vocalist overdoing his lines, knowing what solos and improvisations will be next. The result, therefore, will only be right when the vocalist does both, support what the orchestra is playing next and at the same time NOT sound ahead of the game. Rosemary Clooney scored by not only avoiding these traps, but in contrast, singing her lyrical and slightly scatting parts in such a down-to-earth, unmannered, straight-to-the-point way that you could as well dub her a "non-Jazz Jazz Singer". She just blends in beautifully with the long instrumental solo parts, without ever being at risk to vanish into nowhere with her vocal, because she brings alive the words whenever she sings (something even Ella Fitzgerald would sometimes give away in favour of rhythm and rhyme) while always keeping the tempo, be it ballad as in "I Got It Bad And That Ain’t Good," be it swinging-kicks as in "I’m Checking Out, Goombye".

"Blue Rose" laid the path for most of her work for the Concord label, that she joined with "Everything’s Coming Up Rosie" (CCD-4047) to stay with until her last recordings in 2001. From the very start, her Concord output was focussed on small-group Jazz, quintets, sextets and octets, only occasionally augmented by a Big Band. Famous soloists from the label, namely Scott Hamilton (on tenor saxophone) became regulars from the beginning. And Clooney’s voice, slightly darkened, was even the more exploring the nuances and pure meanings of the song lyrics, never reaching for the emotional depths as much as Sinatra but sometimes evoking quite a similar effect by just "simply singing what the words say". "Simply" is the key word here, that reflects true artistry. Any singer who wants to sound like that, has to be ready for hard work, and needs a good deal of „it’s there or not“ talent. Rosemary was both, so with each new album, she would also teach Great Songbook singing lessons.

Unlike others, namely Sinatra, she would stick to the lines as originally written, but never ever would there be a second of "boring purism": Throughout her Concord recordings there is not a shade of it. What is "boring purism"? Well, I think, the singing of Michael Feinstein is constantly offering it. I say this with all due respect to his essential role for our kind of music, not only as an artist who through his work keeps our kind of music alive, but also, as a keen archivist who through his work for the late Ira Gershwin steadily grew up to the role of some type of "Rescue Force" for original masters, recordings, sheets and documents (for proof, check out what the new "Sinatra in Hollywood" set booklet tells about his role in preparing the release). Nevertheless: Concord Clooney always managed to put some personality, some vivid meaning, some "good life" into the lyrics - how else would she have been able to transform "Where The Blue Of The Night" (on "Rosie Sings Bing" CCD 4460, 1977), that Crosby anthem, into a charmingly soft-swinging musical chestnut that is pure pleasure to listen to without ever missing ‚Der Bingle‘?

You might as well take the whole album "Sings The Music Of Cole Porter" (CCD-4185, 1982), a hot swinging package of twelve numbers. Each chart is a "listen-and-learn-daddy" Cole-Porter-Lesson, to Great Songbook newbies as well as any sophisticated listener, because of the incredible simplicity with which Rosemary sings the lines. Clooney‘s singing on this album demonstrates, much better than a huge shelf of books on Cole Porter could or will ever explain in written word, the innocent yet double-bottomed wittiness of his lyrical compositions. Listen to her version of "My Heart Belongs To Daddy", and how she phrases the lines "While other dames/at football games/may long for a strong under-graddy/I’d never dream/of making the team/‘cause my heart belongs to daddy". And no matter how often you do, you won’t escape the impression that in some way she "just sings" these lines... still (or rather: that’s why) the results are very close to genius.

At the time that "Dedicated To Nelson" (CCD 4685) was released in 1996, Clooney had already made a couple of recordings on Concord re-uniting her with the Big Band sounds she came from. But this album was special: It contained songs she had sung in the Fifties on her own TV show orchestrated by Nelson Riddle, and with the original arrangement sheets having vanished, the Concord team led by Rosemary’s now regular pianist and arranger John Oddo, helped by Peter Matz, copied the charts by listening to the tapes, note-by-note, to re-create the Riddle magic of way back when, but still leaving space in-between for the Concord-type instrumental solos. A razor-edged business, since Riddle, like Frank, isn’t to be repeated. Yet the result, in my opinion, was nothing short of spectacular: I don’t know of any newly recorded album after Riddle’s death in 1985 that equally captures the original magic. For instance, "We’re In The Money", right from the start, is as grabbingly Riddlesque as any original orchestration by Nelson, and then hear and snap your fingers on Rosie’s phrasing "If you see the landlord/you can look-that-guy-right-in-the-eye"...

The album was a landmark, if widely ignored or dismissed by the critics (without any personal aside intended: Check „Perfectly Frank“ #258, pp. 26 sq.). Some didn’t even bother to compare the album tracks to the original TV versions - if done so there would have been lots of "ooh"s. Not to speak of the tracks' specific Clooney history, e.g. that Nelson’s original arrangement of the up-tempo "Come Rain Or Come Shine" came before the very similar one for Judy Garland that would become immortal. Or the poignant fact that Rosie at some point was said to have had "a good thing going" with Nelson. This is one of the few occasions where the gossip columns' stuff, the private matters that by far and large should be none of our business as music fans, becomes important and must be mentioned.

However, Riddle’s all-time masterwork tracks with Capitol Sinatra aside, there also are a few Clooney tracks the Concord remake can’t, and possibly was never supposed to, compare with: "Rosie Solves The Swinging Riddle", recorded in 1960, is Clooney’s all-time master album with Nelson. True, Riddle didn’t invent his "heart-beat" rhythm for Rosie... but maybe it has never ever been "there" more than on this album. Take the first ten or so seconds of the instrumental opening to its first track, "Get Me To The Church On Time": Or take the way Nelson had brass going with, and respond to, Rosemary’s lines "Just because I took a look at somebody else/that’s no reason you should put poor me on the shelf" in "Angry". There are Riddle moments galore, far too many to mention them all - boy! if this record doesn’t grab your collective feet, you’d better hang up for good and stay with Eddie Fisher records! It has been re-issued on a rather expensive CD (given the fact that it is as short as "Sinatra’s Swinging Session", with no bonus tracks added on the RCA/BMG 30032), but each bar is worth any dime. Along with "Blue Rose" it should headline each Clooney retrospective, while the 1996 Concord album conatins a more than welcome offering of additional "solutions" to that ever-swinging Riddle.

It seems only natural that Clooney, with her regained confidence on Concord, also succeeded in the ballad field. There are dozens but may I mention just one: "When October Goes", an outstanding Johnny Mercer lyric that was left behind when the great poet died in 1976, to whitch Barry Manilow wrote a haunting, if simple, melody. On "Sings The Lyrics Of Johnny Mercer" (CCD 4333, 1987), accompanied by just John Oddo on piano, Rosemary delivers a heart-breaking rendition that if anything, leaves you wondering about what Sinatra might have been able to do further with this tune... What lines! "And when October goes/the same old dream appears/and I am in your arms/to share the happy years/I turn my head away/to hide/the helpless tears", and at the end: "I should be over it now, I know/it doesn’t matter much how far they grow/I hate to see/October/gooooo". Twinkling piano. Evoking all Octobers ever gone by. A perfect saloon song, one of my all-time favourite Clooney recordings. Play it now. And listen.

Both elements, the small-group Jazz chestnut assemblies as well as the poignant ballads, were presented by Clooney on Concord in a number of excellent "Songbook" albums (Gershwin, Mercer, Holiday, Crosby, Berlin, Rodgers & Hart & Hammerstein). Then, more recently, Clooney started to record more on the nostalgic side. "Mothers and Daughters" (CCD 4757, 1997) includes many a misty tune, but always in Concord style, no room here for any flat kitsch. She was addressing her family, both through songs and liner notes, and in the combination of both, the album amounts to some kind of testimony from the loving mother and grandmother she was, an attitude she transported into the charming renditions heard on this album ("A Child Is Only A Moment"). And then, the album contained her revival of that one special song, "Look To The Rainbow", the one that got it all started for me as far as Rosie is concerned, every bar as beautiful as sung 34 years before... "Follow the fellow that follows a dream".

Two years earlier, on her 1995 "Demi-Centennial" (CCD 4633), among many other decently sentimental songs ("Danny Boy", "How Will I Remember You") dedicated to friends and colleagues from her life-long career, she had introduced a concept that now, in the wake of her passing, is set to become her legacy: Some kind of philosophical mini-lectures packed to hauntingly beautiful songs. The teasers here are "Time Flies", an incredibly poignant Jimmy Webb composition, and "Dear Departed Past", written by Dave Frishberg. The latter song is the ultimate risque for any romantic singer: A long 6:23 minutes of lines recollecting things, and scenes, and livings, and attitudes, that are gone. Just one wrong vocal step here, and the whole thing sounds like the immortal yet timelessly boring "the Old cries for the arrival of the New", which in other words, is romance sentenced to death. But Rosemary, as Nick Clooney understatingly puts it in his liner notes, "retains the grace of perspective".

Maybe that’s another clue: The grace of perspective. That grain of salt. The wisdom of age.

Rosemary Clooney had the wisdom of age, for sure. Listen to how she sings "White Cliffs Of Dover" as a piano ballad (on "For The Duration" CCD 4444), or take the tracks from her last album, "Sentimental Journey" (CCD 4952, 2001), recorded in Big-Band-style, where she would embark on such personal confessions as "I‘m The Big Band Singer" as well as all-time favourites like "And The Angels Sing", knowing that a little lack of breath wouldn’t mean a thing, as long as it had that swing. And to secure the latter, she would rely on a Big Band consisting entirely of young musicians, none of which were around during the Golden Age of Swing. One cannot underestimate the importance of such a choice. It wasn’t by chance. It was a programmatic confession: Take the young and carry them along. The only true wisdom of age.

Rosemary Clooney has had „her times“, when virtually nothing was “Coming Up Rosie”, times that might have taught her the things that count: Health, love, and family. As for everything else, including music: Take it all with a grain of salt.

The grace of perspective, however, was there ever since Rosemary Clooney started to make serious records. "Blue Rose" wasn’t the first, but the first significant one - it is my belief that you can’t awaken what’s not already there. Her perspective talents might have been further shaped, enhanced, sharpened through the years. But in substance, they were born in Kentucky, 1928, May 28th.

Best of all, audible proof from these collective talents she had continued to bring to us on a regular path. Check the Concord catalogue and you will see that new albums were done on an almost annual basis, even in the past few years when health problems would already affect her schedule. You can’t escape drawing the comparison by stating that Clooney, in her harvest years, just did what Sinatra should have done, especially in the first half decade or so following the 1980 "Trilogy": Do some recordings. Forget about the pop market, or the personal setback from the bad reviews for "The Future". Keep doing your thing.

You could state the same regarding those "mini-lectures" on the wisdom of life that Rosie did so well. Sinatra could have done that, too. One could argue of course, that in a sense, he has done it through most of his career. But it will always remain a matter of reading between the lines - how about an album that would have been conceived that way from the very start? For instance, from the talents of Jimmy Webb who provided notes and lines for the aforementioned Clooney miracle of "Time Flies", there are three "Sinatra examples" of what The Voice was able to do with such material: "Whatever Happened To Christmas" (drop the annoying vocal chorus and it somewhat automatically becomes the best thing he ever recorded on this side), "Didn’t We", and "MacArthur Park". An album consisting of Jimmy Webb tunes written especially for Sinatra was discussed at some point in the Seventies... just imagine... Imagination, of course, as the song says, is funny. Or rather, it’s wishful thinking in this context, because it just wasn’t Sinatra’s way of approaching things, and the record shows that "his way" was the right thing for him. But it should be mentioned here because, at least as far as I am concerned, the fact that Rosemary seems to have been "beyond the worries" in her latter years, embarking on new material without too much concern about whether or not it would be a commercial success, adds a good deal to my personal appreciation of her harvest recording artistry.

The bottom line of all this, in short, should be a deep expression of gratitude for Rosemary’s music. Happily, her catalogue has been very well served in digital age, with most of the Concord albums still being in print (but whatever became of her excellent duet album with pianist McPartland?), and the fabulous three multi-CD-sets from Bear Family covering all her songs from the beginning up to 1968, along with absolutely excellent booklets on song history, background and discographical details. So it’s all there to listen to, and recapture. Wrote Nick Clooney in his 1994 liner notes to "Demi-Centennial": "In case I and your family and friends, and a few million others around the globe, have neglected to mention it in the last fifty years: Thanks, Rosemary".

Well, she’s had her well-deserved share of Thanks, over the past three years, at her own annual Maysville, Kentucky, Rosemary Clooney Festival. Plus an extra encore when she appeared in London last year, back in the city that hosted her 1976 triumphant comeback (sharing the bill with her close friend Bing Crosby) from both artistic and personal agony. 25 years later, she would still bring down the house, simply by being her charming grandma old self. Nobody couldn’t ask for more. If you wan’t a glimpse of what exactly a "charming grandma old self" is, catch the Video of her 1995 "Demi-Centennial" TV special, especially when she is joined on stage by parts of her family. Just watch. You’ll see what I’m alluding to.

So now she’s gone. "Who’s Sorry Now?" - in a sense, nobody should be. The 1998-2001 Maysville Festivals, and her London farewell last summer, were not just footnotes to another century career spinning to its close. Anyone who was lucky enough to see Clooney on stage recently, and the more, anyone who with the ears, and the soul, of a true music lover while listening to Rosie’s final albums, would very easily hear, and witness, and feel, her joyfully confident, trademark vitality that shone from behind each and every line she sang. For which she received due ovations from her audiences, and earlier this year, a lifetime Grammy Award, that she was already to frail to accept in person. Yet, for sure, it must have meant a lot to her spirits. It was reported these days that in her last conversation with George, she was full of happy anticipation to join her people again at this year’s Clooney festival. No doubt, she would have gone on singing, and recording.

I won’t get tired of repeating this again and again: What a blessing it must be, for an artist who throughout the decades brought to our homes, and hearts, so many wonderful songs, to be able to stay around long enough to receive such honours, and feel applause not only for a single performance but for a lifetime’s work as well, making it easier to pass on the torch in a natural way. Frank Sinatra, of course, through his Early Nineties‘ revivals on and off stage, has also been that lucky. The great Judy Garland wasn’t. Nor was Billie Holiday, or Nat King Cole, or many others whose work we still cherish today. Rosemary was blessed. This for remembrance.

Finally, while Counting Her Blessings, I feel Rosemary’s quick passing is another one. Following most recent press reports and website articles on her second cancer attack, it’s obvious that by "checking out, goombye" she was just saved from some hide-away, non-performing existence. (Anyone who needs graphic details, check Tina Sinatra’s recent account of her father’s final months.) It probably won’t help the Clooney family with their present grief, but imagining eternal heaven’s inhabitants "Clap Hands! Here Comes Rosie" right now, is not too sad a thought, either.

Especially not given her tribute to Sinatra that’s present on her final labum, the aforementioned "Sentimental Journey", issued last year. One track, called "The Singer", was written, and accompanied, by Frank’s pal Vinnie Falcone jr. especially for her to pay tribute to Frank (see lyrics) - on the album, the track is melted into her reading of "The Way You Wear Your Hat", equally aimed at Sinatra. And here Rosemary, certainly not by coincidence, makes one short single exception from her trademark way of sticking to original lyrics, an exception that tells it ALL, by means of style, and way of approach. I do consider this special one-word change to be the nucleus of Rosie’s admirably understating attitude. The Gershwins, as far as I know, wrote "the way your smile just beams/the way you sing off key", as sung by Capitol Sinatra 1953. Which was obviously meant to be the kind of "My Funny Valentine" message: I love you with all your faults. Now in 2001, Rosemary is singing the song for Frank, and she sings "...the way you sing ON key". Such are moments that make me shiver. Because by doing so she was that much "on key"... Paying respect by changing just ONE word. No fuss, no extra lines. Just one word. Everybody "ready" would understand. And for those who wouldn’t, hey! Go get a living! Summary: "You either got or you haven’t got style". Rosie got class.

End of review, but not end of story.

Because after all the philosophy, you can’t escape the fact that this is also about saying Good-bye.

That is, at least I can’t escape it. Sinatra, for me, is "beyond" by any means (need I to explain that? No, I don’t think so). In another way, so is Judy, but when I started to fall in love with her music, she was long-gone, a "voice from the past" so to speak. Rosemary, however, was there and alive and recording as I started to cherish her albums, and she continued to be. The annual Clooney Concord was something to wait for. (As probably was the annual album by Frank for those of you older Sinatraphile collectors.) Up to now. "Now, all is gone". That’s why for me, even as I know her only from screen and record, it is a very personal, very sad good-bye.

And when it comes to good-byes, you cannot escape Cole Porter. He composed a song once: "Every time we say good-bye/I die a little": There are many lines in this song worth a reprint. Such as "Why the Gods above me/who must be in the know/think so little of me/they allow you to go". And you might have guessed it: In my opinion, nobody ever did this song better than Rosie Clooney. On Concord 1991. The album, as mentioned above, is called "For The Duration" - and that’s the message, friends, that I stick to these days. Rosemary’s music will be there for the duration. Some might go as far as to say that little to none does change, for music lovers, with a beloved artist passing by, as long as the records continue to be there. It isn’t exactly so, but to some extent, yes. The duration of recorded music offers relief. „How strange the change from major to minor“ (still Cole Porter). Or else: "Cathedral bells were tolling/but our hearts sang on..."

Oh well - it’s time now for me to follow Frank’s advice: Guess I’ll hang my tears out to dry.

But before I close, just in case I forgot to mention it in my above ramblings:

Thank you, Rosemary, and god bless.

And sleep warm.

"How will I remember you?"

Bernhard Vogel