"Rosemary Clooney, Popular Singer with Immaculate Phrasing and Timing"
by John Fordham
London Guardian, July 1, 2002
Rosemary Clooney, who has died aged 74 of complications from lung cancer, always rejected the "jazz singer" tag. And some of the most celebrated events of her long career, such as the pop hit "Mambo Italiano" and a starring role with Bing Crosby in the 1954 film "White Christmas," might suggest that judgment was close to the mark. Yet this sophisticated singer, who was also the aunt of actor George Clooney, worked with many of the leading lights in swing and mainstream jazz in the second half of her career, without a hint that she or her partners considered themselves to be in the wrong company.
Clooney recorded some of the best music of her life with illustrious jazz partners at the age of 60, as if making up for the years that showbiz and then mental illness stole from her music. Her later work provided some salutary reminders of the treachery of labels such as "jazz" or "non-jazz." Though Clooney was not the kind of jazz vocalist to pretend she was really an instrument (as Ella Fitzgerald might do), she was, nevertheless, a singer of immaculate phrasing and timing, who was at ease in informal settings, responsive to partners and was also highly inventive.
In the 1970s, the music industry she had grown up in finally appreciated her by awarding her a Grammy for a lifetime's achievements. But Clooney might have considered herself entitled to a lifetime achievement award for sheer survival as much as for musical success.
She was born one of three siblings to alcoholic parents in Maysville, Kentucky (a young aunt also died of a drugs and alcohol overdose in Clooney's childhood), and she spent much of her childhood parked with relatives. "You'll manage," was her mother's frequent message, and the struggle with loneliness and rejection implanted in Clooney a desire to please those around her that she later judged to be a source of much of her subsequent pain.
At 16, after the family had moved to Ohio, Clooney and her sister Betty auditioned for a Cincinnati radio station, WLW. Appearing on the "Moon River" show, she and her sister were heard by bandleader Barney Rapp, who recommended them to the saxophonist, Louis Armstrong-like vocalist and Artie Shaw sidekick, Tony Pastor. The sisters then began a three-year run of touring one-nighters with Pastor from 1945 -- with Clooney cutting her first solo record with "I'm Sorry I Didn't Say I'm Sorry When I Made You Cry Last Night" in the following year.
By 1950 Clooney was a Columbia Records signing, but her work was often becalmed in the novelty and children's songs that frequently dominated the work of female popular singers in the early post-war years. "Me and My Teddy Bear" and "Little Johnny Chickadee" were hits for her. But Columbia A&R man Mitch Miller then directed Clooney toward more romantic songs, concentrating on the warmth and depth of her voice. "You're Just In Love" and "Beautiful Brown Eyes" were modest hits in 1951, before she went to went to number one with "Come On-A-My House" from the musical "The Son," and then had a string of successes with "Tenderly," "Half As Much," "Botcha-Me," duets with Marlene Dietrich on "Too Old To Cut The Mustard" and with Gene Autry on "The Night Before Christmas Song."
"Hey There," "This Ole House" and "Mambo Italiano" topped the charts, and the cutesy baby-boomer novelty song "Where Will The Dimple Be" was one of the last of the Clooney pop hits. The singer also had her own television show in the 1950s, often displaying her in partnership with close-harmony group the Hi-Lo's.
Clooney had married the actor-director José Ferrer in 1953, and her career and her life took new turns, not all of them positive. Ferrer sang with her on the British hit "Woman," and helped her into a film career beginning with "The Stars Are Singing" (1953) and continuing in 1954 with "Here Come The Girls" (with Bob Hope), "Red Garters" and "Deep In My Heart." Rosemary Clooney's long association with Bing Crosby also began in that year with "White Christmas," and their friendship continued for the rest of Crosby's life. Its musical high point was widely considered to be the travelogue album "Fancy Meeting You Here," with writers Sammy Cahn and James Van Heusen on board.
Ferrer's consistent unfaithfulness, however, created a destructive chemistry when mixed with Clooney's childhood memories of rejection. The singer's instinct was to adhere to her childhood faith in the line of least resistance, but troubled by her marriage and frequently exposed to the disruptions of road life, she became increasingly dependent on barbiturates. Clooney would recall using her celebrity status to wheedle hotel doctors into oversupplying her with prescription drugs, and as her consumption accelerated she became increasingly prone to mood swings and paranoia; this put her career on hold for much of the 1960s.
Eventually, in June 1968, a friend, the comedian Shecky Green, persuaded Clooney, to take an ambulance to Mount Sinai hospital. The admission that she had to stop and face what had happened to her life was the starting point both of her physical recovery, and the relaunch of her jazz career.
She described much of this troubled period in her 1977 autobiography "This For Remembrance," which was subsequently turned into a TV programme called "Escape From Madness." Her recovery was followed by a deal with Concord Records that produced a succession of excellent discs from the 1970s on frequently finding the singer in the company of such classy mainstreamers as the saxophonist Scott Hamilton and the cornettist Warren Vache. At the turn of the 1970s and into the 1980s, Clooney recorded superb tributes to the songs of Harold Arlen, Cole Porter and Duke Ellington, with her unhurried delivery and poise uncovering new layers in the songs.
The 1987 Johnny Mercer tribute was probably Clooney's finest hour, with Scott Hamilton and Warren Vache assisting in the singer's assured handling of an inspired collection of Mercer classics. Though later Concord programmes veered toward the nostalgic or the saccharine-flavoured (wartime songs, mothers-and-daughters celebrations) and Clooney's voice occasionally began to betray its real age a little more, she nevertheless maintained a remarkable consistency into her last years.
Clooney's experiences with mental breakdown also heightened her inclination to make more time for charity work -- "wearing white gloves and a smile" as she put it. One of the singer's last musical triumphs was her 1998 collaboration, "At Long Last," with the Count Basie legacy band, which covered a selection of indestructible songs negotiated with adroitness by one of the finest American singers to have emerged from an era when jazz and pop were far more intimately entwined.
She is survived by her five children from her two marriages to Ferrer. They divorced, twice, in 1961 and 1967. In 1996 she married Dante Di Paolo.