Remembering Clooney's 'Rosie' Outlook on Singers
by Wayman Wong
Vocalists with vanity sing in the key of me, me, me, but that wasn't the late Rosemary Clooney's style. She had a healthy and happily self-deprecating sense of humor about her own work. At Rainbow & Stars, the former ritzy room atop Rockefeller Center, she once quipped, "I'm gonna do one of my songs from the '50s so you'll know who I am. People often mistake me for other singers and ask me to sing songs by Doris Day, Patti Page, even Johnnie Ray. I suppose they think, 'She's recorded so much crap that she must've done it.' "
And when her good friend and performer Michael Feinstein phoned to tell her she'd been nominated for a Grammy, along with Tony Bennett, she wisecracked, "What's the category: People over 64?"
In the couple of weeks since Clooney died June 29, much has been written about this legendary pop performer's indelible delivery. But I'd like to focus on another side of her that reflected her generosity of spirit and warmth. Everyone knows Clooney as a champion of songs, but she also was a champion of singers, past and present.
When I interviewed her 10 years ago for the New York Daily News, I naturally expected her to rave about her incredible contemporaries, like Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra. But I was surprised to learn that Clooney watched MTV, loved Mariah Carey and was even a fan of Madonna. "Even if you take away all the visuals, Madonna's approach to singing is extraordinary," she said. "I think 'This Used to Be My Playground' is one of the most tender songs. I really get angry at people who dismiss her. She's a damn good singer."
Clooney also applauded James Taylor and Paul Simon; found Michael Bolton "very powerful, sexy and attractive," and said that k.d. lang has "the most glorious voice in the world."
And Clooney's favorite singer? Linda Ronstadt. This was around the time the pop-rock star had gotten raves for her classic standards (with Nelson Riddle arrangements) and Mexican songs. "Linda's courageous," Clooney raved. "She takes her success and walks away from it. She takes chances all the time. She's got integrity. Can't say that about me. I couldn't say no to recording 'The Canasta Song,' possibly the worst song ever written, and I did it with great gusto."
Something else Clooney could do with gusto was recognize rising talent. Asked to name a new cabaret singer who impressed her back then, Clooney said she recently had seen "a really wonderful tenor" at a Lyrics & Lyricists concert in New York: Tom Andersen ("What a darling guy he is. I really liked him very much!").
Her praise was more than just lip service, especially when it came to younger performers. Clooney happily sang the praises of Nancy LaMott on Jonathan Schwartz' radio shows, and lent her glowing quotes to John Pizzarelli's "Kisses in the Rain" CD ("John Pizzarelli is a very important young artist. He sings about today and tomorrow, but uses the rich, limitless form of American pop song to do it"). Plus, she recorded a critically acclaimed album with him, "Brazil," in 2000, and the gifted singer-guitarist played for her many times.
Though she's gone, she'll be remembered "Tenderly." Feinstein, whom Clooney, a mother of five, considered her "sixth" child, told the BBC: "She was a singer who made an incalculable contribution to American popular song by her extraordinary and wise interpretations of these classics." Not only did she leave her mark on her audiences, but she made an impression on the generation of today's performers who will carry on her legacy. To quote Pizzarelli, "She [was] a true pro and sitting next to her and watching her work [was] one of the true highlights of my professional life."
Wayman Wong edits entertainment at the New York Daily News.