"Remember Rosemary Clooney when you count your blessings"

By Don Freeman, San Diego Union-Tribune, July 5, 2002

 With the death of Rosemary Clooney we have lost a wonderful singer. Her gifts were as natural as a spring rain. With her ingratiatingly personal style, she knew instinctively the art of interpreting a lyric. She sang the truth.

On hearing the first note of a Clooney recording, you knew it was Rosemary casting a definable spell that put you in mind of the misty aura that late afternoon brings to the Golden Gate Bridge.

I think now of a recording on the Concord label called "Rosemary Clooney – a Seventieth Birthday Celebration." Here was, on all counts, a grand collection produced and arranged by Johnny Mandel (who composed the music for "M*A*S*H.") On this album, she was celebrating her birthday. She was also giving celebration to a manner of singing wherein you understood at once that she was, basically, a great jazz singer. That was undeniable in the same sense that Frankie Laine is a great jazz singer. Their major hits, Rosemary's and Frankie's, stem from the popular idiom but the interpretation of the songs were invariably propelled by jazz phrasing. Jazz furnished the electricity.

Rosemary's first reviews compared her favorably to Ella Fitzgerald, one of the foremost jazz singers. Later, Rosemary would say that this comparison, which delighted her, undoubtedly affected her singing.

She loathed the song, by the way, that jolted her into stardom – it was called "Come On-a My House" and Mitch Miller, at the helm of Columbia, directed her to sing this song by William Saroyan in an Armenian accent. But the only accent she knew was, more or less, Italian. The accent was more appropriate for a subsequent hit, "Mambo Italiano." Around the same time she was recording basic American tunes such as "Tenderly" and "Hey There" and "This Old House."

And it was Mike Nichols, the director, who once said about Rosie Clooney: "She sings like Spencer Tracy acts." With strength and economy and a compellingly unforgettable honesty. The meaning of a song's story clearly fascinated her from the time she came out of her Kentucky birthplace in the town of Maysville and sang at radio stations in Cincinnati with her sister Betty.

Rosemary always had a feeling for words. She once offered a singer's view of how it is giving voice to Ira Gershwin's lyrics: "It feels as though you just thought of them." She recorded with the Benny Goodman Sextet and with Harry James and in "Blue Rose" she overdubbed her voice to prerecorded tracks by the Duke Ellington orchestra. In "Rosie Solves the Swingin' Riddle," referring to the arranger Nelson Riddle, she sang "April in Paris" that made you think of Count Basie's classic swinger.

Only once did I see Rosemary in a live performance. This was five years ago at the McCallum Theater in Palm Desert, and what a memorable show it was. The billing was shared with Dolores Hope who, with her smoky, midnight sound and immaculate phrasing, opened the concert with the Harold Arlen-Yip Harburg-Billy Rose standard "It's Only a Paper Moon." She sang this standard tune more than 60 years earlier at the Vogue Club in Manhattan on the night she was introduced to a rising comedian in the audience named Bob Hope, who was then starring on Broadway.

Rosemary and Dolores sang several duets that wowed the audience. Then Michael Feinstein performed a rousing tribute to Al Jolson. In the finale, Hope himself joined the singers in Cole Porter's "De-Lovely." I recall that Nick Perito conducted the top-flight orchestra in what may well be termed a clinic for all singers. "She's my protege," Rosemary would say about Dolores Hope, who began her own singing career so many years ago.

One more note on Rosemary Clooney. Every Christmas she would send out a personalized message that included her singing "Count Your Blessings." Rosie Clooney was one of the blessings that we knew and all her fans, including this one, are grateful.