"Rosemary Clooney -- A Singer Who Went to Our Heads"

by M.J. Andersen, Providence Journal, July 5, 2002

Before the phonograph was invented, a popular song was simply its melody. Sung, whistled, or picked out on the keyboard, it had infinite versions. But later, with the phonograph, a well-known tune often became fused with a specific recording. Multitudes knew one version, The Version.

Today, specific renditions of songs are more than just shared experience. They are an eerie component of consciousness. Thanks to repetition, we can conjure them in our heads, which makes for a weird intimacy with the performers.

In childhood, my brother and I had access to a portable phonograph that we played especially in summer, when it was too hot to do much but lie on the living room floor. There, we watched the fat 45s circle. They were mostly children's records: the song "Little Red Caboose"; a narrated story, "The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins."

But we also had a grownup song, about mangoes and papayas, which we played over and over. Though we were in the rural Midwest, the song made me think of exotic places. I pictured a thatched hut, palm trees, the sea.

Like many of Rosemary Clooney's songs, "Mangoes" had something to do with getting married (the main business of postwar America). I learned the whole story of adulthood from this tune: first came a seduction, aided by tropical fruit and chestnuts; then came the altar, and a blissful retreat from the world.

I would not have known then that the voice lodging itself in my brain was Rosemary Clooney's. But when I heard this week of her death, I did know. And I got mangoes and papayas everywhere I went. In the car, in the yard, at the office, at the grocery store, I heard Rosemary Clooney singing: "Mangoes, papayas" and "step inside my shady nook."

The obituaries suggest that if any song should be running through our collective noggin, it is "Come-on-a-My House," which sold more than a million copies in 1951, and made Clooney a star. But it is a song she detested. And she recorded it only under extreme pressure from Mitch Miller, the TV sing-along overseer who was then her boss at Columbia Records.

Clooney was right about the song. It was a silly vehicle for her wonder of a voice, which was so smooth you could have spread it on bread. It had big-sister sincerity, and a trace of huskiness, as though Clooney had a slight cold but even so felt some urgency to give it to you straight -- you with the stars in your eyes.

The voice emerged in the '20s, in Kentucky, and matured just across the river, in Ohio. It very nearly turned Rosemary Clooney into a rise-and-fall cliché, the American ingenue who makes it big in show business, then crashes, very hard.

First came the pop hits, then a turn in the movies. In "White Christmas," our Rosie was blond and trim, almost as slender as her improbably wasp-waisted co-star, Vera-Ellen. The obligatory glamorous marriage, to the actor José Ferrer, followed, and with that, five children.

The decline and fall were likewise generic Hollywood stuff: adultery, divorce, remarriage, divorce again. Clooney tumbled into addiction (tranquilizers and sleeping pills); missed work; suffered a breakdown; entered the hospital. When she got out, the best gigs she could get were in the lounges of Holiday Inns.

When next we saw her she was hawking Coronet paper towels on TV. "Extra value is what you get," she sang. Her weight had ballooned. Her fans shook their heads.

Yet the reason Clooney got the job was that marketing surveys had shown we trusted her. And of course we did. Hadn't she told us, with those alarmingly direct vocals, that a man was a worrisome thing? If we knew he could leave us singing the blues in the night, it was because Rosie had warned us first.

Perhaps it is largely true that for Americans, there are no second acts. But Rosemary Clooney got one. In the '70s she signed with the small but respected Concord Jazz label. She made albums, and returned to performing. Playing at last in well-known cabarets and concert halls, she won new respect from the critics.

She had chucked the novelty songs in favor of classic tunes by the likes of Harold Arlen and Cole Porter. At last, she was doing the melancholy ballads she had always been drawn to.

And all along, there had been hints of what she might have been. In the 1950s, she made the exquisite "Tenderly" into a signature song. Her version, so easy and assured, still seems to trump every other.

But history intruded: Rosemary Clooney was borne off by the forced cheer of her era, into a commercial jollity that did not square with her life.

Happily, toward the end, the pathos came together with all the nutty hopes embodied in mangoes and papayas. Rosemary Clooney would have been the first to say that none of it was brain surgery. But for many of us, it did become brain chemistry.