Rosemary Clooney: Better With Age? It's Not That Simple
by Terry Teachout, New York Times, July 7, 2002
Rosemary Clooney's obituaries all said pretty much the same thing: she got better as she got older. It wasn't quite that simple, but as one-sentence summaries go, this one isn't altogether misleading. Clooney became famous in the 1950's by singing idiot novelties. ("Come On-a My House," a ditty of fathomless stupidity, was the best known -- and worst -- of them.) After the rise of rock made it impossible for such an artist to attract a mass audience, she retooled her image, signing with Concord Jazz in 1977 and recording blue-chip standards accompanied by top jazz musicians. From then on, she was a class act.
Rare is the successful pop singer prepared to make so drastic a midcourse correction. Most singers start out with beautiful voices and no experience. By the time they hit their mid-30's, technique and sensibility come into equipoise, and they have 10 or 15 really good years. That's when they make the records for which they will be remembered. Then things start to unravel, sometimes slowly, sometimes not. Age and bad habits chisel away at the vocal cords; style stiffens into self-parody. In time, sympathetic critics are forced to fumble for euphemisms, and sooner or later there comes that one performance too many -- the one you wish with all your heart you hadn't heard.
None of that happened to Rosemary Clooney. Unlike Frank Sinatra, who spent the last 20 years of his performing life pretending with increasing futility that nothing had changed, Clooney knew what to make of a diminished thing. Never a vocal athlete, she pared away shrewdly at her already straightforward style, letting the songs tell their own stories. Nor did she chase after the kids, though she kept her ears open and was happy to seize on a smart new tune. (One of the best records she made in her later years was of Dave Frishberg's "Do You Miss New York?")
But better? About that, I'm not so sure. Clooney the Younger didn't make many albums that were fully worthy of her talents, but "Blue Rose" (Sony), "Rosie Solves the Swingin' Riddle" (Koch) and "Love" (Reprise) need no apologies of any kind.
When I heard of her death last week at 74, I put on her 1961 recording of Marc Blitzstein's "I Wish It So," arranged by Nelson Riddle, with whom she was then romantically involved. (It's the second cut on "Love.") Blitzstein and Clooney aren't an obvious pairing -- the acerbic composer of Kurt Weillian songs of social significance and the warm-voiced bombshell who hit the top of the charts with "Mambo Italiano" -- but she nails his most deeply felt ballad, interpreting it with the direct, unmannered sincerity that was her trademark. Clooney recorded "I Wish It So" when she was just 32, and I guarantee you that she never sang anything better. Nobody could.
I expect that when I want to think about Rosemary Clooney in years to come, I'll turn to "Love" in preference to the albums she made for Concord Jazz, good though the best of them are. But I'll remember Clooney the Elder, the unglamorous, utterly self-confident performer who treated the stage of Carnegie Hall as if she had just bought it at a garage sale. By then, she looked like a double-chinned grandmother who favored caftans and sensible shoes, but she sang like a worldly, pain-toughened woman who knew everything about life and love. We should all have such a last act.