"Satin Doll"

Singer Rosemary Clooney, finishing on a high note

by Richard Harrington - Washington Post, July 1, 2002

Rosemary Clooney was the first famous, fabulous Rosie. For half a century, her journey was as riveting as her song -- from her humble origins in the big-band era to stardom in music, film and television; from personal tragedy to triumphant comeback.

Clooney, who died Saturday night at age 74 from lung cancer complications, often described herself as simply a "girl singer" -- that was the title of her 1999 autobiography. In fact, she was among a handful of song stylists who defined American popular song, who not only sang the standards but set them. Of her peers -- Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald and Mel Tormé -- only Bennett remains.

What those singers shared was utmost respect for great songwriters' intentions. Though she had a lovely sense of swing and a supple command of rhythm, Clooney was not a vocal improviser like Carmen McRae or Sarah Vaughan. She took no liberties with lyrics, no license with melodies. Like Sinatra, Clooney was blessed with perfect diction. There was never unnecessary adornment to her smooth delivery. Instead, Clooney invested heart and soul into interpreting songs as they were envisioned, constructed, intended. She saw herself as the last crucial conduit between songwriter and audience.

"I'm the only instrument that's got the words, so I've got to be able to get that across," Clooney said in a Washington Post interview a decade ago.

She always did so with immense warmth and emotional conviction, and with impeccable musical taste. Clooney had come to Washington to accept the James Smithson Bicentennial Medal for her significant contribution to the American arts. In return, Clooney gave the National Museum of American History the gold record she had received in 1951 for her first hit, "Come On-a My House." Ironically, it was a song she always had conflicted feelings about.

Written by playwright William Saroyan and Ross Bagdasarian (of Chipmunks fame), "Come On-a My House" was a decidedly slight vehicle defined by a faux-Italian accent and cheap double-entendres. What must have bothered Clooney more, however, was the song's deliberately disordered phrasing, so antithetical to her instinctive devotion to craftsmanship. She initially refused to sing it, but her Columbia label boss, Mitch Miller, threatened termination of her contract if she didn't.

As with Ella Fitzgerald and her debut song, the novelty "A-Tisket, A-Tasket," "Come On-a My House" proved the ticket to stardom for Clooney, who had grown up poor in Maysville, Ky., and formed a vocal duo at 16 with younger sister Betty. The Clooney Sisters spent three years with Tony Pastor's big band just as the big-band era was crashing down. By 1950, she was just another hopeful solo singer at Columbia waiting for the right song.

Wrong as it was, "Come On-a My House" sold 2 million copies, landed Clooney on the cover of Time magazine (the first female singer to achieve that) and set off a 20-year cycle of success that included starring in the 1954 film classic "White Christmas" with Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye, and hosting her own weekly variety show on NBC.

With her wholesome Grace Kelly looks, Clooney was briefly envisioned as a movie star, but aside from "White Christmas," she wasn't able to carry any movies; she made a series of minor musicals for Paramount Pictures just as that movie genre was going the way of the big bands. But she did make a Hollywood connection in 1953 when she married actor Jose Ferrer, 16 years her senior. Between 1955 and 1960, they had five children, but the push and pull of dual careers led to divorce in 1961, remarriage and then divorce again in 1967.

Clooney's troubles were just beginning, however. Already a heavy drinker, she developed an addiction to sleeping pills and tranquilizers. Finally, in the wake of the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and her friend Robert F. Kennedy -- Clooney was just a few yards away when Kennedy was shot after the 1968 California presidential primary -- the singer underwent a very public collapse, which finally led to her admitting herself to the psychiatric ward at Mount Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles for a brief stay.

"I had my breakdown the same time the country did," Clooney said during her Washington visit. Many years later, she would explore a familiar terrain of mental anguish through a recurring role as a singing Alzheimer's patient on the hospital drama "ER," playing opposite nephew George Clooney. Her poignant performance earned her an Emmy nomination.

Clooney had actually returned to television in the early '70s -- in a series of commercials as a singing spokeswoman for Coronet paper towels. The company had chosen Clooney because a survey showed consumers trusted her. After five years of intensive therapy, Clooney had began to trust herself again, as did her old pal Crosby, who in 1976 asked her to join him on his 50th anniversary tour.

It was the beginning of a remarkable comeback. Within a year, Clooney had signed with the Concord Jazz label, for whom she recorded more than 30 albums. Many were songbooks by master composers who also happened to be friends -- Irving Berlin, Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer. There were tributes to Crosby, Billie Holiday, Nelson Riddle (who has been music director for her television show) and others. Her most recent Concord album, "Sentimental Journey," was released in 2001.

Earlier this year, Clooney received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement award "for her unique and individual vocal style that combined skillful phrasing, subtle timing and an honest relationship with the lyric, making her one of the great interpreters of the American popular song."

Since her 1953 marriage to Ferrer, Clooney had lived in the huge Spanish-style house in Beverly Hills that had once been owned by George and Ira Gershwin. After George's sudden death from a brain tumor in 1937, Ira moved next door, where he remained a friend and neighbor of Clooney's until his death in 1983. Perhaps it was inevitable that Clooney would choose as her signature song "Love Is Here to Stay," the last song George and Ira wrote together, in the living room of that very house.

It's very clear our love is here to stay Not for a year but ever and a day The radio and the telephone and the movies that we know May just be passing fancies, and in time may go But, oh my dear, our love is here to stay.

Ira Gershwin once said that no one sang it better. He was referring to more than a song.