Rosemary Clooney

by Alanna Nash

Stereo Review (March 1990)

"I figure if you can just hang on long enough you get to be woven into the fabric of people's lives."

Her list of friends through the years reads like a "Who's Who" of the Fifties and Sixties: Bogart, Dietrich, Bennett, Sinatra, Holiday, Kennedy. Today, the names are newer but still stellar. Linda Ronstadt eagerly agrees to play her benefits, and Neil Diamond calls to say that one of the first songs he ever cared about was Hey, There.

Now beginning her fifth decade as a solo recording artist--marked by a recent "Greatest Hits" CD on CBS from the Come On-a My House Fifties--Rosemary Clooney commands respect not only as a musician's musician but because she has endured, surviving the fickleness of the American public, the whirling changes of the popular-music landscape, and a debilitating series of personal tragedies.

"I figure if you can just hang on long enough," she told me recently, with characteristic self-effacement, "you get to be woven into the fabric of people's lives."

At sixty-one, Clooney can look back on a career that has encompassed every success a small-town teenage girl of the Forties could have envisioned: big band, pop, radio, television, the movies, Platinum records, command performances, and, for the past fifteen years, "mainstream" jazz--or, rather, American popular song with a jazz flair. The Kentucky-born Clooney has emerged from it all as timeless as the music she sings, as recognizable--and as uniquely American--as Irving Berlin, the Gershwins, or Richard Rodgers, whose collaborations with Lorenz Hart and Oscare Hammerstein II she celebrates in her most recent recording for Concord Jazz, "Show Tunes."

Of course, there are some who argue that Rosemary Clooney will never go down in the books as a remarkable jazz singer. And Clooney herself is one of them.

"I think Ella Fitzgerald is a jazz singer, I think Carmen McRae is and I think Susannah McCorkle is. Me? I think I interpret things well, I sing in tune, I've got good time, and I get the job done. There's got to be somebody in the band who says the words to the song, you know," she said with a hearty laugh.

More than anything else, Clooney insists, she is simply a conduit, reacting to the musicians around her. "If you allow yourself to be inspired by them, boy, oh boy, you can be."

That inspiration is apparent in her Concord albums, where she is backed by a cluster of first-rate jazzmen, most notably Scott Hamilton on tenor saxophone, Warren Vache on cornet, Ed Bickert on guitar, and John Oddo, Clooney's long-time arranger, on piano. Together, under the direction of Concord president Carl E. Jefferson, they have built one of the record industry's most distinquished libraries of American popular music, with theme albums honoring the work of Ira Gershwin, Jimmy Van Heusen, Johnny Mercer, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, and others.

With younger listeners, especially, the ones who grew up dismissing such music as corny and old-fashioned, Clooney seems to have scored a triple victory--luring them to the material in the first place, engaging them with pure brilliance of vocal form, and, even when time seems to have rendered the lyrics hopelessly stilted, delivering the songs with such fresh readings that you feel as if you're hearing the words for the first time.

Clooney refuses to treat lyrics as laundry lists, glossing over them with the same phrasing everyone before her has employed. In Cole Porter's I Get a Kick out of You, for example, she approaches the lines, "I know that if/I took even one sniff/That would bore me terrifically too," as every singer must, accenting the "if" with "terr-if-ically too." But the suprise is that she accents the word "too" as well, making the song seem all her own.

On the other hand, Clooney is not one to take liberties with either the melody or the time frame of American pop standards. While critics applaud her for her lack of vocal adornment and her concerntration on lyrical interpretation, she deflects such praise, insisting that the reason for her vocal style is simply that she doesn't have "that sense of improvisation. That's not one of my strong suits."

But she also resents those singers who think that rewriting a song is part of their balliwick--changing the name of Franklin Roosevelt to Geroge Bush in The Lady Is a Tramp, for instance, or altering rhythm patterns or adding words of their own devising. In the "Show Tunes" album, she is particularly respectful of Lorenz Hart's intentions, "because the people who try to update those things don't realize the hours and the rhymes that were thrown away in order to make something that was up to Larry's standards."

Those who know Clooney's work from her pretty-little-bandsinger days in the Forties with her younger sister Betty and Tony Pastor's Big Band, her years of plastic stardom in the Fifties with the Svengali-like Mitch Miller, and her subsequent foray into the movies ("the next Betty Hutton") with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby will doubtless find changes in her distinctive soprano these days. On the plus side, her maturity is particularly obvious in her startling middle voice, which is richer ("the consistency of coconut milk," in the words of one reviewed) and far more authoritative than it used to be.

And yet Clooney would be the first to admit that years of smoking have robbed her singing of the purity and the long, sustained phrases of Tenderly and Mixed Emotions back in the Fifties, even if she now uses a short breathy delivery to great advantage. All the same, what comes across with great appeal on Clooney's Concord recordings is the warmth, energy, and earthiness of her personality (as in the improvised "Damn!" at the end of I Wish I Were in Love Again in "Show Tunes") and an infectious joie de vivre in her lively, carefree renditions.

The sense of freedom comes, Clooney says, from the fact that she's enjoying singing again. There were times, documented in her 1977 autobiography, This for Remembrance, and in the 1982 TV moview made from it, Rosie: The Rosemary Clooney Story, when she did not. In the Sixties, with her loyalties divided between work and family--her husband Jose Ferrer, and their five children--the pleasure of her singing began to erode, and she turned to sleeping pills as an everyday aid, "going toward the edge all along, but not really aware of it."

When she and Ferrer divorced (twice, first in 1961 and again in 1967 after a three-year reconciliation), her dependence on tranquilizers had mushroomed into a full-fledged addiction. "I never met a pill I didn't like," she recalled.

Clooney might have continued to hide her addiction and disintegrating emtional state had it not been for a series of event in 1968, her fortieth year, that collided to push her toward public disgrace and mental collapse. The first was the abrupt resolution of her romance with a young musician in her band and the second was the assasination of her friend Robert Kennedy, gunned down only yards from where she was standing. That summer, Clooney reached the breaking point when she ranted incoherently at an astonished Reno night-club audience, stormed offstage, and then "tested God's love" by driving her white Chadilac Eldorado up the wrong side of a curvy mountain highway. Confinement in the pyshciatric ward at Mount Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles followed, then years of psychotherapy.

Through it all, Clooney never stopped singing, but while she never fell below a certain standard of performance, she really hadn't much interest in the work, an apathy she believes her audiences felt. Soon, she found that promoters were afraid to book her into the more prestigious rooms, and the woman who had made the cover of Time magazine a decade before was relegated to entertaining transient businessmen in the lounges of Holiday Inns. "It was harder to do it the second time around," she admitted. "I was scuffling."

Today, Clooney says she might never have shaken that malaise had it not been for her old friend, father figure, and White Christmas co-star, Bing Crosby. In the late Seventies, Crosby organized a tour to celebrate his fiftieth anniversary in show business, and he invited Clooney to come along. The ticket sales, and the reviews, were impressive.

"It was one of the greatest experiences of my life," she said. "The joy came back to my singing, and Bing was really a great friend and teacher." But tragedy struck again when Crosby collapsed and died during the European segment of the tour in 1977. The blow, coming a year after the aneurysm-related death of Clooney's sister, Betty, was devastating. "Bing," she said quietly, "was magic."

Crosby not only helped get Clooney back into the large, important showcases, but he was also indirectly responsible for her return to recording. Crosby's drummer, Jake Hanna, recorded an album for a new label, Concord Jazz, headed by his friend Carl Jefferson. "He asked me if I wanted to make an album," Clooney said. "And so I did."

Despite the critical acclaim for the Concord collection, Clooney reports that the composers she honors are not always entirely pleased with her albums.

"When I did the Berlin album ["Rosemary Clooney Sings the Music of Irving Berlin"], Irving didn't like the fact that I would do one chorus of a song and then wouldn't come back for another three choruses. He'd say, 'Why did it take so long for you to get back to the words?' I'd say, 'Well, I'm working for a jazz label, Irving dear. These young guys have to have a crack at your song here.' He didn't understand. And oddly enough, in a different way, neither did Ira."

"Ira," of course, was Ira Gershwin, who for many years was Clooney's next-door neighbor in Beverly Hills and before that occupied, with his brother George, the big, dark, Spanish-style house Clooney bought some thirty years ago. Before his death, Ira would thrill Clooney with stories about the house's musical history, such as the time George rushed home from a dinner party and ran to the piano--in the corner where Clooney has her own piano today--and told his brothe, "It should be, 'A foggy day in London town.' That will make the difference in the meter."

For the past several years, Clooney has divided her free time between the Beverly Hills house and a country retreat in Augusta, Kentucky. Nestled snug on the Ohio River near Cincinnati, the little burg is close to her home town of Maysville, where she spent her childhood singing and electioneering for her grandfather's mayoral campaigns and where a street has borne her name since 1952. The Augusta retreat allows her to spend time with her brother Nick, a columnist for the Cincinnati Post, and to gather her wits between performing dates: "I really feel as if I belong there. I don't think you can get that far from where you were born."

And yet Clooney's name is known worldwide, particularly in Japan, where her records sell briskly and she is always in demand at the well-appointed jazz clubs. There, as elsewhere, Clooney believes, she has succeeded not just because she has good taste in music.

"I think that more than anything else," she said, "I give people a sense of hope that things aren't always going to be bad. I've been through so many things, and yet there's a kind of humor underlying my work, and most of the time I transmit that. When it comes down to it, the bottom line is enjoyment of your own work. The only thing you can do is do the best you can everytime you come up to bat."

For a woman who has seen her share of the sidelines, Rosemary Clooney is clearly hitting home runs again, right over the farthest, tallest back fence.