Music made the ol' girl sing

(The Tampa Tribune 1-9-2000)


GIRL SINGER: An Autobiography. By Rosemary Clooney with Joan Barthel. Doubleday. 301 pages. $24.95.

Remember the days when phonograph records were breakable, when one song played over the radio could quickly reach cult status, when songs themselves were ballads with recognizable melodies and story-telling verses?

If you do, you probably are over 40 and will enjoy this book for its nostalgia if nothing else. Fortunately, there is a lot more to Rosemary Clooney's story than nostalgia, and you don't have to be over any age to appreciate it.

MUSIC HAS CHANGED a lot since the days when a very young Clooney and her even younger sister embarked on a singing career that would lead her to stardom and Hollywood, yet much of what touches one about her life story is that it involves the same human themes that touch us all - family, marriage, success, failure and struggle. The fact that her story also includes along the way some of the most memorable and famous musicians and entertainers of the day just adds to its fascination.

Her youth in Maysville, Ky., on the banks of the Ohio River was dominated by family but not mother and father. Her parents were separated and rarely provided a home for Rosemary, her younger sister, Betty, and her younger brother, Nicky. Yet family was a strong constant provided by grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins. Her mother was always going to bring the children to live with her but never did, a hurt that has followed Rosemary all her life.

All her family members were musical, and when Rosemary and her siblings moved with her grandmother to Cincinnati, she and Betty took advantage of auditions to get a job singing on the radio. It was 1945, and Rosemary was 16; her sister was 13. The next year they were hired by Tony Pastor's band and began touring the country. Betty was gutsy, but Rosemary had the talent, and when she got the chance, she struck out on her own with a contract at Columbia Records and a New York agent.

During the next few years, she was swept up into the world of recordings, personal appearances and travel, along the way getting to know people like Marlene Dietrich, Frank Sinatra and Jose Ferrer. By the time she made it to Hollywood, Rosemary had hit records and a well-known name in the business. Between her beauty and her creamy, voluptuous voice, she was a natural for the movies. And she couldn't even read music!

The years in Hollywood center not as much on her movie career as on her growing family. She married Ferrer in 1953, and in the course of their stormy marriage, they produced five children. The parents divorced in 1966, but all five children remained close to both mother and father. Though Rosemary is honest about Ferrer's faults, her affection for him and her respect for his acting ability comes strongly through the narrative.

By 1968 Rosemary's career and her emotional stability were both failing. Eventually she worked through her problems to emerge a respected singer with a happy second marriage and warm family ties. Her well-written narrative captures both the problem times and the magic times of a pop singer's career. She describes how musical arrangements and orchestration make for a successful song, something the novice would probably never recognize. Her admiration for good musicianship shows in her tributes to those she respects - Sinatra, for example, in his use of breath and diction. Though she admits Bing Crosby could sometimes be "distant," she also details how his generosity and support helped her many times over the years. Along the way she struggled to separate the performer Rosemary Clooney from her real, honest self - a dilemma familiar to every famous entertainer.

NOW SHE HAS recovered the "feeling of joy I had when I first started to sing. ... It's wonderful to be in the middle of the music and doing what you want to do and having such a kick doing it."

And it's wonderful to read about as well.

Copyright 2000 The Tampa Tribuneg. , The Tampa Tribune, 01-09-2000, pp 4.