Rosemary Clooney: Jazz Singer

An excerpt from a new biography

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Rosemary Clooney, New York, Dec. 1956, from the collection of Paul Barouh
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Billy Strayhorn, 1940s
By William P. Gottlieb
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Rosemary Clooney, 1996

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More than a decade after Rosemary Clooney’s death at age 74, her legacy remains an underestimated one. Best known as Bing Crosby’s beloved in White Christmas and as the singer of a string of classic pop singles in the 1950s, Clooney offered much more—particularly to vocal-jazz buffs. An unprecedented new biography, Late Life Jazz: The Life and Career of Rosemary Clooney (Oxford), by Ken Crossland and Malcolm Macfarlane, details her public triumphs and private struggles while paying welcome attention to her overlooked relationship with jazz. (As the book’s title implies, her late-career renaissance found her toeing the line between smart cabaret pop and vocal-jazz proper, recording for a rising jazz label accompanied by top-flight jazz musicians.)

This excerpt covers historic mid-’50s recordings with Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn, the latter collaboration proving especially epochal.

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The end of Rosemary’s era with producer Mitch Miller at Columbia had been more strongly signaled by two other albums that preceded the TV spinout. The albums aligned Rosemary with two legends of jazz, Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington. The Goodman album was issued as part of Columbia’s new “House Party” series of budget priced 10-inch LPs. These retailed at $1.98 and offered six tracks. Three of the six tracks featured vocals by Rosemary, recorded in New York in November 1955, with the remaining tracks featuring Goodman’s sextet. Working with Goodman for the first time, Rosemary approached the project with a mixture of enthusiasm and trepidation. Goodman’s status as a jazz icon was the draw, but his reputation as an eccentric martinet was widely known. In the end they got along fine, although their collaboration was not without its moments.

The first run-through of Rosemary’s songs took place at Clooney’s apartment in New York and coincided with her New York nanny’s day off. Clooney’s son Miguel was in the playpen when Goodman started running up and down the scales on his clarinet, producing shrieks from the 10-month-old infant at hearing such an unfamiliar sound. When Goodman took it as criticism of his playing, Rosemary laughed at the joke and then realized that he was serious! Her three songs were all Goodman standards. “Goodbye” featured Rosemary and the Goodman Sextet; “Memories of You” featured just a trio comprising Goodman, Dick Hyman on piano and Bobby Donaldson on drums; and “It’s Bad for Me” was sextet plus a vocal contribution from Goodman at the mic with Rosemary. “He couldn’t sing, but he did it with great enthusiasm,” Rosemary recalled. Other reviewers were less diplomatic. “Goodman has a great voice for cooling soup,” the Saturday Review said. Rosemary’s intimate singing—she adopted the hushed intimate style first evident in “Grieving for You”—sat easily with the music, however. All three arrangements were cast in the style of 1930s vocal refrains, each giving Goodman’s clarinet an equal share of microphone time. The album was an appropriate celebration, both of Goodman’s 25th anniversary of his first Columbia record in 1931 and of Rosemary’s first genuine outing as a jazz singer.

Reprinted from Late Life Jazz: The Life and Career of Rosemary Clooney by Ken Crossland and Malcolm Macfarlane with permission from Oxford University Press USA, © Oxford University Press, 2013.

To read the rest of this story, purchase the issue in print or from the Apple Newsstand. Print and digital subscriptions are also available.

Originally published in December 2013

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