Rosemary Clooney, 1928-2002

Rosemary Clooney died in the late afternoon of June 29, at her Beverly Hills home, surrounded by her husband, five children and other family members. She had been suffering from lung cancer and in discomfort for six months, following surgery in December, but had apparently lost little of her acerbic wit. A few days before the end, when a friend helped to reposition her in her bed, she let out a howl of pain, instantly followed by four bars of “Mean to Me” and the observation, “That’s still the hardest fucking song to sing.” It’s the still that’s pure Rosemary.

In 1992, when I embarked on a biography of Bing Crosby, my first problem was: How do I penetrate Hollywood—a world in which I had no contacts or professional cachet? One day I placed a dozen calls to representatives of movie people, and reached answering machines, supercilious assistants and an erstwhile glamour queen who claimed to be her own secretary before hanging up. I received one callback that evening. Before I could untie my tongue long enough to thank Miss Clooney for her prompt and unforeseen attention (I expected to hear only from managers), she proclaimed, in that unmistakably throaty alto, “You are the only person who can write this book.” My guess is she did a bit of research (“Who is this guy?”) and surmised, in typical Mama Rose fashion, that I desperately needed encouragement.

In her prime, Clooney had been a babe, enjoying her share of romances, but she was the most assiduously maternal woman I’ve ever known. She had walked out on a promising film career (peaking with 1954’s top-grossing film, White Christmas), in favor of successive pregnancies. If you ever get to watch her TV series, you will notice that she often sang behind large plants, fences, half-doors, wheelbarrows and other props to disguise her condition. By the ’90s, however, she had allowed herself to grow fat, a rebellion she felt she had earned after four decades of show-biz sprucing. It was at that time that I somehow became a satellite in her ever expanding family: She became Aunt Rose to my daughter, and a dear friend and ready source of information, introductions and inspiration to me.

It was her combination of humor, candor and maternalistic empathy that made her interpretations of lyrics so incomparably real. No singer put more effort into getting at the core of the stories in songs. She could make the absolute most of an astonishing variety of them, from Duke Ellington’s “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart” (on her and Ellington’s classic 1956 Blue Rose, for which Billy Strayhorn supervised her overdubbed vocals); Marc Blitzstein’s “I Wish It So” (on her 1961 masterpiece with Nelson Riddle, Love, a defining statement on romance that sold so poorly it was discontinued, remaining unheard for more than 30 years); the Gershwins’ “But Not for Me” (on 1979’s Rosemary Clooney Sings the Lyrics of Ira Gershwin, one of several songbook albums with small jazz bands); Lerner and Loewe’s “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” (which she purged of Chevalierian salaciousness on 1997’s Mothers & Daughters, an autumnal treatise on maternal love); and Dave Frishberg’s wry “I Want to Be a Sideman” (on 1998’s At Long Last with the Count Basie Orchestra, a project she relished, having worked but never recorded with Basie himself). Has any other singer been inducted into jazz and cabaret halls of fame?

But was she, in fact, a jazz singer? She cherished the association but never made the claim, conceding that she didn’t much improvise. Yet excepting a brief period of pop stardom that made her a Time cover girl, recording untold novelties (30 hits in six years, 1951-57), she worked almost exclusively with jazz players, and possessed perfect time—no one ever accused her of not swinging. Combined with exemplary taste and a unique, vividly expressive voice, her rhythmic shrewdness endeared her to jazz artists—including Billie Holiday, the godmother of her eldest daughter, and Art Tatum, who sent roses after she made a major 1950 radio appearance as a single. Clooney was one of the last of the postwar pop singers who came up with big bands; Tony Pastor recruited the Clooney Sisters, Rosemary and Betty, after hearing them on a Cincinnati station, in 1946.

One of the first reviewers compared Rosemary to Ella Fitzgerald. Even when she had a hold on the pop charts, she fought for better material, like “Tenderly” and “Hey There,” which showed how stirring an artist she could be. Having survived a purgatory of woes detailed in her memoir, Girl Singer, Clooney remade herself into the kind of singer she always meant to be: great tunes, solid beat, emotional honesty—practically a definition of jazz, or at least a kind of smart jazz-influenced pop we won’t see again.

Originally published in October 2002

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