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April 2000

Rosemary Clooney (with Joan Barthel)
Girl Singer: An Autobiography

In 1977, Rosemary Clooney published her first autobiography, This for Remembrance, recounting her youthful ascent from poverty to stardom, followed by a troubled marriage, depression, drug addiction and mental collapse, and upliftingly capped by a successful recovery supported by family, friends and faith. A made-for-television movie adaptation of the singer’s harrowing memoir aired in 1982, featuring actress Sondra Locke lip-synching to Clooney’s vocals. In Girl Singer, Clooney and collaborator Joan Barthel, the author of several nonfiction crime books, recycle and update this to-hell-and-back show-biz saga. Unless you’re a diehard Clooney fan, you’ll probably share my feeling that she’s taken her tragedy and redemption to market once too often.

The warmth and candor that distinguish Clooney’s live performances come through in her book, especially her devotion to her late sister Betty, second husband, dancer-actor Dante DiPaolo, and five children. Girl Singer is stuffed with anecdotes about celebrity friends (Crosby, Sinatra, Dietrich, Bogart) but offers disappointingly few insights into Clooney’s art and little to interest jazz-oriented readers. (Early on, she admits, “I have very little in the way of improvisational skill, because I don’t read music—I don’t know what the chord structure is—and I don’t have the ear for it. I’d call myself a sweet singer with a big band sensibility.”) She briefly discusses Blue Rose, her classic 1956 album with Duke Ellington’s orchestra, in the most superficial terms, and her five-page recollection of Billie Holiday, the godmother of her daughter Maria, consists of information familiar even to casual Lady Day devotees. Far more attention is paid to the men in Clooney’s professional and personal life, and whether or not she went to bed with them.

This for Remembrance concluded with Clooney beginning to pick up the pieces of her shattered career. Apart from the deaths of several family members, the ensuing two decades, chronicled in Girl Singer, consist of happier times: critically acclaimed concert and club appearances, as well as Grammy nominations for four of the 25 albums she has made for Concord since 1977. That label has just issued Songs from the Girl Singer, a two-CD “musical companion” to Clooney’s book. The first disc contains performances from the initial phase of her career: her 1946 solo debut recording with Tony Pastor’s band; her pop hits “Come On-A My House” and “Hey There”; duets with Sinatra, Crosby, Hope, sister Betty and first husband Jose Ferrer; and the poignant “How Will I Remember You,” from Love, her splendid 1961 collaboration with arranger Nelson Riddle.

The second disc assembles 15 tracks chosen from Clooney’s Concord period. In contrast to the seeming effortlessness of her pre-breakdown singing, these performances betray a tremulousness underlying her professionalism, and the more recent tracks find her struggling to maintain pitch and sustain tones. The handsomely produced package, filled with evocative images from the singer’s photograph album, includes a 20-page booklet in which Barthel tersely summarizes the contents of Girl Singer. Unfortunately, the pages are incorrectly assembled, putting an unintentionally surrealistic spin on Clooney’s oft-told saga.

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