No one familiar with Rosemary Clooney was surprised to learn of her death, at age 74, from lung cancer, on June 29. This was true partly because anyone who saw the singer perform live could sense the shortness of breath. And, of course, for the last few decades of her life she’d been perilously overweight. But the valedictory sense one got from Clooney had as much to do with the same thing that distinguished her for so long: She sang with a knowing half smile in her voice that told you she knew exactly what was going on in her world, and if you leaned forward and really listened you could know it too.
Looking at old film footage of a coltish Clooney gamboling with Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye in 1954’s White Christmas, it’s at first hard to make a connection to the slow-moving and regal presence she became. It’s just as disorienting to connect this masterful interpreter of great songs to the ingenue who recorded the cruddy if hugely successful pop junk of her young career, like the early ’50s hits ”Come on-a My House” and ”Mambo Italiano.” But sometimes those whom the gods assault are made stronger by it, and Clooney had taken it on the chin in every way imaginable in the ’60s and early ’70s — pills, booze, two messy marriages to actor Jose Ferrer, even psychiatric confinement.
The great artist who emerged from all this in 1977 became an immediate sensation among those who cherish the Classic American Songbook of Gershwin, Rodgers, Arlen, et al. Clooney’s nearly annual discs on the Concord label were reliably fine (see sidebar), and her concerts around the country drew large crowds. But it was in her rare club gigs that the self-proclaimed Girl Singer truly glowed. Gently slapping her hip as she peered through glasses at the lead sheet of a tune she’d sung a hundred times, almost imperceptibly cocking an eyebrow to italicize a strong solo from one of her superb sidemen, she seemed more like someone jamming with friends than standing in front of people paying the stiffest cover in the cabaret business. But that was the point — sitting in even the poshest club while Clooney sang was an experience so intimate and comfortable you might look around and think, ”Who are all these other people, and why are they here with Rosie and me?”
And then you’d realize that like you, all of them were transfixed by a miracle. Considering the trials she endured, Rosemary Clooney was lucky to craft such a lasting career. And the rest of us were lucky too.
Even though nearly every Clooney CD has something to recommend it, you want to take her straight — no big band, no chorus bopping the backup, not even duets with Bing. Rosie should be imbibed unadorned, accompanied by a small group. Some of her A-level work:
Here’s to My Lady — Tribute to Billie Holiday (1978); Rosemary Clooney Sings the Lyrics of Johnny Mercer (1987); Do You Miss New York? (1992)