BY JANELLE GELFAND
The Cincinnati Enquirer
They just don't make 'em like Rosemary Clooney any more.
The Kentucky-born singer's 70th birthday celebration at Riverbend Friday night with the Cincinnati Pops had a nostalgia to it. It was a homecoming made poignant by the fact she might have died of viral meningitis in February. The words, "if we're on our way down, we might as well enjoy the ride" in her opening James Taylor tune "Secret of Life" pointed out that this is Rosie's ride back up. And the journey couldn't be sweeter.
Before she even opened her mouth, the crowd of 3,882 was on its feet singing "Happy Birthday." Her equipment may not be the same -- her phrases are shorter and she has the inevitable loss of range and lung capacity that comes with time. But Friday, backed by her superb combo led by pianist John Oddo and Erich Kunzel and the Pops, she was more expressive than ever, and communicated the lyrics as if she were telling us each story personally.
The Cole Porter tune "Don't Fence Me In" was infused with her unique brand of cheerfulness with a bluesy tinge. "Sweet Kentucky Ham" was a reminder that she has never forgotten her hometown of Maysville, Ky. And the song her brother Nick wrote, "It Just Happened to Happen to Me" had a Big Band swing.
Ms. Clooney made you listen to every word of the pretty ballad "More Than You Know" in a Nelson Riddle arrangement. She caressed each word of "Thanks for the Memory" with warmth and world-wise sincerity.
Her personal stories added to the intimacy -- such as how she "blessed" the pope. For the '50s hit "Hey There," she launched into a story about 7-year-old grandson Harry. This was vintage Rosie, who can swing and belt over the Pops brass with the best of them.
She dedicated a smoky, swinging "I Left My Heart" to her longtime friend and Grammy rival, Tony Bennett. Only once did she get a bit choked up, when she sang "In the Wee Small Hours" for Frank Sinatra, who died last month.
She was skilled, wise and funny. When she forgot the words to her signature song, "Our Love is Here to Stay," she quipped, "I'm 70 and I have a temperature of 107!"
In the first half, the McGing Irish Dancers sparkled Riverdance-style through "Simple Gifts" and Maestro Kunzel played his own tribute to Mr. Sinatra, "My Way."
The Pops repeats at 8:30 p.m. today at Riverbend. Tickets: 381-3300