Sunday, February 24, 2002
Grammys catch on to Clooney
Colleagues praise her talent, tenacity, warmth
Rosemary Clooney never won a Grammy, the recording industry's most prestigious award, losing this year to Harry Connick Jr. But in one of the highlights of her illustrious career, she received the Lifetime Achievement Award in the 44th Annual Grammy Awards on Feb. 27, hailing a lifetime of song that started in the '40s at WLW Radio in Cincinnati. The Enquirer prepared this special tribute in recognition of that honor:
By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Over a career spanning six decades, Rosemary Clooney has inhabited the worlds of pop and jazz equally well, with impeccable taste, ease and confidence.
She's one of the greatest interpreters of American song, her colleagues say of Gershwin, Porter, Berlin, Ellington, Rodgers, Hart, Mercer, Carmichael and Hammerstein. She starts with the lyric and instinctively knows how to convey the message and how to inject a part of herself into a song.
Dante DiPaolo and Rosemary Clooney married in 1997. They'd been companions since 1973.|
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How do you explain a singer who, at age 73, still sounds so fresh?
She has the God-given natural ability to communicate through music, says her longtime friend Michael Feinstein, who is competing against her for a Grammy in the traditional pop vocal album category. It cannot be learned. She can communicate the essence of a lyric because of her understanding of what she's singing.
She has great musical ears, great musical taste, great (timing). To find all of those qualities in one artist that's what sets her apart, her music director John Oddo says. ""There's Tony Bennett, and Frank (Sinatra) is not with us any more. But there aren't many left. She's very special.
Mr. Bennett, her longtime pal and Grammy nemesis, calls her a Bing Crosby singer. She was just a natural, he said while performing at Riverbend last summer.
Rosemary and husband Jose Ferrer with their five children in the 1960s.|
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We had a show called Songs for Sale years ago with CBS, he recalled. In those days, I was really struggling, and I couldn't get over it. She'd walk into the studio, at just the last minute, she had a kind of photographic mind, and always sang natural. To this day, she sings that way.
Elsa Sule, former associate producer for the Ruth Lyons 50-50 Club and The Bob Braun Show, agrees.
I think she was born good, she says. Betty was, too.
Ms. Sule remembers when Ms. Clooney and her younger sister, Betty, auditioned as teen-agers to sing on WLW Radio in 1945.
They could harmonize; they could do anything, she recalls. I think at first the station was a little bit dubious about hiring them because they didn't play guitar. But as soon as they listened to them, they decided they didn't need to play guitar. They were just good.
Ms. Clooney has made a comeback from the brink of death more than once; today she's recovering from her latest speed bump: lung cancer surgery. She hopes to go home to Los Angeles from the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota this week. Her oldest son, Miguel Ferrer, will accept the Lifetime Achievement Award for her on Wednesday.
Approaching her 74th birthday in May, she can't hold a note as long as she once did, and her voice has dropped a few keys.
But you don't notice that at all, says Mr. Oddo, who has been her music director, arranger and pianist for 18 years.
She knows how to get around all of that. When you hear her sing, you don't feel as if there's anything missing. She just knows how to sing that lyric and make it so believable, that it doesn't matter she's not holding that note.
The Clooney sound
Ms. Clooney's sound is unique, says trumpeter and former Tonight Show bandleader Doc Severinsen, because when she sings a song, she makes it hers.
I'll never forget the first time I heard her. I was living in New York City, a young kid, just trying to get started. I turned on the radio one day, and out comes this voice. I didn't recognize the name when they said it was Rosemary Clooney. But all I could think was, boy, she's going to be a big star. I could tell that she's got such a sound that's her own.
Coming out of the big-band era helped define that sound. She has a big-time feel, says her longtime drummer, John Von Ohlen, of Covington.
As soon as I start playing behind her, I notice it right away, in her rhythm, her voice. . . . She can get very hot rhythmically, he says. Being a drummer, I'm really attuned to that. She's got great rhythm it's real big-time sounding.
A few months ago, they played a concert in Houston, and one tune took off like a rocket.
(The tempo) was about as up as you can play, he says. When she came in with the melody, I poured the coals on. She was right there with me. No problem. In fact, she was puttin' it right back at me.
Hers is an effortless sound, says Pat Linhart, musical theater faculty member at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.
In the midst of the ease of sound, you totally forget any technical aspects, she says. You hear every word, and every word is totally interpreted.
She can draw you in with one phrase, or one word. Consider the novelty tune, Come On-a My House, Mr. Severinsen says.
If you give a good close listen to the inflection of her vocal quality, it has a little edge, a little buzz in the sound, he says.
Teresa Brewer would have sung that song so cutsie-pie. But when Rosie sings it, it means, "Hey, come on-a my house. You might be surprised what you might find.' There's a promise of something special there.
Sings with feeling
Frank Sinatra taught her how to be a definitive conduit, Ms. Clooney told the Enquirer in 1998.
He told the story that the composer and the lyricist intended the listener to hear. And that's what I learned from him, she said. He inspired me, totally. I never told Bing Crosby that, because we were best friends!
There's so much feeling in her singing, says Mary Ellen Tanner, a friend who has won the Enquirer's Cammy Award for best jazz vocalist four times. The writers of "It Never Entered My Mind' and so many others that she recorded would have to have been honored to the max that she would do that kind of performance.
Just as important as the expressiveness of a song, Cincinnati conductor Carmon DeLeone says, is Ms. Clooney's commitment to the original melody.
She was a favorite of composers such as Irving Berlin because they knew she would sing their songs the way they had written them, he says. She doesn't stray from the melody. In her simplicity is the beauty of her singing.
Ms. Clooney is a master of delivering standards those gems of the American songbook, which, in the words of Mr. Bennett, are not old-fashioned. They're just timeless.
When you are a master at delivering a standard, in its simplest style and delivery, you guarantee yourself sustainability, jazz singer Kathy Wade says.
In 1998, Ms. Wade hired Ms. Clooney for her Crown Jewels of Jazz series in Ault Park. More than 10,000 people showed up and stayed for hours, despite drizzling rain.
She talks to the audience, which is something I think is important as a vocalist, she says. Ms. Wade was moved by the singer's stories about the legends she had known, such as Billie Holiday.
The thing that I will always treasure is her story about their meeting and hanging out. Then she sang songs from her Billie Holiday album, Here's to my Lady, she says. Being able to bring that kind of storytelling to your performance is so wonderful.
Ms. Tanner sums it up: You get a warmth and intimacy from Rosemary, that you don't always get from other singers, even when they're technically great.
Jazz: Her second chance
It's been 51 years since the smash hit Come On-a My House, a defining moment that made her a pop icon and Hollywood movie star.
In the late '70s, Ms. Clooney re-invented herself coming back from a failed marriage, a love affair, drug dependency and a terrifying mental breakdown. Concord Records, a jazz label, gave her a second chance.
The great, big-band and swing drummer, Jake Hanna, introduced her to Carl Jefferson, the head of Concord Records, back when she really was not considered a jazz singer, drummer Mr. Von Ohlen recalls. So she started singing with jazz players, in small group settings.
The albums became hits and sold well. Jazz, it seems, was her domain.
I think she did it because she enjoyed that, as she became older, and she said, gee I can't get up like a 25-year-old kid and sing this and that song, and try to get the next hit tune, Mr. Severinsen says. She saw jazz as her place to go.
It was hard work, but memorable because of how good she was from the beginning, Mr. Von Ohlen recalls.
She'd be standing up there, just swinging. We had hard-core arrangements behind her it was really rompin', he says.
She's always a professional, her colleagues say.
Cincinnati Pops conductor Erich Kunzel invites her often, because not only is she a hometown favorite she's a perfectionist.
If she thinks she's a little bit flat or sharp, she will correct it, he says. I remember doing our Christmas album. She insists it be perfect, or she won't release it. She's as pro. She wants it all just right.
Jazz vocalists are hard to come by, Ms. Wade says. You have to come up with your own style. She's done that very well, and has been very lucky to combine all of it the singing, the acting, jazz standards and continue to be a voice.
Connects with audience
For her fans, the appeal is simpler: It's her earthy humor, her down-home charm.
Her nightclub appearances have the feel of family affairs at which she presides like a benign grandmother, blending songs and anecdotes into a rich personal history that keeps you hanging on every word, the New York Times' Stephen Holden wrote, about her annual stint at Feinstein's at the Regency last April.
The first time she sang there was a great thrill for me, because she opened the club (in 1999), Mr. Feinstein says. I wanted to feature her as the first performer, because I knew it would give an identity to the club that would tell people what it was about.
Mr. Oddo remembers the decade he played with her in New York's Rainbow and Stars nightclub, now closed.
She would tell stories, because she always felt the intimacy of the room, he says.
Later, she bantered with crowds in bigger venues. In July 2000, with 10,000 in the Riverbend audience and several million television viewers watching live Ms. Clooney blew a kiss to her hometown fans and exclaimed, It's good to be home, let me tell you. In an evening of extravaganza and spectacle, she communicated on a personal level.
The person and the singer have become inseparable. Shortly after Ms. Clooney recovered from nearly dying of viral meningitis in 1998, the Enquirer asked her how she would like to be remembered someday.
She was uncharacteristically quiet for a moment. Then she answered, As a hard-working singer. And a good mother.
Singing legend Rosemary Clooney dies
Special Enquirer Tribute to Rosemary Clooney
(First published Feb. 24, 2002)