Monday, July 01, 2002

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Rosie's friends remember courageous, talented woman




By Janelle Gelfand jgelfand@enquirer.com
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Those who knew Rosemary Clooney expressed shock at her Saturday death and remembered her as a magnificent talent, a warm and funny friend, a powerful player in the music world, a legend in music.

        “I'm sad and in shock. I adored Rosemary,” says singer Michael Feinstein, her friend, collaborator and former Beverly Hills neighbor, who was in town to sing with the Cincinnati Pops this weekend. “The warmth she radiated onstage was the same warmth she gave to everyone offstage.”

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        “She loved Cincinnati,” says Cincinnati Pops conductor Erich Kunzel. “Every time she performed with us, it was coming home. Now she belongs with all those legends who aren't with us: Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington. She'll never be forgotten.”

        Ms. Clooney, 74, a Maysville, Ky., native whose lifetime of song began in Cincinnati, died shortly after 6 p.m. Saturday at her Beverly Hills home after a long battle with lung cancer.

        “For over 50 years she has brightened our lives with the richness of her personality and her voice,” Dolores Hope, a fellow singer and wife of entertainer Bob Hope, said in a statement. “Her courage and love have been an inspiration to all who called her friend.”

        Her death came four months after the recording industry gave her its highest honor, a Lifetime Achievement Award. It was the singer's first Grammy in a 57-year career that began in 1945 in Cincinnati, when the blond Maysville teenager and her younger sister, Betty, began singing on WLW radio.

        Mary Ellen Tanner, a local singer who considered Ms. Clooney a mentor, said: “I'm just stunned. I always felt like she was my next-door neighbor. It's the end of an era for music.”

        John Von Ohlen, a Cincinnati musician who was a drummer for Ms. Clooney, said: “She was the best to work with. When I started in '82, she was in her best form. Every time I played with her, the music was top notch. You did a show with her and you were all the way there.”

        Her longtime friend and fellow singer Tony Bennett called her passing “an enormous personal loss, as she was my great friend and colleague,” in a statement from Europe. “She was one of America's finest pop vocalists — with a clear, pure voice filled with warmth and sincerity. She was a wonderful person.”

"She was scared'

        Ms. Clooney thought she was on the road to recovery, but was frightened and surprised at the recurrence of cancer about three weeks ago. She told Mr. Feinstein that she had planned a 75th birthday celebration in Carnegie Hall next year.

[photo] Dante DiPaolo and Rosemary Clooney married in 1997. They'd been companions since 1973.
(Enquirer photo)
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[photo] Rosemary and husband Jose Ferrer with their five children in the 1960s.
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        “She was scared,” Mr. Feinstein says. “But she did not want to have any treatment, and she immediately made peace with the fact that she was going to die. ... She just said she was worried about (her husband) Dante (DiPaolo). ... She spoke about being reunited with Betty. She'd say, "I'm going to go see my sister.' ”

        Her sister, Betty, died of a brain aneurysm in 1976.

        Mr. Feinstein, who performed with Ms. Clooney frequently, said that working with her was both inspiring and fun.

        “You never knew what was going to come out of her mouth,” he says, laughing. “She would make comments under her breath — but the audience could hear them. That was part of her charm; she was very self-deprecating.”

        She hated giving up smoking, when forced to do so by increasingly poor health.

        “In interviews, she'd say she stopped smoking, but when we were at the house, she'd say, "Excuse me honey, I'm going to go in the bathroom now and smoke a cigarette,' ” Mr. Feinstein says.

        In recent years, she had cut back her performing schedule.

        “She'd say, "I really don't have the energy to do this.' But she never would have given it up for a second, because the minute she got onstage she was happy and she got energy,” he says.

She sang with sadness

        When Ms. Clooney hit the big time in the '50s, it was with pop fluff like “Mambo Italiano,” “Botch-a-Me” and “Come On-a My House.” But Mr. Feinstein recalls a sad song called “I'll Be Around” that she recorded in 1951, where she had a depth of connection that anticipated her mature style of later years.

        “She said, "Oh, that kind of song I always felt deeply,' ” Mr. Feinstein recalls. “That mirrored a sadness that she had in life. She certainly had a lot of laughter and great deal of love, but also carried sadness from what was a hard childhood.”

        In the late '70s, the onetime girl singer came back from her failed marriage to Jose Ferrer, a love affair, drug dependency and a terrifying mental breakdown when Concord Records gave her a second chance. She outdueled death in 1998, when a frightening bout with viral meningitis put her into a coma.

        “She sacrificed a lot in her life,” Mr. Feinstein says. “She crawled back from a very difficult place, and started back, playing in Holiday Inns, anything to make some money to support her family.”

        Bill Berry a former Cincinnatian who live in L.A. played trumpet on her 1977 comeback album, Everything's Coming Up Rosie.

        “She was lovely; she couldn't have been nicer,” Mr. Berry says. “She was a great, great musician. Like very few others, she was an original. I'd know her (voice) anywhere.”

        It was a distinctive voice. Former Tonight Show bandleader and trumpeter Doc Severinsen remembers from the first time he heard her voice on the radio, as a young musician in New York.

        “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,” Mr. Severinsen says. “Even at that young age, I could just tell that, wow, I mean, she's got such a sound that's her own. I think she was born with it, and she was also smart enough to go with what she was.”

        John Rogers, former Concord Records publicist, attributed her musical appeal to her personal approach.

        “Immediately, you feel as though you know Rosemary. Without the contrived histrionics afflicting most singers, she respects the melody as well as the lyrics of each song,” he says.

A great interpreter

        Ms. Clooney became known as one of the greatest interpreters of American song — of Gershwin, Porter, Berlin, Ellington, Rodgers, Hart, Mercer, Carmichael and Hammerstein — because she instinctively knew how to convey the message, and how to inject a part of herself into a song.

        She was 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.”

        “She's what I call a Bing Crosby singer,” Mr. Bennett told the Enquirer while in Cincinnati last year. “She just was a natural. I always felt the struggle when I first started ... and I couldn't get over, she'd walk in the studio, at just the last minute — she had a kind of photographic mind — and always sang natural.”

        “I found out in later years from working with her, that she didn't just sing anything,” says John Oddo, her arranger and music director of 18 years. “The lyric had to really mean something to her for her to sing it.”

        George Chakiris, who was a chorus dancer in White Christmas, talked about her sincerity and warmth.

        “I think it's like a gift; it's something that you possess that's innately in you or it isn't,” Mr. Chakiris says. “There's just something that comes through, no matter how wonderful a performance it is, of the person.”

        Conductor Carmon DeLeone agrees. “She was just the best,” he says. “There's no female singer that any of the great American composers preferred more. That's why they gave her their music to present, because they knew that in her hands they'd get the purest and most beautiful results.”

Final area show: July 4, 2000

        In her last local appearance in a live PBS telecast with Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops at Riverbend on July 4, 2000, Mr. Kunzel told Ms. Clooney that she could give lessons to young singers.

        “She was 72 at the time,” he says. “To the last performance, every note was in tune, and you could understand every single word; she sang every word with such meaning. How many pop singers today have those two important elements? That art is almost completely gone.”

        In later years, her appeal crossed generations. Local rock musician Chris Arduser calls her style timeless and indefinable. She influenced a generation of singers, including Linda Ronstadt, Diana Krall and Norah Jones.

        Ms. Clooney taught Ms. Krall “to just go up there and be yourself,” she says. “The greatest thing I learned from Rosemary is that she always says, "Just sing the damn song!' And as she sings the song, you believe she's been through it,” the platinum-selling jazz singer and pianist told Interview magazine.

        She was a peerless communicator who enhanced her performances with the richness of personal stories, says Cincinnati jazz singer Kathy Wade.

        “When you are able to look out on the landscape and there are legions of fans, you've communicated your message well. It's a true testimony to your life and your art,” she says.

        Bluegrass diva Katie Laur regards her as “the heir apparent to Ella Fitzgerald,” and says she came into her own when she began singing for Concord Records.

        “She had that swing, that understanding of a song inside out,” Ms. Laur says. “The lyrics came to the forefront. She surrounded herself with the best possible musicians.”

        No matter how large the venue, Ms. Clooney communicated an intimacy “that you don't always get from other singers, even when they're technically great,” says Cincinnati's Ms. Tanner.

An uncanny versatility

        The singer began telling stories in her shows at Rockefeller Center's Rainbow & Stars nightclub a decade ago, says her music director John Oddo. Later, she started kibitzing in big venues, such as the Hollywood Bowl and Riverbend.

        Through the decades, she had an uncanny ability to fit into many musical situations.

        “I've worked with her in small jazz groups, with symphony orchestras and with Big Bands. And she always makes you believe that she's completely with whatever idiom that she's involved in doing,” he says.

        Oscar Treadwell, dean of Tristate jazz broadcasters, called her “a powerful player in the music game. In the past few years, it wasn't easy for her. She was carrying a lot of weight and her voice wasn't what it had been. But she had the smarts to surround herself with some wonderful musicians,” he says. “She had a great voice for jazz and enough knowledge about music to sing it. She left quite a remarkable legacy.”

        Ms. Clooney cherished her family and friends. Lining the bookshelves of her living room in her home in Augusta, Ky., are snapshots of her five children and 10 grandchildren, alongside old pictures of Bob and Dolores Hope, Dean Martin, Arthur Godfrey, Joan Crawford, Frank Sinatra, Princess Diana and Prince Charles.

        In an interview there in 2000, Mr. DiPaolo remarked that, for him, Ms. Clooney had never changed.

        “Whenever I see her, I see her like she was when she was 24,” said Mr. DiPaolo. “That's what I'm left with, more than anything else. If you know a person to be a certain way, and they go through a lot of things in life, they change. But you still see that person you knew when you were young.”

        Mr. Feinstein's favorite memory was Christmastime in her Roxbury Drive mansion — the same house where George and Ira Gershwin wrote “Love Is Here to Stay” — surrounded by her large family.

        “She truly celebrated Christmas in a big way. She loved the holiday; she spent much too much on presents for everybody, but she couldn't help herself,” he says. “She was a generous soul, and she loved to celebrate Christmas with the most gorgeous decorations and lots of different kinds of wonderful foods. She would call up people and sing "White Christmas' to them.”

        She often reminisced about Bing Crosby, her favorite singing partner, he says. Mr. Feinstein is producing an album of Ms. Clooney and Mr. Crosby singing duets from never-released recordings from the 50s and 60s, that he found rummaging around her basement.

        Recently, Ms. Clooney listened to the disc, which will be released in October. She relished hearing those songs again, Mr. Feinstein says.

        Her sister Gail Stone Darley was with her when she died.

        “It was very peaceful. She was surrounded by those she loved. The Lord had her right in his arms,” she said by phone from her home in Woodland Hills, Calif. “All of us were around her praying and holding her hands and kissing her. It was very obvious that she was at peace with her Creator.”

        Her passing has left a real void, says Cincinnati's Mr. DeLeone. “Now she's probably at that club in the sky, sitting in with Nat "King' Cole.”

        Larry Nager, John Kiesewetter and Jim Knippenberg contributed.

       



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