Through tough times, Clooney sang sweetly

The singer died Saturday at age 74

Appreciation

July 01, 2002|By Richard Severo | Richard Severo,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Rosemary Clooney, whose warm, radiant voice placed her in the first rank of American popular singers for more than half a century, died Saturday night at her home in Beverly Hills, Calif. She was 74.

The cause was complications from lung cancer, according to her spokeswoman, Linda Dozoretz.

Clooney did not dig as deeply into the emotional content of a song as Frank Sinatra did; she never tried to emulate the sound and delivery of an instrument as Mel Torme seemed to do so easily; she did not burst into the scat choruses favored by Ella Fitzgerald.

But she sang with so much assuredness, simplicity and honesty that these elements became her trademark and endeared her to audiences and critics alike. In the words of the director Mike Nichols, "She sings like Spencer Tracy acts."

She became one of America's best-known popular singers in 1951 with a novelty tune called "Come-on-a-My House," which became a huge hit record, and followed that with other novelties like "Botcha-Me," "Mambo Italiano" and "This Old House," songs that her audiences always wanted to hear long after she was pursuing a less flamboyant repertory.

In recent years Clooney had been appearing in the best cabarets and on concert stages, largely with small groups, singing pop-jazz standards that earned her new audiences and renewed respect.

She was nominated for an Emmy Award for an appearance on ER, the series that featured her nephew George Clooney, and this year she was given a lifetime achievement Grammy Award a month after she was hospitalized for lung cancer surgery.

Clooney's good looks and cheery disposition masked a life with more than its share of pain. She survived a disastrous marriage to the actor Jose Ferrer; she was scarred by the assassination of her friend Robert Kennedy, which she witnessed firsthand; she abused drugs and had affairs that disappointed and wounded her; she had a childhood of uncertainty with an affable alcoholic father and a mother who eventually deserted the family.

Rosemary Clooney was born May 23, 1928, in Maysville, Ky. Her father, Andrew Clooney, was a house painter who drank so much and so often that his own father, a jeweler who served several terms as mayor of Maysville, had him jailed for public drunkenness.

When Rosemary was 10, she made her acting debut in a school production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, in which she played the witch. That same year her paternal grandmother died, sending her father into an intensified period of drinking.

Rosemary and her siblings were sent to live with her mother's family, the Guilfoyles. After Rosemary completed the sixth grade, her grandmother took her to Ironton, Ohio, east of Maysville. Two years later, they moved to Cincinnati.

Rosemary and her sister Betty began to sing publicly, at first for political rallies for her grandfather and later at amateur contests throughout northern Kentucky and southern Ohio.

When Rosemary was in high school and Betty was in junior high, radio station WLW in Cincinnati conducted a talent contest. The sisters won and for a time were heard seven nights a week, earning $20 each.

They began to sing with Barney Rapp's big band, which performed around Cincinnati. An agent for Tony Pastor heard them, and for the next three years the Clooney Sisters became vocalists for the Pastor big band.

In 1946, Rosemary Clooney made her first solo recording, "I'm Sorry I Didn't Say I'm Sorry When I Made You Cry Last Night," which attracted attention because she sang it in a whisper that disc jockeys speculated was going to be the new style.

In reality, she had been so petrified when she stood before the microphone that she could not sing the song in full voice as she had intended.

In 1950, she attracted favorable attention with an appearance on the Songs for Sale television show and with her recording of "Beautiful Brown Eyes," her first real hit for Columbia. She started to appear regularly on television, including The Ed Sullivan Show.

But her first megahit came the next year, when Mitch Miller, the artist and repertory man at Columbia, persuaded her to sing "Come on-a My House." The recording became a runaway best seller, and Clooney became a star.

She fell in love with Dante DiPaolo, a dancer at Paramount studios, but jilted him to marry Ferrer in 1953 and to make more movies, including White Christmas in 1954 with Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye and Vera-Ellen.

In the early 1960s, she and Ferrer became estranged, she had an affair with the arranger Nelson Riddle that went nowhere (he was married and the father of six children), and she slowly became addicted to sleeping pills.

Her work habits became erratic, and she was tagged as undependable. She found it dif- ficult to find work. Her singing deteriorated. Her divorce from Ferrer became final in 1967.

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