The Magazine

Rosie the Riveting

How a great pop singer regained her voice.

Dec 23, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 15 • By JOHN CHECK
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Rosemary Clooney was brought back to popular consciousness a half-dozen years ago in an episode from the first season of Mad Men. Viewers were treated to a rendition of “Botch-a-Me,” one of her conspicuous successes of the 1950s, a time when she recorded many hit records (the biggest being “Come On-a My House”), appeared on her own weekly television show on CBS and, later, NBC, and starred opposite Bing Crosby in White Christmas (1954).

Rosemary Clooney in ‘The Stars Are Singing’ (1953)

Rosemary Clooney in ‘The Stars Are Singing’ (1953)

Mondadori / Getty Images

Born in 1928 in Maysville, Kentucky, Rosemary Clooney had a largely unhappy childhood owing to her father’s alcoholism and her mother’s aloofness. From her earliest days, she possessed “a natural stage presence,” as Ken Crossland and Malcolm Macfarlane put it; all that was needed was a chance to display it. Her big break would come in 1946 when she and her sister Betty, a talented singer in her own right, joined the big band of Tony Pastor. Leaving the band toward the end of the 1940s, Clooney would enjoy a decade rich in achievement in the 1950s. Following these highs were the lows of the 1960s, when tastes in popular music took a decisive turn from the Great American Songbook.

Late Life Jazz deals candidly with Clooney’s problems from that decade, the most severe of which centered on her abuse of prescription drugs, a consequence of difficulties with her marriage. Her husband and father of her five children, the actor and entertainer José Ferrer, was a serial philanderer much more concerned with his career than with hers. There were problems, too, with finances and musical projects. Things came to a head in 1968, when she suffered a nervous breakdown, hastened by the assassination of Robert Kennedy, whose presidential campaign she had been actively supporting. 

Nine months passed before she would again sing in public. Gradually working her way back in the 1970s, she would go on in the 1980s and ’90s to record a series of well-regarded albums, appear often on talk shows, and perform for adoring audiences in some of the best clubs in the country. She died in 2002, having defied F. Scott Fitzgerald’s dictum about American lives having no second acts.

If Late Life Jazz has a thesis, it is the implicit one that Rosemary Clooney’s artistic accomplishment in the last 25  years of her life owed not so much to a new turn in her style as to a deepening of a sensibility that had been present from the outset.  

Take, for instance, the notorious “Botch-a-Me.” With its silly lyrics and Clooney’s fake Italian accent, this song, first recorded in 1952, is an easy target of ridicule. Doubtless it was one she had in mind years later when she compared herself with Tony Bennett, whose own career was enjoying an autumnal resurgence: “He sang such good songs; I recorded such crap.” Yet for all that, “Botch-a-Me” has a wonderfully infectious lilt to it, an irrepressible sense of swing that keeps it fresh more than 60 years after it was recorded. She brought this same lilt to her work in the 1950s with such celebrated musicians as Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, and Harry James, alongside all of whom she more than held her own. And it was this same spirit, modulated and enriched by the vicissitudes of the years, that she carried through to her work for Concord Records in the 1980s and ’90s. 

One of the strengths of this volume is the generosity with which the authors credit those who contributed to Clooney’s success. Bing Crosby, in particular, was one of her champions, and in the treatment of their friendship, the book is at its best. (Crossland and Macfarlane have each written books on Crosby.) Musical collaborators are also given their due, including accompanists (among them Buddy Cole and John Oddo) and arrangers (Nelson Riddle, Billy May). Credit, too, is given to the founder of Concord Records, Carl Jefferson, not only for financing Rosemary Clooney’s late-life work, but also for having the good taste to match her with such consummate musicians as the tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton and guitarist Ed Bickert.