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Rosemary Clooney's Surprise Success

April 06, 1986|LEONARD FEATHER

Walking into the handsome Beverly Hills mansion, you are imbued with a sense of pop music history, and not only because Rosemary Clooney moved in 33 years ago.

George Gershwin lived here. Russ Columbo died here. Columbo (who preceded Bing Crosby as vocalist with the Gus Arnheim orchestra) could have been bigger than Bing, if that gun hadn't gone off accidentally in the den of this house and wiped him out at 26.

In the living room Gershwin sat at the piano in 1937 and composed "A Foggy Day" and his last song, "Love Is Here to Stay." Later, the house was owned by Ginny Simms, one of the great radio and TV singers of the '40s and '50s. During Clooney's residency, Ira Gershwin was her next-door neighbor and good friend until his death in 1983.

The house, in short, has a history as remarkable as that of its present owner. Rosemary Clooney has had an extraordinary life, told in an autobiography ("This for Remembrance") and later made into a TV melodrama. But right now she neither needs nor wants to rely on the old stories about her stormy relationship with Jose Ferrer (two marriages, two divorces), her fight against pill addiction, nervous breakdown and all the other checkout-counter-magazine gossip. Clooney today is high only on success, and it's a success of a kind she never expected.

It began, or more properly recommenced, when Clooney was on tour with Bing Crosby, whose drummer, Jake Hanna, was virtually the house drummer for Concord Jazz records.

"Jake kept telling me I should record for this company. Except for one album with Bing, I hadn't recorded in a long time. I did two tracks for the Ellington memorial album."

Hanna soon persuaded Carl Jefferson, head of Concord Jazz, to record a Clooney album. This was the start of a long association: There are now nine LPs, most of them employing small jazz groups with Scott Hamilton on sax, Warren Vache on cornet, Nat Pierce on piano and Hanna. One album teamed her with the Woody Herman orchestra.

"It's funny having an image as a jazz singer," says Clooney. "My idea of a true jazz singer is Mel Torme; he can scat and do all kinds of inventive things that I can't handle. Still, I do sound more free and jazz-influenced than when this all started."

Actually, it had started many years earlier. She eased into the major leagues by touring as half of the Clooney Sisters with a band led by Tony Pastor, the former Artie Shaw saxophonist. During that time, she recorded a few tunes on her own; in 1949, a Down Beat magazine review declared: "Rosemary Clooney has an extraordinarily good voice, perhaps the nearest thing to Ella Fitzgerald."

After three years on the road, Betty Clooney, the younger sister, opted for home and semiretirement; two weeks later, Rosemary quit and went out as a single, armed with a Columbia Records contract. Some of the hits that followed were more valuable for the financial security they brought than for any merit in the songs; she was never enamored of "Come On-a My House" but grants that it was commercially invaluable. She was grateful, though, that long-lasting success came along soon after with "Tenderly."

Married in 1953, a mother two years later, she almost never stopped working; during those years, there were movies, TV series, recordings with Harry James, Benny Goodman and the Duke Ellington Orchestra.

"The album with Duke is still available, you know. In fact, it was just reissued in Japan because my Concord things are doing so well there. It was strange--I was never in the studio with Duke. He sent Billy Strayhorn out here to work on the songs; Billy went back to New York to do the charts, the band recorded there, and Billy came back here, stood in the booth and cued me while I overdubbed the vocals. That was in 1957, and that's one album I'm proud of."

Clooney today is one of a growing number of singers who can claim to have bridged the jazz-pop world, attracting a broad audience with the use of great songs in the Gershwin-Porter-Berlin-Ellington tradition. "I think Linda Ronstadt did us all a hell of a favor," she says. "I hear Dolly Dawn has an album out too. When Betty and I first joined Tony Pastor, we played a theater in Indianapolis and Dolly was the star of the show--she taught me how to put on makeup. I was about 18."

Mention of her sister, who was only 45 when she died suddenly of an aneurysm, led to an enthusiastic discussion of the event that is foremost in her mind at the moment. She has assembled an immensely impressive cast for a concert to aid the Betty Clooney Foundation for the Brain Injured, to be held Monday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

"We're calling it the first annual singers' salute to the songwriters. I'll be hosting it, and the show will pay tribute to Marilyn and Alan Bergman, Sammy Cahn, Cy Coleman, Barry Manilow and Jule Styne, all of whom will be present.

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