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Rosie's Got Her Groove Back

The Great American Songbook is thriving in a variety of cozy venues, and Rosemary Clooney couldn't be more pleased.

March 02, 1997|Don Heckman | Don Heckman is The Times' jazz critic

Rosemary Clooney has a cold. Her dark-toned, mellifluous voice sounds a few pitches lower than normal, and there's just the echo of a frog at the bottom of the well.

"I'm usually down a couple of notes from where I used to be when I was singing 'Come On-A My House,' " she says. "And right now, it's a few notes below that."

She also has a reconstructed knee. ("Just call me a woman of parts," she adds with a throaty chuckle.) And an early February abundance of the rain that never pours in Southern California has made her leg a lot stiffer than she would like.

But Clooney, 68, is in a good mood. Sitting in the glass-walled family room of the Beverly Hills mansion she has occupied since she married Jose Ferrer in 1953, she looks, acts and feels like a contented woman. The years of high visibility--she was one of the most important female vocal performers of the '50s, with a string of hits that ranged from novelty numbers to ballads--are now a distant memory. The dark period of prescription pill addiction and psychiatric recovery cited in her autobiography, "This for Remembering" (which was made into the 1982 CBS TV movie "Rosie: The Rosemary Clooney Story"), is long past. Her five children (all born between 1955 and 1960) are grown, some with offspring of their own.

Perhaps best of all, Clooney is now where she wants to be, singing the songs she has always wanted to sing.

"Oh, [then-producer] Mitch Miller gave me the chance, occasionally, to sing things like 'Tenderly' and 'The Nearness of You' back in the '50s at Columbia," she recalls. "But they always wanted to find more novelties like 'Come On-A My House' and 'Botch-A-Me' and 'This Old House' for me."

These days, Clooney has become a much-admired performer of Gershwin, Porter, Kern and Rodgers & Hart, a singer whose work--surprisingly, and unexpectedly--has come to typify the intimate storytelling of cabaret. She has done so via a series of highly praised appearances at Manhattan's Rainbow and Stars club in Rockefeller Center. (For a look at New York's cabaret scene, see Page 88.)

"Mellow as mature wine . . . she brings a naturalness, solidity and unpretentious personal honesty to whatever she sings," wrote the New York Times.

And Mike Nichols once described her even more succinctly: "She sings," he said, "like Spencer Tracy acts."

If Clooney does not completely fit the traditional cabaret image of a singer working in a small bistro before a modest but attentive audience, her focus nonetheless is the same.

"I always thought that I could only be intimate with an audience in a small room," she says. "Until I had a conversation with Sylvia Sims, who of course was a consummate cabaret singer. I told her, 'I wish I could feel the same way, connect the same way, at the Hollywood Bowl that I do at Rainbow and Stars.'

"And she said, 'You can. Anything that you can feel and do in a small room, you can do before the largest crowd. It's all in how you feel inside, and what you communicate.' And I've come to understand that she was right, that I can actually make those kinds of connections even when I'm singing in larger venues with larger ensembles."

In fact, Clooney, like Mel Torme in recent years, rarely has had the opportunity to make cabaret-like connections in anything other than large venues when she performs in Los Angeles, in part because of a general management belief that appearances in smaller rooms would interfere with regular bookings at large arenas such as the Hollywood Bowl. Yet before Torme's recent stroke, both could be heard frequently in New York City's Rainbow and Stars and Michael's Pub.

(On Saturday, Clooney appears with such cabaret-oriented artists as Karen Akers, Michael Feinstein and Maureen McGovern on KCET in "Ira Gershwin at 100: A Celebration at Carnegie Hall." On April 4 and 5, Clooney appears at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts with the Count Basie Orchestra.)

Clooney is one of the most visible performers in a slowly unfolding wave of Southland interest in cabaret and cabaret-related performers. Always important to Manhattan nightlife, it is becoming more important to Los Angeles music fans, as well. A relatively unknown Broadway singer such as Sharon McNight, for example, did a sold-out three-week run in December at the Hollywood Roosevelt Cinegrill, a prime local cabaret arena. She was followed by an eclectic parade of other artists--the veteran pop singer Gogi Grant, jazz vocalist Shirley Horn and all-around singer Maureen McGovern--all of whom work with the intimate, storytelling qualities of cabaret.

In the first week in February, San Francisco hosted the second annual Cabaret Convention, in which major cabaret names from the East and West coasts gathered for a week of around-town events. The convention was preceded in Los Angeles by a one-day event--"Cabaret Cavalcade"--at the Jazz Bakery.

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