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Rosemary Clooney, 74; Legendary Singer


Rosemary Clooney, the versatile pop singer who soared to fame in the early 1950s with the novelty tune "Come On-a My House," overcame prescription-pill addiction and a nervous breakdown in the late '60s and began a comeback in the late '70s that boosted her stature as one of the finest pop singers in show business, has died. She was 74.

Clooney, who had undergone surgery for lung cancer in January at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., died Saturday night at her home in Beverly Hills with her family at her bedside.

Known for her warm, velvety voice, Clooney was once described by Frank Sinatra as "a symbol of modern American music."

But since her comeback, a time in which she recorded a series of tributes to songwriters such as Harold Arlen, Cole Porter and Duke Ellington on the Concord Jazz label, she matured into what jazz critic Don Heckman called "a lot more than a symbol, and a far more intriguing singer than she was during her 'Come On-a My House' days in the '50s."

"Clooney's voice," Heckman wrote in 2000, "has been one of the natural wonders--too often underappreciated--since her pop star days in the '50s. And her turn toward jazz in recent decades has simply been a matter of bringing to the surface rhythmic qualities that were always a subtext in her singing."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday July 05, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 5 inches; 210 words Type of Material: Correction
Rosemary Clooney album--An obituary Sunday about singer Rosemary Clooney contained an album title that was not accurate. The correct title is "Everything's Coming Up Rosie."

A reviewer for the New York Times once wrote of the recent-vintage Clooney that she was as "mellow as mature wine ... she brings a naturalness, solidity and unpretentious personal honesty to whatever she sings."

Or as director Mike Nichols put it: "She sings like Spencer Tracy acts."

"Her music was an extraordinary extension of this joyful soul," her longtime friend, the singer and pianist Michael Feinstein, said Saturday night. "She was an earth mother, a heart person, and that quality came through in her music."

Feinstein, who worked with Clooney numerous times over the years, recalled one engagement at the Hollywood Bowl. They were both nervous, Feinstein said, and he expected her to give him words of wisdom, but she turned to him and said, "Don't think this ever gets any easier."

"And with that, she went on stage."

Clooney was born May 23, 1928, in Maysville, Ky. Her parents separated frequently and her father, a heavy drinker, was rarely around. Clooney, along with younger brother Nick--the father of actor George Clooney--and younger sister Betty, lived with various relatives.

Clooney began singing at age 3. At 5, she and her 2-year-old sister were singing together at home and in the car.

Their grandfather, Andrew Clooney, a jeweler who served on the city council and was a one-term elected mayor of Maysville, featured the girls as entertainers at his political rallies.

"We would sing on street corners, anywhere we could collect a crowd," Clooney told The Times in 1988. "Betty had a natural gift for harmony. Her voice was lower than mine." In 1941, when Rosemary was 13, the family moved to Cincinnati to live with Clooney's maternal grandparents. Her mother later moved to California to marry a sailor, taking Nick with her.

In 1945, 16-year-old Rosemary and 13-year-old Betty auditioned for Cincinnati radio station WLW and were hired to sing duets on a nightly radio show for $20 a week apiece.

The Clooney Sisters were soon singing with local bands as well, and in 1946 big band leader Tony Pastor hired them to tour with his band as featured vocalists. Because of the girls' young ages, their grandmother sent their uncle on the road with them as chaperon.

Clooney made her first solo record in 1946, "I'm Sorry I Didn't Say I'm Sorry When I Made You Cry Last Night."

After three years of touring mostly one-night stands, Betty quit the band and Rosemary remained as a soloist.

But in 1949, Clooney struck out on her own, and in 1950 she signed a recording contract with Columbia Records. She initially achieved some success with children's songs such as "Me and My Teddy Bear" and "Little Johnny Chickadee" and in 1951 scored a minor hit with "Beautiful Brown Eyes."

But then came the unexpected hit that would make her a household name.

In June 1951, Columbia's head of artists and repertoire, Mitch Miller, told Clooney she'd be recording "Come On-a My House," a quasi-Armenian folk song written by an unlikely duo: author William Saroyan and Ross Bagdasarian, who, as David Seville, later created the singing Chipmunks.

Clooney balked at singing--in a fake accent that sounded more Italian than Armenian--what she considered a "dumb" song with lyrics that "sounded more like a drunken chant than an historic folk art form." She also hated the "gimmicky" arrangement: It was orchestrated for an amplified harpsichord.

When she told Miller she wouldn't do it, she recalled in her 1977 autobiography "This for Remembrance," Miller responded by saying, "Well, let me put it this way. I will fire you unless you show up tomorrow."

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