Of all the major singers in the canon of American popular song, none has been forced to sing lousier material than Rosemary Clooney. We can also state without reservation that Rosemary Clooney was the nicest, warmest, and most unaffected of people—and singers.
From almost her first days at Columbia Records, under the tutelage of A&R master Mitch Miller (the man who gave Sinatra “Mama Won’t Bark”), she was handed “Come On-a My House.” As Clooney recalled years later, “I think it was a musically snobbish time in my life. I really hated that song. I hated the whole idea, and my first impression was, what a cheap way to get people's attention.” Snobbish or not, hit or not, it was a pretty lousy piece of material.
Let’s take a closer look at Clooney’s repertoire. On March 9, 1950, at the very beginning of her association with Columbia, she sang five songs including “The Canasta Song,” “I Found My Mamma,” and “Me and My Teddy Bear.” On April 18th she was given those enduring classics “Little Johnny Chickadee,” “Peterkin Pillowby,” “Who’ll Tie the Bell on the Old Cat’s Tail,” and “Little Sally One Shoe.” Gee, she must’ve had to fight off Peggy Lee and Ella Fitzgerald for the privilege of recording “Peterkin Pillowby.”
After managing to record three adult songs, she was given “Punky Punkin (The Happy Punkin)” and “The Wobblin’ Goblin.” Her very next session included the immortal melodies “Fuzzy Wuzzy (Wuz a Bear)” and “My Choc’late Rabbit.” More children’s songs and Christmas covers followed, but it was after “Come On-a My House” that she was really saddled with novelty numbers, including “I Wish I Wuz (Hi, Ho, Fiddle Dee Dee),” “Botch-a-Me,” “Lovely Weather for Ducks,” “Cheegah, Choonem,” “Dot’s Nice, Donna Fight” with her good friend, Marlene Dietrich, and “Sailor Boys Have to Talk to Me in English.”
Clooney continued to beg Miller to let her record quality material. Occassionally he relented but always put the better-known songs on the “B” sides of the records. “Blues in the Night,” “Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “Tenderly,” “I’ll Be Around,” “The Lady Is a Tramp,” “Blame It on My Youth,”and “What Is There to Say” all received the “B” side treatment. These recordings reveal the singer Clooney wanted to be and eventually did become years later.
She fared much better with her Columbia albums than her singles. In 1951, she recorded (with Harry James) the first concept album devoted to film songs, Hollywood’s Best. She was allowed to record a 10” LP, While We’re Young, that was made up of standards in 1954. A year later Benny Goodman played and sang with her on an album and then, in 1956, came the famouos “Blue Rose” sessions with Ellington (though in that case she sang to prerecorded tracks by the Ellington ensemble). In 1957, her LP Ring around Rosie featured the Hi Los. Those records seemed to lift Clooney out of the novelty ghetto (with one relapse for “Who Dot Mon, Mom?”). With a solid string of excellent albums behind her Columbia dropped her. Clooney then recorded several albums for MGM including a cover album with husband Jose Ferrer of Livingston and Evans’s Oh, Captain! She went to RCA Victor for albums with Crosby, Perez Prado, and Nelson Riddle and then moved to Reprise at Frank Sinatra’s suggestion.
Her marriage to Jose Ferrer dissolved although they parted amiably and she fell in love with arranger Nelson Riddle, who was married at the time. She turned to drugs and alcohol and developed a dependency that complicated her emotional state. Her unhappiness with her career and private life came to a head in 1968 when she was present at the Ambassador Hotel when Robert Kennedy was assassinated.
Through counseling and medication she was able to put her life back in order. With her newfound stability came a new depth and emotional contact with the songs she sang. She resolved to take greater control of her life and get in touch with her emotions on a daily basis.
At her return to singing in the early seventies, she seemed more at peace with who she was—and that translated into more heartfelt and vulnerable performances. Rosie began to let her natural sense of humor come to the fore as well as the anger and hurt that she had kept bottled up. This gave her ballads a greater poignancy. With her newfound self-confidence and ability to open up emotionally she no longer needed to resort to any tricks or clichés in her interpretations. Her work was simpler and more direct and thus more personal. Left to her own devices, she chose songs that meant something to her and she was able to act the lyrics more convincingly. She tended to pick songs that were positive, told a good story, or taught a good lesson. Her voice had mellowed and deepened but had lost none of its luster or slightly smoky quality. Her maternal qualities came out in her singing too, and it was impossible to listen to her, on disc or live, without feeling her love and kindness.
Rosemary Clooney’s glory years, from 1977 until her death, were spent at Concord Records. She was able to pick her own songs, oversee her own arrangements, and hone her own way of singing. Her performances deepened (though many sound under-rehearsed—a common problem with Concord).
Many singers have fantastic first acts and then either lose their vitality, become parodies of themselves, or stand by as the business deserts them. Rosemary Clooney was the opposite. She enjoyed (very much) the second act of her career and lived to achieve more success than almost any other singer of her generation. She fought off her personal and professional demons and endured long enough to become a great singer and a great human being—and she could never have been one without being the other. (KB)
The quintessential novelty number was written by the unlikely pair of Ross Bagdasarian (creator of the Chipmunks) and playwright William Saroyan (they were cousins). To keep themselves awake while driving across New Mexico in 1949 they made up this little ditty. Saroyan put it into the off-Broadway production of his play Son and it was recorded by Kay Armen. Mitch Miller, always attracted to gimmicky songs, persuaded Rosemary Clooney to sing it against her better judgment. It became her first big hit.Come On-a My House
The tune haunted me and the lyric practically wrote itself during my waking and sleeping hours. Words came so easily that I decided to wait a while before calling Walter for fear that he might think I’d written an off-the-cuff lyric. Literally, I waited about ten days. Then feigning great excitement, I called Walter and said, “I’ve got it, Walter! I’ve got it!” In a rather deadpan tone, he asked, “What’s the title?”
I took a deep breath and practically sang out, “TEN-der-LY!” There was a long pause at his end. Then he sneered, “That’s no title! That’s what you put at the top of the sheet music: Play Tenderly!”
Rosemary Clooney wanted to sing the song but Mitch Miller refused to let her. Finally she did sing it on the B side of a record. It became a smash hit despite Miller (and Walter Gross) and the miss-accent of the title word.Tenderly
"It was her voice after all that made her beloved, even by those who never even knew her. The voice carried a resonance that caressed you completely. It had humor, honesty, life lessons, heartbreak, a smile in spite of the tears, joy, candor, abandon, and grace. And holding it all together was an innate musicianship that effortlessly expressed everything she felt and lived. We were there with her through it all."Michael Feinstein
"I'm gonna do one of my songs from the fifties so you'll know who I am. People often mistake me for other singers and ask me to sing songs by Doris Day, Patti Page, even Johnnie Ray. I suppose they think, 'She's recorded so much crap that she must've done it.'"--at Rainbow and Stars nightclub in New York CityRosemary Clooney
"Do you know what? In a year from now nobody's even going to be talking about me." --to Dante DiPaolo on the set of her second movie, Here Come the Girls.Rosemary Clooney