Rosemary Clooney, An American Musical Treasure
One of the best friends a song ever had.
By Bill Miller
Rosemary saw her mission in life to simply be singing. She said, "I just would like to keep singing. As soon as I'm not singing well, I hope that I know it, so I can get off the stage and leave what I have done. I hope I'll know, and if I don't, I hope somebody tells me." Rosemary's last performance was December 15, 2001 at the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank, NJ and she was still singing beautifully.
Just a few months before her death, I found Rosemary Clooney in Kentucky, getting ready for her third annual musical festival in Maysville, KY. Her public relations people told me the interview couldn't be over fifteen minutes, but she told me to ignore "those people" and take my time.
Miller: Your latest album is with a big band?
RC: I’m so happy to work with that band. I worked for two weeks in New York with a big band, and saw the same faces I saw when I was 25 years old. It was an amazing experience.
Miller: Concord Records always puts out a quality product.
RC: I’ll tell you something interesting, too. They sold the company to Norman Lear and a few other quality people. It's such a wonderful feeling to be able to record a good album and be happy with it. You work from the very beginning; you pick out the material and it's such a pleasure.
Miller: You go back to the Tony Pastor days.
RC: That was the time Betty and I left the very place where I’m visiting now, Augusta, twenty miles away from where I was born in Kentucky. There were wonderful memories traveling withy my sister. We learned a lot together.
Miller: Tell us about the Songs For Sale television program.
RC: I did Songs For Sale with Tony Bennett. The idea of it was to interview people who had written amateur songs. They always chose the people for the interview value rather than the merit of the song. So we had to sing some terrible things. It was live television and we had cue cards. We performed amateur songs we’d never done before so we couldn’t learn all those, so the stagehands decided to have a little fun with us and held the cards upside down. You couldn’t get by with that today.
Miller: You worked with the HI-LO’s?
RC: They were so extremely well versed in the kind of music they did, and their voices were perfect. The arrangements were something I could not even approach with anybody else.
Miller: What about some of the new singers…Diana Krall, for example?
RC: Diana and I are good friends. I’m crazy about her. I see the way she works as a very good musician aside from being the great singer she is. She does it all.
Miller: Did you ever do anything you were ashamed of, music-wise?
RC: I think a lot of the tunes I did with Mitch Miller were not my best. After Come On-A-My House was a hit, I did some things I wanted to, but it was still difficult. Peachtree Street, the first record I did with Frank Sinatra, was a bad song, but it was his idea because he published it. I can’t even blame Mitch for that.
Miller: May we ask you to comment on some people; like your sister Betty Clooney?
RC: My relationship with my sister was the closest relationship I had in my whole life. She was everything to me. She was my partner in music, and she was the person I told every secret to. She was the inspiration for everything good I’ve done in my life, and I love her more than anyone else.
Miller: Bing Crosby?
RC: Bing was a wonderful singer, and to be able to say I was a Friend of Bing Crosby is wonderful. I can’t believe that it’s true. His daughter said the most wonderful thing in a book when she was asked to comment about Bing’s friends. She said, “My father had a lot of men friends, and one woman friend, and that was Rosemary Clooney.” Coming from Mary Frances that was a big compliment because those kids knew me. It was a lovely experience being with Bing. I’m honored.
Miller: Bob Hope?
RC: Bob is one of the joys of my life. I’m so close to Bob and Delores. I have one story I have to tell you. It’s about his daughter, Linda, who handles all of Hope Enterprises, and is very good at everything she does. She’s talking to Bob about a sensitive subject…where to bury him…in Los Angeles, Palm Springs, or Arlington? All Bob said was “surprise me”.
Miller: Tony Pastor?
RC: Tony Pastor was a wonderful musician and a wonderful singer. He gave me my first big break…letting me record with his band. That was the way I got my Columbia Records contract and that was a big part of my life. I’ll always be grateful to him.
Miller: Nelson Riddle?
RC: Nelson was a wonderful friend, and possibly the best arranger I ever worked with. He loved working with singers. Witness his work with Frank Sinatra. He really understood the songs and he loved them and paid attention to the words. He knew my top note and he would have seven brass under it before he would put it on the page. He was a special person.
Miller: Peggy Lee?
RC: Peggy was on of my heroes. I loved her performances with Benny Goodman. She had a voice that was recognizable from the moment she opened her mouth. She was extraordinary.
Miller: Frank Sinatra?
RC: Frank was one of the voices that entered my life and my mind and gave me the strength to go on and try to be a singer. Strength might be overdoing it, but I loved him so much and I loved what he did with a song. I learned so much every time I heard him sing. He is probably my favorite singer of all time.
Miller: Marlene Dietrich?
RC: Marlene is a wonderful friend. She told me about the best dry cleaner is Paris, and she’s the one who told me about the makeup she used which she discovered through Carole Lombard. Everybody should have a Marlene in his or her life.
Miller: Tony Bennett?
RC: I see Tony very often. We work together so it’s an ongoing thing. We talk about old friends and our personal lives. It’s one of the closest relationships I have.
Miller: Danny Kaye?
RC: Danny was a brilliant actor. As a performer he was impossible. He would perform anything any time in front of any audience. His marriage to Sylvia was something that was perfect. I mean, they weren’t constantly getting along, but it was perfect because she’s the one who wrote the material and Danny was the one who performed it. It is as if they were one person.
In January of 2002, Rosemary underwent lung cancer surgery. She remained hospitalized at the Mayo Clinic until early May, at which time she was able to go home to Beverly Hills and share Mother's Day and her birthday with her family, She died on June 29, 2002.
Bill Miller is host of The Bill Miller Show a nationally syndicated radio program current broadcast in over 100 U.S. markets. In Kansas City, his show can be heard on KCXL 1140 AM from 6 to 7 Monday thru Thursday, and on KFEQ 680 AM from 7 to midnight Sunday evenings.