Before the rock & roll revolution, Rosemary Clooney was one of the most popular female singers in America, rising to superstardom during the golden age of adult pop. Like many of her peers in the so-called "girl singer" movement -- Doris Day, Kay Starr, Peggy Lee, Patti Page, et al. -- Clooney's style was grounded in jazz, particularly big-band swing. She wasn't an improviser or a technical virtuoso, and lacked the training to stand on an equal footing with the greatest true jazz singers. However, she sang with an effortless, spirited swing, and was everything else a great pop singer of her era should have been. Her phrasing and diction were flawless, and her voice was warm, smooth, and relaxed; moreover, she was a sensitive and emotionally committed interpreter of lyrics. Some of her biggest hits were dialect-filled novelty songs, like her star-making breakthrough "Come On-a My House" from 1951, but she generally preferred to tackle more sophisticated fare, and recorded with numerous duet partners, jazz orchestras, and top-tier arrangers. Changing tastes and various personal problems conspired to stall her career in the '60s, culminating in a nervous breakdown in 1968. However, she mounted a successful comeback in the late '70s, and continued to tour and record for Concord Jazz up until her death from lung cancer in 2002.
Clooney was born May 23, 1928, in Maysville, KY. Her childhood was a difficult one; her father was an alcoholic, and her mother's job required extensive traveling, so Clooney and her siblings were shuffled back and forth between both parents and assorted relatives. When Clooney was 13, her mother remarried and moved to California, taking Clooney's brother Nick (later an actor and TV host) and leaving Rosemary and her younger sister Betty in the care of their father. At first, he supported the girls by working in a defense plant, but his troubles got the better of him, and he abandoned them at the end of World War II. At first, Clooney and her sister supported themselves by collecting cans and bottles, and entered amateur talent contests as a singing duo (Rosemary had grown up idolizing Billie Holiday). They were saved from poverty (and likely eviction) when they successfully auditioned for a Cincinnati radio station later in 1945.
Billed as the Clooney Sisters, Rosemary and Betty gave weekly radio performances until they were discovered by bandleader Tony Pastor. By the end of 1945, the girls had joined his orchestra as the featured vocal attraction -- which was rapidly becoming a necessity in the postwar era. In 1946, Rosemary cut her first solo record, "I'm Sorry I Didn't Say I'm Sorry (When I Made You Cry Last Night)," but didn't begin to work as a solo artist until 1948, when Betty decided to stop touring with Pastor and return to Cincinnati. Clooney stayed with Pastor for another year before heading to New York in 1949 and signing a solo record contract with Columbia.
Most of Clooney's earliest records for Columbia were children's songs, but in 1951 she began working with producer/A&R man Mitch Miller. As he did with many other artists, Miller pushed Clooney to record novelty numbers, specifically an Italian-dialect song called "Come On-a My House" that had been co-written by Armenian-American cousins William Saroyan and Ross Bagdasarian (the latter would go on to fame as creator of the Chipmunks). Clooney hated the song and held out for weeks before finally giving in. Despite her lifelong distaste for it, "Come On-a My House" was a huge success; it sold over a million copies and topped the charts in 1951, instantly making Clooney a household name.
Over the next few years, Clooney alternated between hot big-band swing and the light novelty fare Miller insisted upon, though she much preferred the former. She was wildly popular in the years leading up to rock & roll, scoring hit after hit: the chart-toppers "Half as Much," "Hey There," and "This Ole House"; the Italian-style tunes "Botch-a-Me (Ba-Ba-Baciani Piccina)" and "Mambo Italiano"; and several other cornerstones of her repertoire, including "Tenderly" and "If Teardrops Were Pennies." In addition, she recorded with the likes of Harry James, Marlene Dietrich (including the hit "Too Old to Cut the Mustard"), Gene Autry ("The Night Before Christmas Song"), Guy Mitchell, George Morgan, and actor José Ferrer, whom she married in 1953 after an abrupt courtship.
Paramount Pictures had decided to groom Clooney for movie stardom, and she made her screen debut in 1953's The Stars Are Singing. She appeared in several more films over the next two years, including Here Come the Girls, Red Garters, and most notably the hugely successful White Christmas, in which she performed the number "Love, You Didn't Do Right by Me." However, acting was not to her taste; instead she concentrated on radio and television, co-hosting a morning radio show with Bing Crosby and landing her own TV variety series in 1956, which ran through the next year. In the meantime, she and Ferrer had five children over the remainder of the '50s, starting with future actor Miguel Ferrer in 1955.
Clooney also continued to record, though with diminishing success thanks to the advent of rock & roll. Still, her repertoire was growing more mature, as she recorded with Duke Ellington (the 1956 album Blue Rose) and Benny Goodman, and also tried her hand at country standards and Broadway show tunes. Her final Top Ten hit was 1957's "Mangos," and the following year, she parted ways with Columbia and moved over to RCA, where she debuted with the well-received Bing Crosby collaboration Fancy Meeting You Here. She went on to record for MCA, Reprise, Coral, and Capitol during the '60s as well.
However, the frantic pace of her career, coupled with her suddenly large family, took a heavy toll on Clooney. She became addicted to prescription drugs in the late '50s, and her increasingly stormy relationship with Ferrer ended in divorce in 1961. The two would later patch up their differences and remarry, but they divorced again in 1967. Still suffering from drug problems, Clooney's increasingly fragile mental state (she was later diagnosed with bipolar disorder) took another major blow in 1968, when good friend Bobby Kennedy was assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel just a short distance away from where Clooney was standing. Performing in Reno, NV, not long afterward, Clooney lost her temper on-stage and suffered a nervous breakdown. In its aftermath, she retired from music, and for a time was institutionalized in the psychiatric ward of L.A.'s Mount Sinai Hospital.
Clooney spent much of the '70s in intensive therapy, and was forced to deal with another blow when younger sister Betty died suddenly of a brain aneurysm in 1976. However, she was able to start a comeback that year, thanks to an invitation from Bing Crosby to join him on his 50th anniversary tour. The tour put Clooney back in the public eye, and the following year she published a confessional autobiography, This for Remembrance, and signed a new record deal with Concord Jazz. A steady stream of albums -- usually one per year, occasionally two -- followed all the way through the '90s; in general, they found Clooney in good voice, singing with energy as well as maturity. Most of her repertoire on those albums drew from the great American standards, often focusing on a particular composer or lyricist in the manner of the Ella Fitzgerald songbook series.
During the '90s, Clooney enjoyed a resurgence in popularity thanks to the swing revival that revitalized the careers of veterans like Tony Bennett. While she never considered herself a true jazz singer, her '90s dates sold extremely well among jazz audiences, and her position among the great American pop vocalists was solidified. Additionally, Clooney made several appearances as an Alzheimer's patient on the TV medical drama ER, which co-starred her nephew George Clooney. In 1997, she remarried to longtime companion Dante DiPaolo, whom she'd originally met prior to her romance with José Ferrer; the two had reconnected in 1973 and spent the next 24 years together before tying the knot. Clooney published a second autobiography, Girl Singer, in 1999, and gave what proved to be her last live performance in December 2001. In January, she underwent surgery for lung cancer, and remained hospitalized for several months; she returned to her home in Beverly Hills, where she passed away on June 29, 2002. ~ Steve Huey