Say “Rosemary Clooney” to the average person on the street and you’ll get widely varied responses. If your target is someone who was alive in the early 1950s, you’ll get an instant “Oh yeah – ‘Come On-a My House!’ Sure.” If your target is younger you may well get, “Isn’t she George Clooney’s mom or something?” (She’s his aunt.)
Rosemary Clooney was and still is an interesting anomaly in show business: a singer who achieved major success despite her lack of glamorous beauty, her failure to be a pin-up beauty queen. One of the rarely discussed aspects of the entertainment industry is its emphasis on looks, especially for women performers. Very few major female singers have been less than attractive and most have been sexy, alluring beauties.
This undoubtedly was a factor in Clooney’s short-lived film career; she was unsuited in appearance to play the romantic lead, and yet her stardom was such that she could not be relegated to walk-ons. Most of her starring movie roles (as in White Christmas with Bing Crosby) occurred relatively early in her career, when she was still young and slender and not unattractive. But she was never beautiful in a conventional Hollywood way.
What she could do was sing.
Born in Maysville, Kentucky (not far south of Cincinnati, Ohio) on May 23, 1928, she was passed to relatives as a child by her divorced parents. At 17 she began her singing career with her sister Betty, as the Clooney Sisters, on radio station WLW in Cincinnati. This was followed by appearances with local bands. In 1946 the Clooney Sisters joined the Tony Pastor band when Pastor was touring through Ohio. They made their debut with the band at The Steel Pier in Atlantic City.
During the years from 1946 into 1949 Clooney and her sister made a number of records with Pastor, starting with the May, 1946 session for Cosmo which produced “Everybody Has A Laughing Place” (Cosmo 722), which, like the other four songs recorded at that session, was from Walt Disney’s Song of the South. Clooney was a band singer then, and the band itself was the headliner. She sometimes sang solo and sometimes in duet with Pastor or her sister. In June, 1947, Pastor switched labels to Columbia, and Clooney sang on two dozen songs he recorded for Columbia in the next two years.
Sister Betty put up with the road tours and constant travelling for those two years, and returned to Cincinnati, but Rosemary struck out on her own, heading for New York.
Columbia, already familiar with her work with Tony Pastor, signed her immediately, giving her a recording date for her first solo single on June 16, 1949, “Lover’s Gold” b/w “The Four Winds and the Seven Seas” (Harmony 1050), with an orchestra conducted by Norman Leyden. On September 14th she recorded again, this time with an orchestra and chorus conducted by Hugo Winterhalter, producing another five sides which included “Don’t Cry Joe,” and “Oh, You Beautiful Doll.” By March 9, 1950, Columbia had paired her with Percy Faith and his orchestra, with whom she made a number of recordings, including “The Canasta Song.” (Canasta hit the United States like a ton of bricks in 1950, becoming a huge card-playing craze.)
Her timing was fortunate. By 1949 the big band era was ending and the former band singers like Doris Day, Kay Starr and Peggy Lee were emerging as “girl singers” in their own right. Clooney fit comfortably within their ranks.
In 1951, Mitch Miller, then Columbia’s Popular Music Division A&R (“artists and repertory”) man, brought Clooney a novelty song to record. It was an improbable fake Armenian folk song, with words by William Saroyan, and she thought it was silly and demeaning, but Miller twisted her arm and she did it. It was “Come On-a My House,” and it went straight to No. 1 on the Billboard charts, making her an “instant” star.
Clooney had the voice for stardom in the era of records and radio. What she lacked was the “movie star” looks that could carry her to the next career plateau. Despite this, and on the strength of her hit single, she made five movies (including White Christmas) in fast succession. Then, over-exposed to an uncaring public (which wanted to see someone who looked like Rita Hayworth or Marilyn Monroe), she went into a career decline, although she continued to sing and record.
Her experiences with Pastor’s band were her salvation. She had learned how to sing with finesse and control; she was in many ways the female equivalent of Frank Sinatra (who said of her, “Rosemary Clooney has that great talent which exudes warmth and feeling in every song she sings. She’s a symbol of good modern American music”) – not a jazz singer, but a singer who had learned from jazz.
This was best illustrated by her 1956 Columbia album with Duke Ellington and his orchestra, Blue Rose (CL 872), although she also made albums with Harry James (Hollywood’s Best, a 10-inch 1952 album, CL 6224, reissued as a 12-inch LP in 1955 as CL 585) and Benny Goodman (A Date with the King, 1956, CL 2572, another 10-inch LP). The Ellington album did much to restore luster to her career, which flourished in supper clubs long after the publicity surrounding her novelty hit and subsequent television appearances had faded.
Today Clooney has lived a full and productive life. She has had ups and downs, including a bout with prescription drugs and two failed marriages to Jose Ferrer. She’s had five children and is happily married to Dante PiPaolo – whom she married in 1997 in her hometown of Maysville. She’s received many accolades and awards and was recently inducted into the National Broadcaster’s Hall of Fame. In 1995 ASCAP (the American Society of Composers and Publishers) gave her The Pied Piper Award, describing her as “an American Musical Treasure and one of the best friends a song ever had.” And that she certainly is.