"A honey-voiced artist whose pitch, emotion rang true"
By Richard Dyer, Boston Globe, July 2, 2002
''Miss Clooney?'' I hesitantly said, and she firmly replied, ''Rosemary.''
That was in 1993, when I met my favorite popular singer for the first time, though I'd been listening to her sing for most of my life. Clooney died Saturday at 74, which means she had been singing in public for 71 years, and several generations of audiences felt they were on a first-name basis with her. Her singing was a way of keeping in touch. Nostalgia was part of her appeal, but every song, every time, was here and now.
She was a regular visitor to Boston in various periods of her career; in recent seasons she sang with both John Williams and Keith Lockhart at the Boston Pops, for FleetBoston Celebrity Series, and at the North Shore Music Theatre. Too popular to be booked in intimate clubs, Clooney nonetheless always brought the audience to her - a song was an opportunity for a heart-to-heart talk.
In her youth, Clooney was a pretty woman with a pretty voice; she called her autobiography ''Girl Singer.'' She had adorable dimples, and sunshine danced across her tone. She was a lot better than the novelty tunes her record company assigned her; she turned a silly number like ''Come on-a My House'' into a classic standard. She liked to joke about all the terrible songs she used to sing. ''People always ask me to sing `How Much Is That Doggie in the Window.' I don't blame them - it's a bad song, and I sang most of them. But that one was Patti Page's. I hope somewhere in the world she's working tonight, and that someone is asking her to sing `Come on-a My House.'''
Clooney went through a bad patch after the assassination of her friend Bobby Kennedy - she was still seated on the dais in the Ambassador Hotel when he was shot. But she pulled herself out of her addictions and dependencies and resumed her career as a different, deeper kind of performer.
Beginning in 1977, she started recording for Concord Jazz, and those CDs, more than two dozen of them, are a permanent source of reference for the good songs and good singing; they are also a permanent source of pleasure.
Over the years, Clooney gained weight but never assumed a diva persona to match; instead she wore her glasses onstage. She would talk about her family and especially her grandchildren - she loved to play cars with one of them. ''What did I care? It wasn't my dining-room table,'' she said.
As time advanced, her voice dropped a little, though she still kept the same span of range - ''an octave or three or four,'' she said - and its honeyed quality remained intact, her pitch remained true. Real beauty of tone has become rare in popular singing; Clooney reminded us of how fundamental a pleasure it can be.
Clooney's span of breath was not long, but she turned this to her advantage, using short phrases to throw new lights and shadows onto the lyrics; it gave her singing urgency, so she didn't need to talk and shout - she did it all through singing and clear, natural, unaffected diction. And when she wanted a supple legato line, she could spin it out like a classical singer or like Frank Sinatra. She wasn't a jazz singer, because she didn't depart from the composer's musical line, but she had a jazz singer's sense of time - she could swing around the beat because she absolutely and intuitively knew where it was.
She felt a real aversion to vocal histrionics; she didn't manufacture emotions but instead pulled them out of herself. ''I have experienced births and deaths in my life, and I bring that to my songs, but I don't like to dwell on extreme things,'' she said in that 1993 interview. ''I hate singing that goes over the top. Joe Ferrer always said, `If you cry, you are giving the audience permission not to.'''
After a Pops concert with Clooney and Linda Ronstadt, John Williams said, ''She never sang a word she didn't mean or feel, and she made us feel it, too.''
Clooney's life had ups and downs, but she made it rich and full, because everything poured into music; it was a life in music, a life through music. It was no surprise when she told me that she felt she was always singing, even when she wasn't making a sound.