"Charm And Lyrical Emotion Of Clooney"
By OWEN McNALLY, Hartford Courant, July 2, 2002
I confess that the one and only time I reviewed Rosemary Clooney I went backstage and willfully and knowingly basked in her natural charm and gracious personality, along with a whole room full of her chums from the Hartford area who had gathered to chat and reminisce with their famous old friend.
And committing the worst of all mortal sins for a critic, I gave Rosie a friendly hug and kiss when it came to time to leave.
I recalled my pleasant fall from journalistic grace last weekend when I was saddened to hear the news that Clooney, after a long battle with lung cancer, had died Saturday night at her home in Beverly Hills. She was 74.
My mind flashed back immediately to that Sunday afternoon at The Bushnell in 1995.
Smiling and radiant with a post-concert glow, she made a few friendly departing remarks about how much she loved Hartford - a town she was actually quite familiar with - and how great the Bushnell audience had been.
Sure, the kiss was an impulsive act, a spontaneous and sinful desecration of journalistic objectivity.
But you only live once.
With the sacrosanct veneer of the reviewer's integrity pleasantly compromised, I headed back to The Courant and the real world of deadlines. Then, of course, I wrote a completely objective account of Clooney's splendid performance before a mostly silver-haired crowd of fans who had turned out on Super Bowl Sunday.
As Clooney edged deeper into her 60s and 70s, her vocal range contracted. That's inevitable. But as a kind of divine compensation, her expressive range expanded. Her later style was spare, even minimalist. Yet it was graced with clarity, a new emotional edge and a profound awareness of the meaning of the lyrics matched by only a handful of other pop/jazz singers, rivaling even that of the 20th-century master, Frank Sinatra.
Clooney's neat, vibrant sense of time - a quality she might have picked up from Bing Crosby - was flawless. Even the little latter-day rasp that creeped into her voice and her ever widening vibrato added to the sense of heartfelt drama she could bring to any pop reflection on love, requited or unrequited.
For all her gifts, though, there was never any diva-like posing, not even a hint of ego-tripping on stage that afternoon.
It seemed like she was singing to a few close friends she had invited into her living room.
Between tunes there was puckish patter, spilling over with self-effacing gags about her growing weight problem and the physical burdens of aging. Seasoned with all of this were her fond recollections of playing at Hartford's old State Theater when she was a kid touring with Middletown native Tony Pastor's Orchestra.
Nor did she mind reprising some of her giant novelty hits (songs she loathed recording), including "Come On-a My House" and "Mambo Italiano."
"Come On-a My House," the brainchild of Columbia Records mega-hit maker Mitch Miller, rocketed Clooney to celebrity in 1951. It led eventually to her role in the classic "White Christmas," with her good buddy Bing Crosby, and even onto the cover of Time magazine.
To bring an all-in-the-family flavor to the festivities at The Bushnell, Clooney even sang a sweet, bubbly duet with her niece, Cathi Campo, daughter of Betty Clooney, Rosemary's sister and onetime singing partner, who died of a brain aneurysm in 1976.
Not only was the music great, but Clooney's unaffected stage presence also was an enormous hit with the audience. Obviously, it was also a big hit with me.
So much so that Donna Larcen, a colleague from The Courant, and I decided to make our way backstage.
It was like walking into a big, lively family reunion. There was Clooney, swapping recollections and laughing out loud with friends from her Tony Pastor days. With gusto, they were swapping anecdotes from the past and memories of massive, superb Italian meals devoured decades ago with Pastor's relatives, all as if it had all happened yesterday.
Just a few days before the concert, I had interviewed Clooney on the phone. Before we talked, I had read her agonizing 1977 memoir, "This for Remembrance."
So I was aware of the litany of personal disasters that she had somehow overcome with enormous bravery and sheer true grit.
As Larcen and I were making our way backstage, all this was cooking in my head. All that painful stuff about Clooney's explosive marriage to the womanizing Jose Ferrer, whom she had married and divorced twice; her nearly lethal drug and alcohol addiction; her mental breakdown; miserable affair with a young stud; unhappy affair with the all-too married orchestrator Nelson Riddle; and how she was devastated by the assassination of her close friend Robert Kennedy
But Clooney was a classic survivor.
Her life's experience, with all its pain and desperation, seemed to have brought her to deeper, wiser readings of the lyrics in classics by the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter, Hoagy Carmichael, Johnny Mercer, Duke Ellington, Irving Berlin and all of America's classic pop composers and lyricists.
So who could not like such a profile in courage?
When Larcen and I intruded backstage into what seemed like a boisterous family reunion, Clooney greeted us with a 100-watt smile and immediately made us feel right at home. It was almost as if we belonged in her inner circle, instead of being interlopers from the local paper.
When it came time to leave, I suppose I just should have shaken hands politely and uttered the standard clichés. But instead, I went for the hug and the kiss. It was done out of admiration and, even more important, out of astonishment not just for her talent but also for the strong sense of human decency and strength she exuded in her classy yet totally unassuming way.
So I did it.
And I'd do it again if the circumstances were exactly the same.
Objectivity be damned!