By Rick Bird, Post staff reporter
July 1, 2002
When asked about her singing style, Rosemary Clooney would often tell interviewers, ''I just sing a song. Just sing a damn song.''
It was that unpretentious style that local musicians who knew and worked with Rosemary rememb er most.
''Rosie was what you thought she was and she was like that all the time. Playing for her was the best, top drawer,'' said drummer John Von Ohlen, leader of Cincinnati's Blue Wisp Big Band, who played dozens of t imes with Clooney as she hired him as her drummer for Midwest gigs since 1982.
''For a drummer she was great to work with because she swings. She swung real hard, with a lo t of up tunes, at least when I started working for her,'' he said.
Von Ohlen played with Ms. Clooney's group last December in Houston in what he thinks could have been her last concert. He remembers her as ''doing fine and being in great form.'' She had her cancer surgery in January.
''She was a communicator. She was a storyteller. And that's what singers are supposed to be . She really interpreted a lyric so well,'' said Mary Ellen Tanner, the Kentucky-born singer who first met Ms. Clooney wh en the two appeared on the Bob Braun Show in 1978. The two would become good friends over the years.
Tanner last saw Ms. Clooney in the fall when she came to one of Tanner's gigs in Cincinnati with the Lee Stolar trio.
''That night at Michael Gs we spent two entire breaks in just talk - girl singer talk. We tal ked about musicians, of course, and it seems we had the same funny little things to say about the business. Even at her level of stardom she reached, it was always like talking to a girlfriend. She was so down home.''
When Tanner met Ms. Clooney the legendary singer was embarking on what would be a major comeback in her career. For the next 20 years she would record a string of over 20 albums on the Concord label.
The series was significant in that it let the music world know she was a jazz stylist to be r eckoned with. The recordings marked her triumphant comeback from alcohol and pill abuse and would assure her place on the musical landscape as one of the great jazz singers.
It was a tag she was never comfortable with.
''I'm not really a jazz singer,'' Ms. Clooney told The Post in a 1995 interview on the eve of a Cincinnati gala celebrating her 50 years in show business. ''I don't have that inventive range. I have always surrounded myself with players. But I'm not a jazz singer. Certainly not.''
Still, in the Concord recordings, she would put her own personal stamp on the pop/jazz standa rds covering the music of the great composers like Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, and Jimmy Van Heusen, alway s surrounding herself with some of the best jazz musicians around.
Ms. Clooney said her warm, effortless style - where she caressed and almost talked the lyrics - was a lesson she actually learned early in her career.
''Oh, that comes from working with (Bing) Crosby,'' she said. ''I had two years working with him and he was so confident.... That's when I learned to enjoy singing and to relax.''
Ms. Clooney was asked in that 1995 interview what advise she had for aspiring singers.
''God, I don't know. Anything I would tell them to do, I have done ten times over,'' she ch uckled. ''I guess the best advice is what Crosby used to say, 'Just sing. All the time, anytime, in front of anyone. ' If you don't get paid, you don't. If you can sing in front of a little group- your mother's bridge party, or whatev er- just get in front of people and sing. That's what I did.''