I never fully got Rosemary Clooney. I always felt she sounded a little too stuffy—like someone who lives at home and on Saturday nights belts from the window of her family apartment in the old neighborhood. Her voice was a bit too husky and sincere for me—like Judy Garland with a cold. Yet arrangers, musicians and star singers loved her, which I never quite understood. What was I missing? Then I heard The Rosemary Clooney CBS Radio Recordings 1955-61
, a new five-CD box set that has just been released by Mosaic.
On 104 of the 120 tracks, Clooney is accompanied only by a splendidly arranged, peppery rhythm section comprised of Buddy Cole (piano, organ, celeste, harpsichord), Vince Terri (guitar), Don Whitaker (bass) and Nick Fatool (drums, percussion). With just a jolly quartet behind her, Clooney is out there on her own and has to hold her own. The result is a younger sounding Clooney than you're probably used to, with her voice solidly in a higher register.
Between 1955 and 1961, Clooney recorded songs for three CBS radio shows produced by Bing Crosby. The shows were The Rosemary Clooney Show, The Ford Road Show
and The Crosby-Clooney Show
. Despite TV's inroads in the 1950s, the tube was largely an evening family diversion while radio let you do other things during the day, like clean house, drive and work. Radio also remained the medium of choice for many middle-aged listeners who enjoyed the faceless bonding between box and ears.
Except for 12 tracks that appeared on a 1958 Coral album called Swing Around Rose
, nearly all of the songs appear commercially in the Mosaic box for the first time. In evaluating this set, you come to realize that whatever Clooney lacked in the minx department she more than made up for in chops. Her voice moves around without the slightest bit of effort, shifting from the lower register to high notes like an automatic transmission. There's no double-clutching whatsoever. Or in other cases, Clooney chooses a lower note rather than an expected high note, and the drop is as natural as can be.
My favorite selections are the bouncy, mid-tempo or up-tempo numbers like Back in Your Own Backyard, You're the Top, Anything Goes, I Feel a Song Coming On, Give Me the Simple Life, Where or When
. On these, Clooney dives through the surf without timidity and has a ball where the water is deep. But the pert, plaintive ballads like Something Wonderful Happens, These Foolish Things, Hey There
and If I Ever Love Again
also are in her wheelhouse, delivered with just a mist of emotion and an endearing vibrato on the low end.
While I suppose I'll always have qualms about Clooney's big band work and more mature recordings, my thinking about her has certainly changed. I hear now why Crosby, Nelson Riddle, Art Tatum and so many others favored her comforting, wholesome voice. I'm just glad I had a chance to hear these small-group dates. Clooney's peach-cobbler phrasing and apron-clad gal-next-door charm are tough to resist, especially when she's out there supported only by the musical equivalent of a bicycle.
JazzWax tracks: You'll find The Rosemary Clooney CBS Radio Recordings 1955-61
(Mosaic), a five-CD set, here