I never fully got Rosemary Clooney. I always felt she sounded a little stuffy—like someone who on Saturday nights belts from the window of her family's 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 other star singers loved her. 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. 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 Rosie, 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, vocally, in the minx department she more than made up for in cello-like 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. Or in other cases, Clooney chooses a lower note rather than an expected high note, and the drop is as natural as can be. Her fluidity, conviction and musicianship were remarkable.
My favorite selections on the new box are the bouncy, mid-tempo or uptempo 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 and Mangos. 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.
It's important to note that Clooney during this period wasn't just pop radio's gal-next-door. She recorded Blue Rose in 1956 for Columbia, her debut solo album with Duke Ellington and his orchestra featuring the arrangements of Billy Strayhorn. While the Ellington portion was recorded in New York and Clooney tracks were overdubbed in Los Angeles, the recording remains an extraordinary example of Clooney's vocal gifts and jazz sensibilities, and is still vastly overlooked.
While I suppose I'll always have qualms about Clooney's recordings in the early '60s and beyond, my thinking about her voice has certainly changed. I hear now why Crosby, Nelson Riddle, Art Tatum, Duke Ellington and so many others favored her comforting, soulful sound. These small-group dates serve as a fabulous re-introduction. Clooney's peach-cobbler phrasing and apron-clad 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.
JazzWax clips: Here's Something Wonderful Happens in Summer...
And here's Back in Your Own Backyard...