Remembering a national treasure
SOUNDS FAMILIAR - Baby A. Gil () - July 8, 2002 - 12:00am
While she was doubtless proud of his accomplishments, I still find it sad that Rosemary Clooney is never mentioned nowadays without the description that she was the aunt of George Clooney. George may be a looker and a big box-office star but Rosemary was a big star in her own right. Do not be surprised if you read somewhere the description that she was a "national treasure" and that her recordings are the "preservation of jewels." That only goes to show how great her effect was on American music.

Rosemary Clooney ended her battle with lung cancer last Saturday, June 29 in her home in Beverly Hills. She was one of the world’s most beloved entertainers for nearly 60 years. Her music output was so remarkable and she recorded almost all of the classic American songs. Her voice, a vibrant alto with a distinctive catch in the throat was widely admired. At a time when the ranks of popular singers include the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Doris Day, Peggy Lee, Dinah Washington and other greats, Rosie was able to hold her own.

She was born in Kentucky on May 23, 1928 to a very poor family. She was only 13 when her mother left with her brother Nick to live in California with a new husband. Her father disappeared soon after, leaving Rosie and Betty to fend for themselves. It was not long after when things hit rock bottom. The rent was overdue, water, gas, telephone and electricity were about to be turned off and they had almost run out of soda bottles to take for refunds. Desperate, they joined a singing contest in a radio station and the Clooney sisters were so good they were hired on the spot for a regular gig. The act broke up three years later when Betty chose to make her home in Kentucky. But that was just the beginning of stardom for Rosie.

Her big breakthrough happened with a lively ditty that she initially refused to record because it was so silly. Come on My House, a composition by Ross Bagdasarian with lyrics by William Saroyan became an enormous hit and made Rosie a star. Many more big sellers followed. Botcha-me, Hey There, This Ole House, If Teardrops Were Pennies, Half as Much, Tenderly and others. She was also being built up as an actress in the manner of Doris Day and Rosie starred in one musical after another, The Stars are Singing, Here Come the Girls, Red Garters and White Christmas. It was after shooting the latter that she surprised every one by getting married to the Oscar-winning actor Jose Ferrer, 16 years her senior.

Aside from a cameo with her husband in the Sigmund Romberg biopic Deep in My Heart, Rosie stopped doing movies after White Christmas and it is for this extravagant musical that she is best remembered as an actress. The picture has a cast that includes Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye and Vera Ellen and it features songs composed by Irving Berlin, the greatest composer of American popular music. Aside from White Christmas, considered the greatest Christmas song written in recent times, tunes like Count Your Blessings, Sisters, Gee I Wish I were Back at the Army and others are in the soundtrack. Rosie’s rendition of the torch ballad Love You Didn’t Do Right by Me is one of the highlights of the movie.

The demands of stardom, a back-breaking schedule of having her own TV show and doing live performances, her difficult marriage and being a mother to five children drove Rosie to drug and alcohol addiction. After she saw close friend Bobby Kennedy killed by an assassin’s bullet in 1968, she suffered a breakdown that sent her to the hospital and sudden retirement.

It was a slow recovery but she rallied back to the top and it was at this point when she returned to performing and started work on some of the finest albums produced. I’ll Get Along without You Very Well, Wave, I’ll Be Seeing You, Autumn in New York, Our Love is Here to Stay, On a Slow Boat to China and That Old Feeling were some of the songs she recorded.

Rosemary Clooney left behind second husband Dante DiPaolo, five children including Miguel Ferrer, 10 grandchildren, her brother Nick and his family. She received the Grammy for Lifetime Achievement last March and was also nominated for her last album Sentimental Journey. She also got an Emmy nomination for her last acting job, the part of an Alzheimer’s patient in the show ER with her nephew George.

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