These days the late Rosemary Clooney is probably most famous for being George Clooney’s auntie. But in the 1950s, she was briefly one of the most popular female vocalists in the world. One of her hits – Mambo Italiano (#1 in 1954) – was even banned on American radio for being too saucy!
Clooney was a contradictory figure: an actress who starred as the good girl in conventional showbiz slush like White Christmas (1954), and a singer who rose to fame before rock ‘n’ roll and should, by rights, have been made irrelevant by it.
Yet she was independent enough and, for an entertainer of her era, committed enough to campaign for Robert Kennedy in his doomed run for the US presidency in 1968.
Rosemary Clooney grew up in Kentucky in the 1930s, making her singing debut on a Cincinnati radio station in 1941. Her first big hit (Come On-A My House) came in 1951, but she soon began to chafe at the restrictions of stardom, insisting her hit “sounded more like a drunken chant than a historic folk art form”.
She married the actor Jose Ferrer and enjoyed more hits (Mambo Italiano was easily the biggest), but soon disappeared from the charts to devote herself to personal appearances.
The shock of witnessing Kennedy’s death triggered problems with drugs and alcohol, leading to a nervous breakdown. But nine years later, she re-emerged as a jazz singer, and over the next 20 years, she reinvented herself as one of America’s best interpreters of jazz-based material.
She died on 29 June 2002, aged 74, but those final albums form the most impressive part of her legacy. Her pop performances are not without their moments and are all sung with a sense of commitment, but songs like Botch A Me (Ba Ba Baciani Piccina) soon lost their appeal.
On numbers like It Might As Well Be Spring, Blues In The Night and Half As Much, however, her easy, emotional depth puts a distinctive stamp on great American songs.
Essential Rosemary Clooney purchases are Songs From The Girl Singer (a two-CD retrospective) and Do You Miss New York? – which brings you the perfect night in Manhattan, even if you live in Essex.