Rosie, Bette’s way
By T.L. Ponick
Rosemary Clooney, who lost her life to lung cancer in 2002 at age 74, was proof positive that America is the land of the second chance.
After a meteoric rise to musical fame culminating in her appearance with Bing Crosby in 1954’s hit film “White Christmas,” the blond, fresh-faced girl singer from Kentucky made a string of hit recordings and married film star Jose Ferrer seemingly out of the blue. Hardly pausing for breath, she cranked out five babies in short order and also landed her own TV show, but her personal wheel of fortune took an abrupt downward spin in the 1960s.
With her marriage on the rocks, the demanding pressures of TV, movie, radio, and recording appearances soon drove her to an overdependence on tranquilizers and prescription drugs. The violent death of her friend, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, who was gunned down in a Los Angeles hotel only a few yards away from the singer, sank her further into a deep, clinical depression, and she retired from showbiz for years.
After many years of therapy, and buoyed by a successful 1976 tour with Bing Crosby — the Old Groaner’s last — Miss Clooney gradually returned to the limelight, resurrecting her career, this time as a surprisingly successful jazz artist and song stylist. Once again she had a string of successful recordings and CDs on the Concord label and won respect among a new generation of fans both here and abroad.
Actress-singer-camp diva Bette Midler now revives the first half of Miss Clooney’s career with the new CD, “Bette Midler Sings the Rosemary Clooney Songbook.” This re-imagining of Rosie’s greatest hits gets a big assist from Barry Manilow, who has vividly re-created arrangements for most of them, giving them the right dash of contemporary panache without obliterating their distinctive Eisenhower-era flavor.
For those of us who grew up mainlining on 1950s TV variety shows, this disc is a pleasant blast from the past. Each and every track was once a bona fide hit in its day. From the sentimental “You’ll Never Know” to the still risque “Come On-a My House” — Miss Clooney’s bizarre breakthrough hit — it’s surprising how well this songbook wears. The tunes are still spiffy, and the lyrics actually convey complex adult emotions, something lost on today’s infantilized music moguls and mavens.
Bette Midler is no Rosemary Clooney. Her voice lacks the depth, the nuance, the subtle shadings — indeed, the authority — of the older diva, particularly in the disc’s concluding arrangement of “White Christmas,” the greatest holiday schmaltz classic of all time.
Still, Miss Midler is a trooper, and she clearly holds Miss Clooney in high esteem. Drawn out, richly melodic vowels, crystalline enunciation, hard consonants and Midwestern “r’s” were all part of the Clooney arsenal, and Miss Midler replicates these vocal characteristics with astonishing faithfulness. It’s the sustained notes that Miss Midler has a harder time with.
Miss Midler does a workmanlike job on classic ballads such as “Hey There” and “Tenderly.” However, she’s at her best in upbeat, jazzy novelty songs like the aforementioned “Come On-a My House,” — which retains the weird harpsichord riffs of the original — as well as “Mambo Italiano,” “This Ole House” and the sublimely silly “Sisters,” where she gets an effective assist from Linda Ronstadt.
Miss Midler’s reverently retro CD re-creates bygone days that weren’t nearly as drab and lifeless as tendentious post-’60s social history pretends. True Clooney aficionados will still prefer to find original recordings of these ’50s classics in second-hand racks or in new compilations. Still, for a new generation, this album could be the missing link to a less in-your-face, more optimistic and melodious past — a time when lyrical adult songs and the artists who sang them conjured up for a more innocent youth a magical sense of the richly emotional life that would soon be theirs.