The New York Sun has a wonderful article today on that great American popular singer, Rosemary Clooney. Clooney was singing well and performing almost until the time of her death. She is a legendary performer and was actively singing at a time when there were several uniquely American artists were promoted an American approach to popular song. I wish I could play a recording of her singing right now, and I may try. You’ll know I was successful if you are hearing her sing right now.
Rosemary Clooney began her career as a teenage bandsinger with hot looks and an even hotter sense of rhythm. By the time of her death 55 years later, she was acknowledged as one of the all-time great interpreters of the American popular song and regarded as an equal by such titans as Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, and Tony Bennett. She was also the Earth Matriarch of the music, encouraging younger talents from an extended family that included her daughter-in-law, Debby Boone, as well as Michael Feinstein, Diana Krall, John Pizzarelli, Mary Cleere Haran, and other young performers who were only related to her by love.
Clooney’s (1928–2002) gifts were principally two-fold: She had a remarkable capacity for swinging, much more so than one would expect in a white pop singer from Cincinnati. At the same time, there was never any rhythmic ambiguity — you always knew exactly where the beat was. She was also one of the masters of musical storytelling, approaching each song as if it were a drama, whether it was as profound as Marc Blitzstein‘s “I Wish It So” or as trivial and nonsensical as “Come On-A My House.” Even at the end of her life, when she had lost much of her wind power — through bad health partly caused by years of substance abuse and mental problems — Clooney, like Sinatra and Holiday, could still make you feel every last nuance of a lyric. It’s not for nothing that the 92nd St Y subtitled this weekend’s show “Her Way With Words.”
Clooney exerted such a remarkable influence on the way the American songbook is sung that when the 92nd St Y chose to honor her this weekend (the final show is tonight) in the opening show of their longrunning “Lyrics & Lyricists” series, they needed no less than four very different singers. Artistic director Deborah Grace Winer recruited a singing guitarist (Mr. Pizzarelli), a singing dancer (Karen Ziemba), a singing actor (James Naughton), and a, well, singer (Paula West). (They were joined last night by Ms. Boone and will again tonight.) Equally astutely, the Y also reconvened Clooney’s longstanding band, directed by the pianist John Oddo and featuring Bucky Pizzarelli on guitar, Jay Leonhart on bass, Joe Cocuzzo on drums, Mark Vinci on clarinet and saxes, and George Rabbai on trumpet — all of whom happen to comprise Mr. Feinstein’s current group.
Friday’s opening show began, as many of Clooney’s later concerts did, with the March 1945 audition disc by Rosemary and her sister Betty of “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” which faded into the four principal performers doing the Nat Cole song live. “Lyrics & Lyricists” has been getting less like a nightclub cabaret program in recent years and more like a “legit” off-Broadway revue, with scripted narration and patter and something like choreography, rather than singers just standing around holding microphones, as in the days of series founder Maurice Levine.
The result has been more work for the cast, less so for the Tony-winning Ms. Ziemba and Mr. Naughton, who are accustomed to working with scripts and taking direction. But Ms. West, who is a supreme club performer and by far the best pure vocalist of the four, seemed somewhat uncomfortable working away from her usual band and in such a theatrical context. There also was a bit too much use of the nonperforming narrator, which meant that John Pizzarelli was not free to interject the spontaneous humor that normally makes his shows such a gas, and also none of the singers or musicians were invited to share their own memories of Ms. Clooney.
The opening show seemed a little stiff at first, and Mr. Naughton’s otherwise fine “Moonlight Mississippi” was noticeably too low even for his distinguished baritone. But halfway through the end of the first act, when Ms. Winer introduced a quartet of Clooney ethnic novelty hits, the four performers were working up to speed. Mr. Pizzarelli and Ms. West were dutifully gung-ho on the Armenian “Come On-A My House” and the ersatz calypso “Mangos” (paging Sonny Rollins), but Mr. Naughton and Ms. Ziemba unabashedly tore into “Botch a Me” and “Mambo Italiano,” with mucho gusto, the latter giving Ms. Ziemba a chance to do what she does best, namely move. Disappointingly, she sang “Love, You Didn’t Do Right by Me” in a strict foxtrot tempo, rather than as a slow ballad, but didn’t do the expected dance. Ms. Ziemba also showed that he has vocal chops comparable to her terpischoreal ability on the power ballad “I Stayed Too Long at the Fair,” although that cautionary tale of a woman who chooses career over family and the big evil city over her small hometown has dated rather badly.