Jazz Profiles from NPR
Rosemary Clooney
Produced by Joan Merrill

Rosemary Clooney  

For over 40 years, Rosemary Clooney's simple and exquisite singing style has defined her career. Her dynamic career also includes movie roles and a star turn in her own television show. Today, Rosemary continues to validate her reputation as one of America's finest jazz-based vocalists.

Listen to arranger John Oddo, vocalist Linda Ronstadt, and jazz writer Gary Giddins attest to Rosemary's greatness

Rosemary's plaintive vocal style traces back to Maysville, Kentucky, where she was born on May 23, 1928. Her singing career began at an early age when she performed for her grandfather during his successful mayoral campaign in Maysville.

Rosemary's younger sister Betty shared her love for music. The two sang together incessantly while growing up and eventually landed an audition on Cincinnati, Ohio's WLW radio station. The station loved the Clooney sisters and featured them on live shows for two years. This experience exposed Rosemary to a wide range of of music as WLW teamed the Clooneys with jazz sextets and country and western groups.

Listen to Rosemary recall fond memories of singing as a child

On a trip through Ohio, bandleader Tony Pastor heard the singing sisters and later offered them a position with his band. During this three-year touring period, Rosemary distinguished herself as the sister who would make singing a career. In 1949, Betty returned to Cincinnati and Rosemary headed for Columbia Records in New York City.


Rosemary's solo career began wth a bang. In 1950 she recorded "Beautiful Brown Eyes," which sold over half a million copies. Columbia Records asked her to sing a newly arranged Armenian folk song called "Come On A My House." She begrudgingly recorded it, and it became a number one hit.

Within two years, Rosemary had six more hits, including "Hey There" which sold upwards of three million copies. In 1953, she landed on the cover TIME magazine. Throughout the '50s, she rounded out her musical celebrity with a successful movie career, her own television show from 1956 to 1957, and a marriage to actor Jose Ferrer.

During this rich period, Rosemary never lost focus of her first love -- singing. With an approach grounded in jazz sensibilities, she explored other genres, recording country albums with singer Hank Williams, an organ-based jazz album, a strings album, and a Latin album with bandleader Perez Prado. Her marriage to Ferrer produced five kids, which inspired her to record several children's records.


In 1956, Rosemary collaborated with Duke Ellington (left) and Billy Strayhorn, to record the adventurous album Blue Rose. Although Blue Rose was an artistic milestone for her and has since become a jazz classic, it initially wasn't well received by the public.

Listen to Rosemary and biographer Will Friedwald talk about her collaboration with Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn

When Rosemary followed Blue Rose up with another departure from pop -- an album of love songs arranged by trombonist Nelson Riddle -- her record company turned it down and buried the effort. Yet again, now these pieces are viewed as classics, but at the time, their lack of approval precipitated a downward spiral in Rosemary's life and career.

In the 1960's, rock and roll's rise in popularity marginalized Rosemary's career. Her marriage to Ferrer failed, and a brief affair with Nelson Riddle left her brokenhearted. Finally, in 1968, while campaigning for Robert Kennedy, Rosemary stood a only few feet from where he was assassinated. She suffered a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized. As she slowly recovered, Rosemary focused on the importance of singing.

Her comeback required intense dedication as she literally had to start a career all over again, taking humble gigs and relying on the help of old friends. In 1975, Bing Crosby invited her to tour with him, and the combination led to the inception of a new career. In 1977 she recorded again and joined former 1950s singing stars -- Margaret Whiting, Rose Marie and Helen O'Connell -- to create "Four Girls Four." After six successful years of touring with "Four Girls Four," Rosemary again headed out on her own.

For all of Rosemary's success prior to the breakdown, her professional rebirth solidified her place in jazz history, particularly among true aficionados. She built her second professional life around singing compositions written by Ellington, Billie Holiday, Bing Crosby, Nelson Riddle, and Ira Gershwin. This body of work clearly established her as one of the greatest interpreters of American songs.

In 1991, Rosemary began a series of autobiographical recordings that intimately portrayed her life with songs like "Sweet Kentucky Ham" and "Side Man." Her experience translates into heartfelt emotion sung in a spare style. In 1995 she won the ASCAP Pied Piper award. The inscription on the award succinctly sums up her career with -- "Rosemary Clooney: An American treasure and one of the best friends a song ever had."

Listen to Rosemary speak about her musical comeback


View the Rosemary Clooney show playlist


More InfoBrowse the NPR Jazz Web site -- NPRJazz.org

More InfoListen to Rosemary talk to Morning Edition's Susan Stamberg about her 2000 CD Brazil and her storied career.