Rosemary Clooney had a multi-faceted and prolific career that, fortuitously for us, lasted most of her life. Jazz Singer is a retrospective taken from the '50s, when Clooney was beginning her recording career. Compiled by friend and fellow musician, Michael Feinstein, it is clear that Feinstein has taken pains to ensure that Clooney is represented here in her best light from her output of this era.
A significant episode in Clooney's career occurred in 1949 when she made the decision, after singing for several years in the Tony Pastor band, to try her luck in New York City. Signed by Columbia Records, she released "Beautiful Brown Eyes" a year later, commanding over half a million copies in sales. However, the real turning point came when she reluctantly recorded what has become known as her first big break: "Come On-A My House". A number one hit, this propelled her into the limelight circle, rubbing shoulders and vying for the number one single slots with the likes of Tony Bennett, Vera Lynn, Dickie Valentine, and Frank Sinatra. Riding the wave of popularity, Clooney continued to release song after song in the American popular songbook vein during the remainder of the decade, peaking at the height of her performing career with her own TV show and headlining roles in several movies, including White Christmas starring opposite Bing Crosby. The '50s was undeniably the jewel in the crown of Clooney's career and though she never stopped performing, the rise of rock and roll in the '60s impacted and overshadowed her success.
Arguably, Clooney was not a jazz singer per se, though she was a fluent interpreter of the style, as this album can attest. During the '50s, she did produce a superb album of jazz songs. Blue Rose (1956) was a collaboration effort with Duke Ellington and remains one of her finest albums. Clooney is recognized for her untainted and easy manner, best exemplified on tracks such as the opener on this album, "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" (taken from Blue Rose), but her interpretation lacks the fire and intensity when compared to singers such as Ella Fitzgerald. Clooney doesn't have a powerful voice that carries weight, such as the likes of Billie Holiday or Sarah Vaughan. Her voice is softer, with much more of a warm timbre that works well with her unhurried sense of time. On the pensive track "What Is There to Say?", you can hear her mulling over each thought as she slowly unfolds the lyrics. Nevertheless, she proves that she can also hold her own with the big bands. From the movie Red Garters, Clooney sings the track "Bad News" dramatically and boldly.
Another quick plug for this compilation: The first-class musicians who Clooney had the opportunity to work with undeniably enhance the quality of the music on this compilation. The Hi-Lo's quartet accompanied Clooney on several tracks, including "How about You", while the Benny Goodman sextet played on the original Cole Porter song "It's Bad for Me", with some zesty interplay between Clooney and the clarinet.
As is sometimes the case, it can be deceptive to think that the biggest selling hits of the time are also the representative of the artist's best efforts. Certainly this is misleading in the case of Clooney. During the '50s, she released a plethora of songs that garnered the number one slot, but these were formulaic in style and dull in nature. If you're looking for a compilation that features her most popular number one hits, a recommendation would be 16 Biggest Hits (Sony). It includes the string of US hits that followed "Come On a My House", such as "Tenderly", "Botcha-Me", "This Ole House", and "Mambo Italiano". Still, this reviewer encourages you to hold out for Jazz Singer as one compilation that shows you the finer side of Rosemary Clooney. Trust me, you would do well to invest in this album.