History is a weird bear to wrestle. How does it develop? Chuck Klosterman’s recent book, But What If We’re Wrong? attempts to tackle this subject in depth. He asks, who or what makes history. Why does one vision of a person outshine all the rest? For example, Franz Kafka was virtually unknown in his lifetime, but he is a giant of literature now. Situations like Kafka’s are so common, they’re almost cliché. History pushes its stubborn self through the ether and comes out on the other side as something completely unforeseen. The most recent release of Rosemary Clooney’s music, I Feel a Song Comin’ On: Lost Radio Recordings, attempts to change the popular perception of Rosemary Clooney as an artist. It’s too late for all that, but it is a pleasant release nonetheless.
Clooney’s story is a meandering one. She began singing in the 1940s as a featured vocalist for a big band. She took a leap into a solo career, which put her into contact with Mitch Miller, a giant of popular music throughout the entirety of the 1950s. Miller had a vision for Clooney, and it did not align with her vision of herself. He envisioned her as a light-hearted, novelty singer, but she saw herself as a breezy interpreter of American standards. Popular perception would tell you that Miller won that battle, as Clooney is predominately remembered for her novelty songs. Here are some titles of her most well-known performances: “Come on-a My House”, “Botch-A-Me (Ba-Ba-Baciami Piccina)”, and “Mambo Italiano”. Miller positioned Clooney as fun, goofy affair to relieve the stress of a post war society. It worked. These songs were a hit.
Clooney did more work than these few songs showcase, though. The majority of her work was much more basic for the time. She eventually became a close associate to Bing Crosby and began recording various radio shows with him. The recordings on I Feel a Song Comin’ On are harvested from those radio shows and they attempt to show Clooney as she wanted to be seen: a breezy interpreter of American standards. It also works. Clooney slays these tunes with a nonchalance and execution few could muster.
The songs presented here are American standards, simply put. Just one look down the track list and many recognizable titles pop up: “Nice Work If You Can Get It”, “Anything Goes”, and “You Make Me Feel So Young”. Furthermore, these titles are written by giants of the era. The Gershwins are present here. Cole Porter is here. Rodgers and Hart. It’s an all-star list of writers, so the songs do not disappoint. Not even close.
Clooney’s performance is stellar as well. She once said that she was an actor in three-minute installments, and that supplies a good lense through which to listen to these recordings. The chillness with which she sings “Anything Goes” is something to admire. On “Keep It Gay”, you can feel the pure exuberance in her voice. Later, on “Tenderly”, she drops her voice a bit to evoke so much longing. She put her heart into these songs, and her lungs rewarded her heavily.
So, Clooney is no joke. She was a singular talent in her era, and she should be remembered that way. Unfortunately, her legacy as a novelty singer will be hard to shake. With those few songs being some of her biggest hits, how could they be forgotten?
Furthermore, they make her stand out. Yeah they’re silly — very silly. But what’s the matter? They reflect the time. Rosemary Clooney may always be known as the pop singer feigning an Italian accent on “Come on-a My House”. But that’s just fine. Why? Because the talent was always there.