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'White Christmas': A Holiday Concert With Rosemary Clooney


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Merry Christmas.


ROSEMARY CLOONEY: (Singing) I'm dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones I used to know.

GROSS: That's Rosemary Clooney. As a star of the 1954 film "White Christmas," Clooney is one of the singer's most associated with Irving Berlin's famous Christmas song. Today, we go deep into our archive and celebrate the holiday with an onstage concert an interview that I recorded with Rosemary Clooney in 1997 at the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco in an event produced and presented by City Arts & Lectures under the direction of the late Sydney Goldstein.

As the citation said in Clooney's 1995 ASCAP award, she is one of the best friends a song ever had. Clooney had big pop hits in the 1950s like "Come On-A My House," "Hey There" and "Mambo Italiano." But she also made a splendid series of jazz albums. I love her singing and feel so lucky to have recorded this with her. She died five years later. Accompanying her, we'll hear Charlie McCarthy, saxophone; Larry Souza, trumpet; Seward McCain, bass; Colin Bailey, drums; with pianist John Oddo, who was Clooney's music director. He died earlier this year. From our archive, here's Rosemary Clooney.


CLOONEY: Thank you.


CLOONEY: (Singing) Going to take a sentimental journey, going to set my heart at ease. Going to make a sentimental journey to renew old memories. I got my bag, I got my reservations, spent each dime I could afford. Like a child in wild anticipation, I love to hear that all aboard. Seven, that's the time we leave at, seven. I'll be waiting up for heaven, counting every mile of railroad track that takes me back. Never thought my heart could be so yearning. Why did I decide to roam? I'm going to make this sentimental journey, sentimental journey home. I never thought my heart could be so yearning. Why did I decide to roam? I got to make this sentimental journey, sentimental journey home - sentimental journey home, sentimental journey home.


GROSS: That was wonderful.

CLOONEY: Thank you. Thank you.


CLOONEY: Thank you.

GROSS: I would like to go back with you to your childhood, when you first started performing.

CLOONEY: Really?

GROSS: Now, I know...


CLOONEY: That far?

GROSS: You used to sing with your sister, Betty.


GROSS: And when you were girls, you sang together. And I know one of the places that you performed was - was it your grandfather who was the mayor of Maysville?

CLOONEY: Yes, yes. Right.

GROSS: And I know you performed at his campaigns.


GROSS: So set the scene for me. What was it like when you were girls performing for the campaign of your grandfather in Maysville, Ky. What did you sing? What were you like on stage?

CLOONEY: Well, there wasn't a stage, first of all. We - he was very smart. He used us to gather a crowd, you see. That was - we were kind of shills.


CLOONEY: We just - we would stand on the street corners and sing songs that he liked particularly.

(Singing) There was an old spinning wheel in the parlor, and there's an old covered bridge.

Really old songs. And one of them was "Danny Boy," of course, because his name was Clooney. My other grandfather's name was Guilfoyle so, you know, there it was.


GROSS: Did you like performing or were you reluctantly trotted out to perform?

CLOONEY: I don't remember. I just remember always singing and always knowing that I would sing.

GROSS: When you were a girl...


GROSS: Your parents divorced.


GROSS: And you and your sister lived alternately at your maternal and paternal grandparents' house.


GROSS: How did it change your world when your parents separated and left you and moved?

CLOONEY: Well, you know, they weren't around a lot to begin with. Daddy was - spent a lot of time at various saloons in Maysville. There weren't too many, but there were enough for him.


CLOONEY: My mother, on the other hand, was - she wanted to go somewhere else, somewhere besides Maysville, Ky. She worked in a ladies' dress store, and I know that she had a lot of kind of salesmanship and kind of attitude. My sister was a lot like her in that way. But she went to Lexington to work; after all, somebody had to send some money home when we were living with her mother, especially, because my Grandmother Guilfoyle had nine kids, and she was left a widow when the youngest was 3. So she needed the money.

GROSS: So did you feel abandoned when they separated?

CLOONEY: There were so many people around us all the time, so many relatives that I never felt abandoned. Sometimes I would have liked a little more privacy, to tell you the truth.


GROSS: Well, I asked you to choose a song to sing this evening that would evoke your childhood in Kentucky.


GROSS: And so you're going to sing "Danny Boy," which you also recorded on your "Demi-Centennial" album.


GROSS: Tell me why you chose this song and what it means to you.

CLOONEY: Well, actually, it gets the Irish song out of the way for all the relatives.


CLOONEY: Why didn't you do an Irish song, Rosemary? A nice Irish song would have been nice on the album. Do you know how many times I've heard that? So I get "Danny Boy" right out of the way - first song on the album, "Danny Boy." That's it.


GROSS: This, though - you do this so beautifully.

CLOONEY: Well...

GROSS: Would you sing it for us now?

CLOONEY: I will, Terry.

GROSS: Thank you.

CLOONEY: Thank you. Thank you.


CLOONEY: (Singing) Oh, Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling from glen to glen and down the mountainside. The summer's gone, and all the leaves are falling. It's you, it's you must go, and I must bide. But come ye back when summer's in the meadow or when the valley's hushed and white with snow. It's I'll be here in sunshine or in shadow. Oh, Danny boy, oh, Danny boy, I love you so. But come ye back when summer's in the meadow or when the valley's hushed and white with snow. It's I'll be there in sunshine or in shadow. Oh, Danny boy, oh, Danny boy, I love you so.


CLOONEY: Thank you.

GROSS: I think that just kind of sums up one of the many reasons I love Rosemary Clooney. You can take a song I've heard a million times and make me hear it in a way I've never heard it before. You and your sister Betty started singing professionally I guess in the mid-1940s, and you sang with the Tony Pastor Band.


GROSS: You know, great gig for two young girls. You were still girls.

CLOONEY: Yes. Betty was 15.

GROSS: And how old were you?

CLOONEY: Eighteen.

GROSS: You were so young that your uncle had to be your official guardian...

CLOONEY: Yeah. Guardian, yes, yes.

GROSS: ...And your chaperone.

CLOONEY: Uncle George.

GROSS: Yeah. So here you are, travelling with this big band of, of course, all men (laughter).


GROSS: Two young girls with your uncle as the chaperone.


GROSS: Was it embarrassing for you to have your uncle travelling with you?

CLOONEY: There was kind of no choice, you know, because they said we couldn't sign a contract because we didn't have - so he became our legal guardian. So it was Uncle George or no job. So actually, no, there was no problem with that at all. But to get away from him was difficult.


GROSS: Did you want to?

CLOONEY: Oh, yeah. Sure. We tried everything in the world. See - Yeah. Betty and I also smoked very early on, see? Couldn't find any cigarettes 'cause George didn't want us to smoke. So I said to my sister, Betty, why don't you kind of get friendly with the boy singer because he smokes and then get a couple of cigarettes? You know, so we tried; it didn't work.

GROSS: OK, so there was the boy singer.

CLOONEY: No, because the boy singer went back and told Uncle George - fink.


GROSS: What did it mean to be the girl singer in the band?

CLOONEY: Well, that's - well, there were two of us. So, yes, we were the girl singers. And we sat on the side of the bandstand, and mostly we would make up dirty lyrics to other songs.


CLOONEY: Just for the two of us.

GROSS: You set me up. Now I'm going to make you sing one.

CLOONEY: No, you can't.


CLOONEY: You cannot. I cannot do it. No, I have grandchildren out there.



GROSS: Now, this was the period right after World War II.


GROSS: And the songs that were popular during the Second World War had such emotional value for people, and I'm sure you were singing some of those songs, yes?

CLOONEY: Surely.

GROSS: What do those songs mean to you, and what was your experience of the Second World War?

CLOONEY: Well, my grandmother had four kids in the service, and so there were four stars on the flag in the window. And there were a lot of those flags around, you know. And I remember seeing all the movies, you know, with - all the movies that were made during the Second World War with all the stars from - I loved the Paramount one with Bing and Bob and Dorothy Lamour and Betty Hutton. Yeah, I liked all of that.

We missed the people that were away. I remember when the war started. I remember the Sunday that President Roosevelt came on the radio. I remember my grandmother crying and realizing what it meant for her and then realizing what it meant to the rest of us. Yeah.

GROSS: I asked you to choose a song from the World War II period, a song very popular then, and you chose to sing "I'll Be Seeing You." What does this song mean to you?

CLOONEY: If I talk about it, I won't be able to sing it.

GROSS: Then please sing it.



GROSS: I wouldn't miss this.



CLOONEY: (Singing) Cathedral bells were tolling, and our hearts sang on. Was it the thrill of Paris or the April dawn? Who knows if we shall meet again? But when the morning chimes ring sweet again, I'll be seeing you in all the old familiar places that this heart of mine embraces all day through - in that small cafe, the park across the way, the children's carousel, the chestnut trees, the wishing well. I'll be seeing you in every lovely summer's day, in everything that's warm and gay. I'll always think of you that way. I'll find you in the morning sun, and when the night is new, I'll be looking at the moon, but I'll be seeing you. I'll be seeing you in every lovely summer's day, in everything that's warm and gay. I'll always think of you that way. I'll find you in the morning sun. And when the night is new, I'll be looking at the moon, but I'll be seeing you.


GROSS: That was beautiful.

CLOONEY: Thank you very much, thank you. Thank you, thank you.

GROSS: That was beautiful. Let's pick up where we left off. You were with the Tony Pastor Band with your sister, but your sister at some point decided to leave show business.

CLOONEY: Well, actually not show business. She went back to Cincinnati, but she had a television show there. She just didn't want to be on the road anymore.


CLOONEY: She was then 18, and she had never been to a prom where she could dance, you know, only the ones where we played. So she wanted to go back home and maybe go to some dances and go back to school.

And then she had a television show that was called - it was one of those - what are those - what were those called, sock hops? At that time, yeah, something like that. Anybody that's old enough - and I think I'm the oldest person in the room. I know it.


CLOONEY: OK, so my sister went back and did those kinds of things and played records and stuff. And so she was - you know, I think really, Terry, she did it for me because I'd made a couple of records with Tony's band as a single singer. And Columbia offered me a contract.

GROSS: Oh, did she think she was holding you back?

CLOONEY: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: And - so how do you feel about that when she left?

CLOONEY: I felt sad. I felt grateful. And I went.

GROSS: You had your recording contract with Columbia Records...


GROSS: ...Signed in 1949. And your producer was Mitch Miller.

CLOONEY: Hot dog.


CLOONEY: He here was...

GROSS: First single...

CLOONEY: ...Beard and all.

GROSS: Yeah, the first single he had to do was "Come On-A My House."

CLOONEY: Well, no.


CLOONEY: There were quite a few others.

GROSS: Before that. OK.

CLOONEY: Yes, quite a few others.

GROSS: But it was your first gold record.

CLOONEY: First hit, yes. Absolutely.

GROSS: Now he wanted you to record "Come On-A My House." You didn't particularly want to record.


GROSS: Why was he so adamant, and why were you so reluctant?

CLOONEY: He was right. He knew that I could do it. But I - I think young people sometimes take themselves so damn seriously that really - that they miss the boat, you know, that they miss the chance. I could have missed that chance if he hadn't been adamant about it.

GROSS: One of the songs that Mitch Miller produced with you was "Hey There," which...


GROSS: ...A beautiful recording, a lovely song, and I'm so glad you recorded it. And I'm going to request that you sing it now for us.

CLOONEY: Just easy as anything to do. I can do that.

GROSS: Do you love this song?

CLOONEY: I like it all right. I - you know, I'm not crazy about that song either. That's terrible.


CLOONEY: That's terrible. I like "Tenderly," that I did. You know, I like that. Oh, there was one that I recorded that I hope you missed, a song called "Canasta."

GROSS: (Laughter) I missed it. How did it go?

CLOONEY: Good, good. No, you don't...

GROSS: No, I won't find out.


GROSS: OK, but I will hear "Hey There?"

CLOONEY: You will hear "Hey There" right now.

GROSS: OK. Thank you for singing it.

CLOONEY: A little different but same song - all right, Terry.


CLOONEY: (Singing) Hey there, you with the stars in your eyes, love never made a fool of you. You used to be too wise. Hey there, you on that high-flying cloud. Though he won't throw a crumb to you, you think someday he'll come to you. You had better forget him, him with his nose in the air. He has you dancing on a string. You break it, and he won't care. Won't you take this advice I hand you like a mother, or are you not seeing things too clear? Are you too much in love to hear? Is it all going in one and out the other? OK.

Hey there, you with the stars in your eyes, love never made a fool of you. You used to be too wise. Won't you take this advice I hand you like mother, or are you not seeing things too clear? You too much in love to hear? Is it all going in one ear and out the other? Ha. Yeah.


CLOONEY: Thank you.

GROSS: Now while you were having, I think, a pretty difficult pregnancy, you recorded a wonderful record called "Blue Rose." And it's you with the Duke Ellington Orchestra singing songs by Ellington and by Billy Strayhorn.

CLOONEY: Yes, and Billy Strayhorn was the reason we could do it.

GROSS: And Billy Strayhorn, in case anyone doesn't know who he was, was a composer who worked with Ellington, was Ellington's arranger and protege...


GROSS: ...And just a brilliant composer. So my understanding of this record is that you had to basically send in your vocals because you were too sick to travel with this pregnancy.

CLOONEY: Well, no, the doctors didn't want me to travel. And the band was working on the East Coast, and I wasn't home.

GROSS: So Billy Strayhorn worked with you.

CLOONEY: Yes, to begin with - the very beginning. We got the keys. But he was wonderful. He would wake me up in the morning, knock on my bedroom door and wake me up. I'd get myself together a little bit and go downstairs to the piano. And then he would get the keys, and then he'd play other renditions for me and say, well, I think that should be able to do this. Just take this and just learn it and do it the way you would like to.

He was responsible - it would not have been possible if it weren't for Billy. He would be in the booth - this is after he went back east and recorded and arranged all the arrangements with Duke and then came back with the tapes under his arm. And then we'd go into the studio for as long as I can make it, you know? He would make kind of faces at me through the glass. And he would say, you know - or direct me in a way that I could understand because by that time, we were close friends.

GROSS: Would you do an Ellington song for us now?

CLOONEY: Sure. I'll miss Billy, but I'll do it.


CLOONEY: (Singing) They say into your early life romance came, and in that heart of yours burned a flame, a flame that flickered one day, then died away. Then with disillusion deep in your eyes, you learned that fools in love soon grow wise. The years have changed you, somehow. I see you now. Smoking, drinking, never thinking Of tomorrow. Nonchalant, diamonds shining, dancing, dining with some man in a restaurant. Is that all you really No, sophisticated lady, I know you miss the love you lost long ago. And when nobody is nigh, you cry.

That's for Billy.


GROSS: That was beautiful. We were talking about being pregnant as a performer.


GROSS: Five kids, five years. It must have been very challenging to be the mother of five and a performer at a time when not a lot of women were working. And there was also a kind of happy homemaker image to uphold in America.


GROSS: What were the some of the challenges for you of doing both?

CLOONEY: Well, the challenges didn't really rear their ugly heads until about the time when they started school, when there would be separations. And that was very difficult for me. I traveled a lot of times, and I didn't make any bones about it. I traveled with two nannies. And if I could get anymore, I would get three, you know, because five kids, you know, under 5 are a handful.

So, you know, I just would like for them to let me sleep until 10:00 if I had worked until 2:00, please God. And they would let me. You know, they would understand. They would usually send the littlest one in, though, because they knew that he could get by with most - almost anything. Yeah, yeah. And he could, too.

GROSS: There was a period of your life when you became addicted to prescription pills.


GROSS: Looking back, how do you think it happened? How do you think it got to that point?

CLOONEY: Well, they make you feel very good.


CLOONEY: That's the truth. I cannot tell you, I miss it to this day. I could mention the words and the names of all of them, but - it was before Valium, so I can't say anything about Valium. But I had some that were great.

Anyway, it just really kind of eased my mind. I didn't - you know, I could I could sleep just fine, you know? That was good. And it became a habit very quickly. Then it was hard getting off because then it took a little more to do what made me feel good to begin with. So I found myself in a strange place with things going on like television talking to me, strange kinds of paranoia. It went on for a while, then came the day that somebody realized that I was out of control.

GROSS: Who was the somebody?

CLOONEY: Probably my cousin, who was a doctor and saw me. His name was Sherm Holvey. And he was a wonderful doctor, except that he was not a psychiatrist. But he knew I needed one. And so he introduced me to a doctor that put me in a hospital. And the strange thing is that when I was in the hospital, I can't tell you the name, but there was a very famous comedian that was in the same hospital. So I think, well, this isn't a hospital, you know? What the heck? What's he walking up and down the halls for, you know?


CLOONEY: So I had - I was in a room with three other people. And it's funny because as soon as the medication - I got off the medication for a few days. It's funny how you start coming down. It's fast.

GROSS: You were in - what? - the psychiatric wing of a hospital.

CLOONEY: Oh, I was in a locked ward. Yeah.

GROSS: So did you look at other people in this ward and say, what am I doing with them?

CLOONEY: Oh, no. I liked a lot of them.


CLOONEY: No. We understood each other. We really did. We really understood each other. We would discuss pills. There was a girl in OT - occupational therapy, in case anybody out there wasn't ever in it.


CLOONEY: So - OK, and she was making a painting with her back - with the painting toward the room. So - I mean, the painting was - the back of the painting was towards it. And she was working so hard. She worked for about two weeks. And finally, she turned it around, and it was a big Tuinal, which was like Seconal. But Tuinals was kind of pretty because it had blue on top and red.


CLOONEY: We loved it. We just loved it. And then at night, you know, we'd get to watch the television for a while. We'd try to find a movie where somebody is crazy in it. We'd say, would you look at this performance, please? Would you have done anything like that?

GROSS: But did you tune on one day and there you were in a movie? They were showing maybe "White Christmas" or "Here Come The Girls?"

CLOONEY: Oh, God, no.


CLOONEY: No, no, no, no, no. No. No.

GROSS: One of the people who really helped you when you were ready to make a comeback was Bing Crosby...

CLOONEY: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: ...Who you worked with first in "White Christmas..."


GROSS: ...Costarred opposite him.

CLOONEY: Yes. He was wonderful. He was on safari in Africa when I was in the hospital. And somebody had gotten in touch with him, and so I get this letter from him - three-page letter that didn't make much sense to me until I was in there for about a week. And then it started to. Bob Hope sent me a bouquet of flowers, which we weren't allowed to have. I could look at them, but they had to be sent out. I don't know how I was going to kill myself a the tulip, but...


CLOONEY: ...We weren't allowed to have it. Anyway, it was this big bouquet of flowers. And Bob said, hope it's a boy.


GROSS: That's really funny.

CLOONEY: That's funny, isn't it?

GROSS: Yeah.

CLOONEY: And I said to him - I said, how did you think? He said, well, my God, it's the only reason you've been going to the hospital for the last five years. I didn't know why you were in there.

GROSS: Did that seem funny at the time?

CLOONEY: That's when I laughed for the first time.

GROSS: Really?

CLOONEY: Yeah. That's when I thought something was really funny.

GROSS: There's two things that are very special about the next song that you're going to sing. And one is that you sang it with Bing Crosby, who is special to you, and the other is that the lyric was written especially for you...

CLOONEY: Part of it.

GROSS: Part of it.


GROSS: By Ira Gershwin.


GROSS: And the song is "I Can't Get Started." We'll talk about Ira Gershwin and your relationship with him a little bit later.


GROSS: But tell us about this lyric that he wrote for you and why he wrote it.

CLOONEY: This came from an album called "Fancy Meeting You Here." I'm going to use a name in here because the line was when Elvis Presley bows, I just nod. You know, Bing sang that. It's just - you'll see the different words that that Ira wrote. He was something.

Yeah. OK, just play a nice, long introduction if you don't mind.


CLOONEY: (Singing) I've flown around the world in a plane. I've studied (unintelligible) in Spain. Oh, yeah. The North Pole, I have charted, but I can't get started with you. When I sell kisses at a bazaar, the guys line up from near and from far. Their methods I have charted, but I can't get started with you. Oh, tell me why. Am I no kick to you? I could always stick to you. Fly through thin and thick to you. Tell me why I'm taboo.

The market trembles when you sell shorts. In England, I'm presented at court. And still, I'm so downhearted 'cause I can't get started with you. When first we met, how you elated me. My pet, you devastated me. And yet now you've deflated me till you're my Waterloo. Good grief. I'm not exactly a clod. When Georgie Clooney bows, I just nod. I'm asked to every state ball, still I'm behind the eight ball. Dad's a Wall Street banker, still I'm just a tanker. You're everything a gent is. Still, I'm non compos mentis with you. No, I just can't get started with you.


CLOONEY: Thank you. Thank you. You're very nice. Thank you.

GROSS: The song I think you're going to sing is "God Bless The Child."


GROSS: Does this song have personal significance for you?

CLOONEY: Yes. Because my - the last time that I saw Billie Holliday, shortly before she died, I was pregnant with my second child. And she said, I think you're going to have a girl. And I said, do you? She said, yep. And if you do, then I'll be your godmother because it takes a bad woman to be a good godmother.


CLOONEY: And so she's Maria's godmother. Yes, it's "God Bless The Child." And it's for Maria.


CLOONEY: (Singing) Them that's got shall get. Them that's not shall lose, so the bible said, and it still is news. Mama may have and Papa may have, but God bless the child that's got his own - that's got his own. Yes, the strong gets more while the weak ones fade. Empty pockets don't ever make the grade. Mama may have and Papa may have, but God bless the child that's got his own - that's got his own. Money, you've got lots of friends hanging around your door. When you're gone and spending ends, then they don't come back no more - no more. Rich relations give crusts of bread and such. You can help yourself, but don't take too much. Mama may have and Papa may have, but God bless the child that's got his own - that's got his own. God bless the child that's got his own.


CLOONEY: Thank you. Wonderful.

GROSS: That was beautiful.

CLOONEY: Thank you very much. Thank you.


GROSS: Rosemary Clooney, recorded in 1997 at the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco as part of the City Arts & Lecture series. We also heard John Oddo on piano; Charlie McCarthy, saxophone; Larry Souza, trumpet; Seward McCain, bass; and Colin Bailey, drums.

That concert was recorded nearly 25 years ago. Since then, we've lost three of the people who were on stage that evening. Rosemary Clooney died in 2002. Her music director, John Oddo, who we heard at the piano, died earlier this year. The event was produced by the founding director of City Arts & Lectures, Sydney Goldstein, with her then-associate director Kathryn Barcos. Sydney died last year. We dedicate this broadcast to her. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.