Hi NYFOS Blog readers and Happy Monday! I’m so thrilled to spend this week with you, and to share some songs that I love and hopefully you will too!
When you are tasked with coming up with “Songs of the day”, it’s a little like being asked “Which child is your favorite?”. I wouldn’t have an immediate answer, but probably several clarifying questions. Which genre? What mood am I in? For the first day, I then turned to my trusty iTunes library and was completely overwhelmed. So, I turned to the one singer who has never let me down, for some guidance: Rosemary Clooney.
I fell in love with Rosemary Clooney when I was 18. She had just passed away (I know. Not great timing on my part). To impress a girl I was keen on, I bought a two-disc set of Rosemary’s entitled “Songs of a Girl Singer” and spanned her entire career. Born in Kentucky, she first started singing on the radio with her sister Betty, and soon, they were touring with a big band as a duo. After her sister retired, she launched her solo career and signed with Columbia Records, where she recorded her first hits such as “Come on-a my house” and “Hey There”. Soon followed her feature film credits including the holiday favorite White Christmas. Her career went downhill in the 60’s and she had a mental collapse, which she would spend years recovering from. She started performing again in small clubs and jazz venues and then signed with the newly formed Concord Jazz Label. She toured and recorded with Concord for the rest of her life until she passed away in 2002.
I played that two-disc set over and over. I couldn’t get over her natural phrasing of words and. the way she could change the mood with a simple shift of dynamics. I would later learn that she never learned to read music and preferred to learn by just hearing it. She felt this gave her a more natural delivery of the text of the song. I seemed to favor the selections that recorded later in life on the Concord label. Her voice is a little more smoky, exciting and juicy to my ear. Here is my favorite tune from that collection, Dave Frishberg’s “Do You Miss New York?”.
‘As you are dreaming time flies’. One moment you are a kid watching Rosemary Clooney on a black and white TV singing ‘God help the mister who comes between me and my sister/and God help the sister who comes between me and my man’ (Irving Berlin from White Christmas). Years later you are lucky enough to be able to sit at the top of Rockefeller Center with the snow falling over New York skyscrapers. Rosie is ten feet away from you achingly singing a heart-wrenching Jimmy Webb ballad (he had come a long way from ‘Up Up and Away’). And then you find this video clip of the California babe who had pounded out ‘You’re no good, you’re no good’. She too has mellowed and deepened, two goddesses in duet. It was in fact Linda Ronstadt who first brought the song forward, and brought Clooney aboard.
In choosing this song, I wanted to pay homage to all of the classic folk/rock and pop I grew up with. So many of the songs of the sixties and seventies have become part of the ‘American Songbook’. But it turns out that this is in fact a theatre song that Jimmy Webb wrote for a telling of Ray Bradbury’s story Dandelion Wine; so as it happens all my selections this week have a theatrical provenance.
If you want to be awed, go to wikipedia and read (and read and read) about these two artists (really artists, not just in the jargony sense of today); women who started from a height of very young success, then took rocky roads to explore, grow and arrive somewhere else, which is partly what this song is about. From a lyric point of view there are so many surprises and quirks (do you know another song with the word ‘vaporize’ in it?). If you read the lyrics separately, almost every image/concept in the song is repeated twice, laddering against the melody. (“Night turns to dawn and dreams to sighs, And sighs change to sweet love that never dies/and love becomes laughter and lullabies’).
The bridge is a prosy exegesis that leads to the ‘deep umber’ poetry of the last verse…the gift of the AABA song is that it is circular (creating a structure of safety and familiarity), but it also takes us on a journey forward. We cross the ‘bridge’ but on the other side is the home we left from, even as we have changed.
Clooney’s gravelly tones and phrasing further deepen this journey…like Barbara Cook, she had young conventional success, then suffered, grew and really ‘found her voice’ in a more expressive way. Ronstadt has always, to my ear, had too consistently clear a voice (shown off best in her mid-career power ballads), but her musicality and sheer beauty work well in duet with Rosie. She is also at her best with a Jimmy Webb song. Hope that this will remind you of the way that ‘life begins and spirits rise’.
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