Rosemary Clooney, whose warm, radiant voice placed her in the first rank of American popular singers for more than half a century, died Saturday night at her home in Beverly Hills. She was 74.
The cause was complications from lung cancer, according to her spokeswoman, Linda Dozoretz.
Ms. Clooney did not dig as deeply into the emotional content of a song as Frank Sinatra did; she never tried to emulate the sound and delivery of an instrument as Mel Tormé seemed to do so easily; she did not burst into the scat choruses favored by Ella Fitzgerald. But she sang with so much assuredness, simplicity and honesty that these elements became her trademark and endeared her to audiences and critics alike. In the words of the director Mike Nichols, "She sings like Spencer Tracy acts."
In recent years Ms. Clooney had been appearing in the best cabarets and on concert stages, largely with small groups, singing pop-jazz standards that earned her new audiences and renewed respect. Reviewing a performance at Michael's Pub in Manhattan, Stephen Holden of The New York Times said of her: "Her special strength is an ability to infuse everything she touches with warmth, intelligence and a subtly swinging energy that make her interpretations of standards models of balance and clarity. Her emotional perspective is dry-eyed and perceptive. Rather than acting out the romantic dramas of well-known song lyrics, she projects an understanding that is almost maternal in its blend of wisdom and empathy."
Although she did her best work singing standards with a fidelity to their composers, Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen, Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, George and Ira Gershwin, Johnny Burke, Jimmy Van Heusen and Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, her beginnings were decidedly in a genre not nearly so distinguished. She became one of America's best-known popular singers in 1951 with a novelty called "Come-on-a-My House," which became a huge hit record, and followed that with other novelties like "Botcha-Me," "Mambo Italiano" and "This Old House," songs that her audiences always wanted to hear long after she was pursuing a less-flamboyant repertory.
Some fans even occasionally asked her to sing "How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?" a novelty that belonged to Patti Page, never to Rosemary Clooney. "They probably figure if it's a bad song I must have done it," she once said about her earlier recording career.
But even then Ms. Clooney recorded pensive ballads like "Tenderly" and "Hey There" with such simplicity and beauty that they also became songs indelibly associated with her. Ms. Clooney with a good ballad was always approachable and intimate.
Her early career reached a height in 1954 when she appeared opposite Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye singing Irving Berlin songs in the hit musical "White Christmas." But her good looks and cheery disposition masked a life with more than its share of pain.
She survived a disastrous marriage to the actor Jose Ferrer; she was scarred by the assassination of her friend Robert Kennedy, which she witnessed first hand; she abused drugs and had affairs that disappointed and wounded her; she had a childhood of uncertainty with an affably alcoholic father and a mother who eventually deserted the family.
And yet Ms. Clooney never completely lost her admiration for Mr. Ferrer, the father of her five children, whom she married and divorced twice, not even after she learned of his womanizing during their marriage that led her to conclude that he was breaking her heart "in small increments." And she always made a place in her home for the parents who had not done the same for her when she was a child.
She was nominated for an Emmy award for an appearance on "E.R.," the series that featured her nephew George Clooney, and this year she was given a lifetime achievement Grammy award a month after she was hospitalized for lung cancer surgery.
Rosemary Clooney was born May 23, 1928, in Maysville, Ky., a small town on the Ohio River southeast of Cincinnati. She was one of five children born to Andrew and Frances Guilfoyle Clooney. Mr. Clooney was a house painter who drank so much and so often that his own father, a jeweler who served several terms as mayor of Maysville, had his son jailed for public drunkenness. One of the Clooney children, Andy, drowned as a boy swimming in the Ohio River. But the others survived and remained close. They included Betty, who sang professionally for a while with Rosemary; and Nick, who became a television performer. Another sibling, Gail, did not venture into show business.
When Rosemary was 10 and in the fourth grade, she made her acting debut in a school production of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," in which she played the witch. That same year her paternal grandmother died, sending her father into an intensified period of drinking. Rosemary and her siblings were sent to live with her mother's family, the Guilfoyles. After Rosemary completed the sixth grade her grandmother took her to Ironton, Ohio, east of Maysville. Two years later, they moved to Cincinnati.
Rosemary and her sister Betty began to sing publicly, at first for political rallies for her grandfather, who was mayor of Maysville, later at amateur contests throughout northern Kentucky and southern Ohio.
When Rosemary was in high school and Betty was in junior high, radio station WLW in Cincinnati conducted a talent contest. The sisters won and for a time were heard seven nights a week, earning $20 each.
The sisters began to sing with Barney Rapp's big band, which performed around Cincinnati. An agent for Tony Pastor heard them, and for the next three years the Clooney Sisters became vocalists for the Pastor big band.
Grandmother Guilfoyle , who sewed as well as she could cook, made them dresses, and one of their uncles, George Guilfoyle, accompanied them on the band bus to make certain that they were not led astray by any of Mr. Pastor's musicians.
In 1946 Rosemary Clooney made her first solo recording, "I'm Sorry I Didn't Say I'm Sorry When I Made You Cry Last Night," which attracted attention because she sang it in a whisper that disk jockeys speculated was going to be the new style. In reality, she had been so petrified when she stood before the microphone that she could not sing the song in full voice as she had intended.
By 1947 she was gaining notice. Downbeat magazine said she had "an extraordinarily good voice, perhaps the nearest thing to Ella Fitzgerald we've ever heard." In 1948 Betty Clooney quit the Pastor band. Rosemary stayed another year before she left, hopeful of success because she had signed a contract with Columbia Records. The initial deal was that she would be paid $50 a recording, no matter how many copies it sold.
In 1950 she attracted favorable attention with an appearance on the "Songs for Sale" television show and with her recording of "Beautiful Brown Eyes," her first real hit for Columbia. She started to appear regularly on television, including the Ed Sullivan show.
But her first megahit came the next year, when Mitch Miller, the artist and repertory man at Columbia, persuaded her to sing "Come On-a My House." The song was based on something old and Armenian, updated by the novelist William Saroyan and Ross Bagdasarian, who later changed his name to David Seville and created the Chipmunks. From the instant that Ms. Clooney heard it she thought it was dreadful and told Mr. Miller she would not sing it, but he insisted, hinting broadly that if she refused, her career at Columbia might come to an end. The recording became a runaway best seller, and Ms. Clooney became a star.
The success emboldened Mr. Miller to assign her to other novelty songs, most notably "Botcha Me" and "Mambo Italiano," which also became hits. When she made her screen debut in "The Stars Are Singing," she was trumpeted as "the next Betty Hutton," and she made the cover of Time magazine in 1953 with her bouncier image.
"I always wanted to sing sad ballads, but I didn't get many opportunities," Ms. Clooney once told Stephen Holden of The Times. "If I found something I wanted to do, I had to get permission. At the same time, you can't quarrel with success. If it hadn't been for `Come on-a My House,' I probably wouldn't be here now."
Ms. Clooney remained busy and successful for the rest of the 1950's. She fell in love with Dante DiPaolo, a dancer at Paramount studios, but jilted him to marry Mr. Ferrer in 1953 and to make more movies, including "White Christmas" in 1954 with Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye and Vera-Ellen.
In the early 1960's she and Mr. Ferrer became estranged, she had an affair with the arranger Nelson Riddle that went nowhere (he was married and the father of six children) and she slowly became addicted to sleeping pills. Her work habits became erratic, and she got tagged as being undependable. She found it difficult to find work. Her singing deteriorated.
By the end of the decade, she was "dead behind the eyes," she recalled in her 1977 memoir, "This for Remembrance." "The records I did then sound like they were made underwater. I misbehaved with everyone, onstage and off." Her divorce from Mr. Ferrer became final in 1967.
In 1968 she supported the presidential aspirations of Senator Robert F. Kennedy and was standing near him when he was shot to death in Los Angeles by Sirhan Sirhan. Ms. Clooney, recalling the day in her memoir, said she was convinced that he hadn't died, that it was somehow all a big hoax.
Her self-destructive rampage continued until she spent a month in the psychiatric ward of Mount Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles. And when she emerged, she was short of money and supported herself by singing for anyone who would pay her. Mostly it was weekend work at Holiday Inns.
Her fortunes changed again in 1974 when Crosby asked her to appear with him at a show marking his 50th anniversary in show business. She did well and then made several successful tours with him and also toured with Margaret Whiting, Helen O'Connell and Rose Marie in a show called "4 Girls 4."
She suffered a setback in 1976 when her sister Betty died of an aneurysm but regained control of herself and worked on her memoirs.
Unexpectedly she ran into Mr. DiPaolo, who moved in with her and became her road manager, and in 1996 she married him in the church in Maysville where she had been baptized.
In the 1990's she recorded many songs for the Concord Jazz label, and the critics agreed that her voice had gotten better.
She is survived by her husband, Mr. DiPaolo; three sons, the actor Miguel Ferrer; Gabriel Ferrer, a painter and Episcopal priest married to Debby Boone; and the voice-over actor Rafael Ferrer; two daughters, Maria Murdoch, a designer; and Monsita Teresa Botwick; 10 grandchildren, her brother, Nick Clooney, and her sister, Gail Clooney Darley.
When she was in her 60's, Ms. Clooney said, "If you hang around long enough, you get a lot of good stuff." Most of the time, she added, her life was pretty good.