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'White Christmas': A Holiday Concert With Rosemary Clooney

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHITE CHRISTMAS")

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

GROSS: That's Rosemary Clooney. As a star of the 1954 movie "White Christmas," Clooney is one of the singers most associated with Irving Berlin's famous Christmas song. We're going to hear the onstage interview with and performance by Clooney that I recorded with her in 1997 at the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco in an event produced and presented by the City Arts & Lecture series under the direction of the late Sidney 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 splendid jazz albums. I love her singing and feel so lucky to have recorded this with her. She died five years after this recording. Accompanying her, we'll hear Charlie McCarthy, saxophone; Larry Souza, trumpet; Seward McCain, bass; Colin Bailey, drums; with pianist John Otto, who was Clooney's music director. He died last year. From our archive, here's Rosemary Clooney.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

CLOONEY: Thank you. Am I the only one in blue beads in the room tonight?

(LAUGHTER)

CLOONEY: I think so. (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 long 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 yearny. 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 yearny. Why did I decide to roam? I got to make this sentimental journey, sentimental journey home. Sentimental journey home. Sentimental journey home.

(APPLAUSE)

CLOONEY: It's wonderful. Thank you. Thank you. 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...

(LAUGHTER)

CLOONEY: That far?

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

CLOONEY: Right.

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

CLOONEY: Yes. Yes. Right.

GROSS: And I know you performed at his campaigns.

CLOONEY: Right.

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?

CLOONEY: Oh.

GROSS: What were you like on stage?

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

: (LAUGHTER).

CLOONEY: We just - we would stand on the street corners and sing songs that he liked, particularly. There was an old - there's an old (singing) spinning wheel in the parlor, and there's "An (ph) 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: Well, I asked you to choose a song to sing this evening that would evoke your childhood in Kentucky.

CLOONEY: Right.

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

CLOONEY: Right.

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.

(LAUGHTER)

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

GROSS: This though - you do this so beautifully. Would you sing it for us?

CLOONEY: Well, I will, Terry.

GROSS: Thank you.

CLOONEY: Thank you. Thank you.

(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 there 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.

(APPLAUSE)

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.

CLOONEY: Thank you. Thank you.

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

CLOONEY: Right.

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 did 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 - 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 - that when the war started, I remember the Sunday that President Roosevelt came on the radio. And 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.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Then please sing it.

CLOONEY: OK.

GROSS: I wouldn't miss this.

CLOONEY: OK. (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 tree, the wishing well.

(Singing) 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.

(MUSICAL INTERLUDE)

CLOONEY: (Singing) 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.

(APPLAUSE)

GROSS: That was beautiful.

CLOONEY: Thank you very much. Thank you. Thank you (unintelligible).

(APPLAUSE)

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 Otto on piano; Charlie McCarthy, saxophone; Larry Souza, trumpet; Seward McCain, bass; and Colin Bailey, drums. That concert was nearly 25 years ago. Since then, we've lost three of the people who were onstage that evening. Rosemary Clooney died in 2002. Her music director, John Otto, who we heard at the piano, died last year. The event was produced by the founding director of City Arts & Lectures, Sydney Goldstein, with her then-associate director Kathryn Barcos (ph). Sydney died in 2018. It was wonderful to work with her and become friends.

Monday on FRESH AIR, our guest will be Scott Frank, creator of the popular Netflix series "The Queen's Gambit." Frank also created the Western series "Godless" and wrote the screenplays for "Minority Report," "Get Shorty," "Wolverine," "Out of Sight" and the X-Men film "Logan." I hope you'll join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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