Remembering Rosemary Clooney

Another short trip back to the earliest days of the charts, when big-lunged men such as Al Martino, David Whitfield and Frankie Laine were dominating the #1 position with earnest declarations of love and faith. Elvis hadn’t arrived yet, Sinatra wasn’t the teen heart-throb of a decade before… The charts needed some sexiness, some fun…

Thank God for the girls, then. Girls like Rosemary Clooney. I’ve already posted on Kay Starr and Winifred Atwell, two contemporaries of Clooney, who brought a jazzy playfulness to their chart-topping records. But Miss Clooney, who scored Britain’s 25th and 28th #1 singles, went a step further, and brought mad-cap craziness to the pop charts.

First up came ‘This Ole House’, in November ’54. A raucous, honky tonk piano-led tale of a rundown house whose elderly inhabitant is waiting to meet the saints… There can have been very few hit songs to reference oiling hinges and fixing shingle… Here she is performing it live, and with slightly more restraint, in the ’80s.

Then just weeks later, she was back with an even better hit. Clooney was of Irish/German extraction, but that didn’t stop her hamming up an invented Italian side. The lyrics are basically nonsense, with nods to Italian, Spanish, Mexican and Neapolitan. (Sample lyric: Hey mambo, no more a-Mozzarella…) Again the energy and playfulness really stood out next to its dully earnest contemporaries. (See also her earlier hit ‘Botch a Me’ if you like the cod-Italian vibes.) ‘Mambo Italiano’ lives on in a way that few pre-rock hits do. It was remixed back into the charts in the early ’00s, and sampled more recently by Lady Gaga and Iggy Azalea.

Rosemary Clooney’s career trajectory was pretty standard for a post-war pop star. From singing with big bands, to a record label, to big hits and on to TV and films – her most famous one probably being ‘White Christmas’ alongside Bing Crosby. What wasn’t so standard was Clooney’s sleeping pill and tranquilliser dependency that developed through the sixties, that ended with her in psychoanalytic therapy for eight years.

She survived, though, came back and continued to record throughout the remainder of her life. Her final performance came just six months before she died of lung cancer in 2002. One of the pall bearers at her funeral was her nephew, George.

Rosemary Clooney, May 23rd 1928 – June 29th 2002

28. ‘Mambo Italiano’, by Rosemary Clooney & The Mellomen

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Mambo Italiano, by Rosemary Clooney (her 2nd of two #1s) & the Mellomen

1 week, from 14th to 21st Jan / 2 Weeks, from 4th to 18th Feb 1955 (3 weeks total)

Just like that, Rosemary Clooney’s pops up again. She had two number ones, within a couple of months, and then she was done. (I’m being a little disingenuous here – she was a chart force for several years – but we are only concerning ourselves with number ones hits here, no room for second best).

And good old Rosie – her time at the top may have been fleeting, but at least she had a bit of fun while she was there. This is an even more frenzied bop than ‘This Ole House’. We start out with a bit of nonsense about a girl going back to Napoli, because she misses the scenery. And then… Hey Mambo!

On first listen I thought she was really singing in Italian, but she is just listing food: Hey mambo… try an enchilada with the fish bacalla and other cod-Italian phrases. Something something mozzarella, something something Calabrese… I think there’s a Como se dice in there. To be honest, Miss Clooney doesn’t know como se dice very much at all. And anyway, that’s Spanish. But it’s OK – you can’t help but want to dance to this. For the solo, the bouncy piano from ‘This Ole House’ returns, and it ends with a brilliant That’s Nice! OOH! As for ‘The Mellomen’… who knows? They do little more than your average ’50s backing singers – a few ‘Hey Mambo’s here and there – so I’m not sure why they got a credit. But, just like that, they have a UK Number One single.

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If this were released today, people might pick up on the gibberish mix of English and Italian, and the picture it paints of Italian-Americans, and they may perhaps view it in an unfavourable light. Remember how Justin Bieber got in trouble for singing about Doritos to the tune of ‘Despacito’? But actually, this is a song about a girl returning to a native land where she now feels confused and out of touch. The lyrics are meant to be mumbo-jumbo. We’re not meant to understand them… Kinda clever when you think about it.

The song also features the line: If you gonna be a square, you ain’t a-gonna go nowhere, ‘Square’, as far as I’m concerned, is the archetypal ’50s slang word: Be there or be square… You’re so square, baby I don’t care… So, while this is a mambo record, sung by an easy-listening singer-slash-actress, this is rock ‘n’ roll. It may be fun and funky, but it just about manages to retain an air of cool around all the silliness. While we were waiting for Bill Haley to come along and kick-off things off, the ideals and attitudes, if not the actual sounds, of rock ‘n’ roll were being sneaked in right under our noses.

As with her previous chart topper, I knew this song already. Most people do. I have vague memories of a late-90s remix. Plus, Miss Clooney is remembered nowadays as the aunt of housewives’ heartthrob George Clooney. But – remixes and celebrity descendants aside – we should all take a minute to appreciate her for the few weeks, in late ’54/early ’55, when she slapped a good dollop of fun into an otherwise pretty staid and stuffy UK singles chart.