Monday, January 19, 2015

Girl Singers

Tenderly, Rosemary Clooney, 
Darlene Love, and Bette Midler

Rosemary Clooney
Susan Haefner
     Tenderly:  The Rosemary Clooney Musical played at the Playhouse in the Park, where it was extended for three weeks.  It presents Clooney’s life, as centered around the therapy she received after her onstage nervous breakdown following Bobby Kennedy’s assassination in 1968.  Susan Haefner captured Clooney’s singing style, which was warm, engaging, and unassumingly powerful.  She was very convincing in conveying Clooney’s over-riding impulse to put on a happy face and take care of others as her world was
falling apart.

     The strong, clear-cut book by Mark Friedman and Janet Yates Vogt smartly linked Clooney’s key hits with events from her life.  Where the production needed some rethinking was in having Michael Marotta play all of the other parts.  He was sincere as her psychiatrist, but having to impersonate so many celebrities as well as female characters lurched towards a tone of camp.  Clooney had a great sense of humor, but she was never campy.  A third actor would have grounded the succession of short scenes emotionally.

Rosemary at Tall Stacks 1995
     Clooney was connected to other major artists of her generation as well as a couple of older singers, but I remember her for promoting younger singers with real talent and lower profiles.  We saw her live at Tall Stacks in 1995 and her tone was still smooth and emotionally complex, though her breath control had weakened.  She was self-deprecating, saying that the novelty songs she was assigned in the ‘50s by Mitch Miller weren’t on the level of those that Tony Bennett sang.

     Clooney referred to herself as a girl singer and, at her pop height in the ‘50s, she was one of many extraordinary female performers.  There were also Dinah Washington, Doris Day, Ella Fitzgerald (the one most likely to be played as background music nowadays), Sarah Vaughan, Peggy Lee, Dinah Shore, Carmen McRae, Jo Stafford, Patty Page, Betty Carter, Julie London, Nina Simone, and the list could go on.  Those were the solo singers sometimes working with orchestras or jazz combos.  Although there had been trios, such as the Andrews Sisters and the McGuire Sisters, it was the girl groups of the early ‘60s that defined American pop music between Elvis and The Beatles.  Once the boys were back in town with their phallic guitars, the girls were stuck under the thumb of paternalistic producers (as were some of the boys) unless they could write their own material.

Darlene Love
     Darlene Love is an incredibly gifted solo performer who provided back-up vocals to many big names from the ‘50s through the  ‘70s.  She was hired to be a solo singer by Phil Spector, but was manipulated into being listed as the lead singer of The Crystals by him instead.  (Spector decided to focus on The Ronettes and married their lead singer Ronnie instead, though she was smart enough to get out while she 
Love's Last Christmas Performance on The Late Show
could).  Love came back in the ‘80s singing in New York clubs as well as on Broadway before her annual Christmas performance on Letterman.  I saw the first couple of those performances back in the late ‘80s and then Neil and I made it an annual event to watch it the past ten years.  Love performed her last holiday gig on Letterman in December, though she left open the possibilities for touring and performing other songs on other shows.  
Darlene Love's Induction into
the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

      Bette Midler read the speech to induct Darlene Love into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011.   Darlene Love can be heard performing with Bette Midler on her recent It’s the Girls CD, which celebrates the girl groups from the ‘40s (The Andrews Sisters) through the ‘90s (TLC).  Midler experienced 
a recording resurgence in the past decade with her tribute CDs to Rosemary Clooney and Peggy Lee.  She’s always honored the girl groups back to her debut The Divine Miss M (1972) with “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and “Chapel of Love.”  

Bette Midler
     Midler has thrived in a variety of media with results that have been great, mixed, and flops, but she still goes on.  Highlights have been her first four albums and the songbooks in terms of her singing. Her most popular pop songs in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s were a little soppy and no match for the rock, country, great American songbook, and R&B selections she usually chose.  

Midler in Gypsy
     As we said a couple of weeks ago, The Rose (1979) has already captured Janis Joplin, even if some of the details were changed.  Midler was phenomenal in that and Divine Madness! (1980), and hilarious in Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986) and Get Shorty (1995).  She refused to perform as her idol Sophie Tucker, but she sort of channeled her in Gypsy (1993).  It didn’t work because she seemed desperately vulnerable, rather than monstrous, though she sang it beautifully.  Her concert and variety specials on TV have been wonderful, but her one season series Bette (2000 – 2001) was mediocre and a little generic. However, at this time of year, a couple of weeks after The Kennedy Center Honors, I gotta say that I’d honor Bette Midler and soon.  If some of our readers would go online to The Kennedy Center nominations and throw her name in, then who knows?

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