With all the dire weather we've been having this winter, it was a grand time to catch up on a big stack of books sitting on our nightstand. With a good book, we tend to drop everything and obsess about the subject. A mediocre or fair book will get five minutes before bed and take what seems an eternity to read. So odd as it seems, we actually spend more time on books we don't care about.
Rosemary Clooney's second retelling of her life story didn't take us long to read, but it's not because it was so entrancing. In fact, it was as light and "in-depth" as a Ladies Home Journal profile. Before we share our impressions of Girl Singer, we must state for the record we're not nuts for Ms Clooney's body of work. We find her a very lazy singer with an unspectacular voice. She's not horrible by any stretch, but if she were in town, we wouldn't go to see her live and we wouldn't pay retail for her discs. We should also state that many fine people would consider us nuts for this opinion, and these people believe that Clooney is up there with Ella and Sinatra.
For what it's worth, Rosemary Clooney retells much of the same story she told in her previous biography, This for Remembrance, several years ago. There is no mention of why she tells virtually the same story again. Poor childhood, dysfunctional parents, success, indulgence, redemption. You've heard this story many times before. We have no idea what Ms Clooney is really like, and neither will you after reading this book. We do know that despite her matronly image, she's done some pretty wild things. Her Uncle George, who dropped everything to be her legal guardian and manage her career until she was of legal age, was fired the day she turned 21. Her sister, who was part of the act, is also dumped so Rosie's star can soar. Throughout the book, she takes pokes at Latin bandleader Pupi Campo, who married and allegedly abused her sister. She calls him second-rate throughout when in fact he was often quite good in a Latin-meets-Kenton kind of way. Clooney is in no position to throw stones based on her recordings. It's almost as if she's switching the blame for the way she treated her family from herself to Campo.
There's some, but not much, talk of music. When she complains about being given drivel to record, she reports that Mitch Miller told her to give her opinion when she's a million seller. Well, she becomes a big hit and the amount of garbage just increased.
Clooney had some bad luck but she can trace a lot of her problems back to her own actions.
There's something a little sad about Clooney. Her weight gain over these last years is so significant that it makes us uncomfortable to watch her talk, let alone perform. It seems as if she's made peace with most of her family and her personal devils. But this book leaves us with the nagging feeling if she'd tried harder, she could have been great: As a singer, writer and icon of popular culture. Of course, she's very popular and we're in the minority.
Nat "King" Cole deserves a much better book than Girl Singer. What he gets is almost more dangerous. Girl Singer is a frothy piece of nothing with no pretensions to be much else. Nat King Cole by Daniel Mark Epstein seems more serious (the author can read Greek!) but the reality is his reporting is erratic and sloppy and he lacks a sense of drama.
The book is refreshingly direct and to the point. We suspect some would say dry, but after Rosemary Clooney's chitchat, this is almost a treat. But as serious as Epstein wants to come off, you have to wonder about the little things that start adding up, such as why he describes the song Paper Moon as being by Billy Rose. It was co-written with Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg, two more substantial names in the world of songwriting. Those Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Days of Summer is attributed to poor Hoagy Carmichael when Hoagy had zero to do with this mess of a song. The standard Don't Blame Me becomes Don't Blame Me for Falling in Love With You. Why?
And why, in the middle of the story, does Epstein describe an event where Nat eats at Epstein's father's restaurant in Washington, D.C.? Nothing interesting happens. Who cares? We were at a Fiorucci opening once and Cher attended. Do you care? Didn't think so!
In the book, Nat's daughter Carol remembers the day her father telephoned Capitol and the receptionist offended Nat by answering, "Capitol Records, home of Elvis!" Well, Elvis recorded on RCA, not Capitol so this story makes you wonder how many things this book gets wrong.
Esptein also recounts the departure of the trio guitarist, Oscar Moore. His reasons for leaving are threefold: to get off the road, to open a record shop and to join his brother Johnny Moore's band, The Three Blazers. As Esptein puts it, "This last excuse is the saddest, a story in itself. Lee Young recalls how pathetic it was that the great Oscar Moore got lost in a band named after his brother who was a nobody." Esptein (and Young) forget to mention that among blacks of the era, Johnny Moore's band was much hotter than Nat's trio and featured the seminal vocalist Charles Brown. The Cole Trio played jazz and was much more popular among white audiences, while Moore's Blazers had a big run of blues-oriented hits among blacks during the 1940s and early '50s. Oscar Moore was joining his brother's trio at the same time Charles Brown was attempting a reunion with them. It doesn't compare to the lofty success of Nat's Mona Lisa, but it's not like Moore was playing in the lounge of the Ramada Inn, either. It stresses how this book fails to put much of Nat's life in context.
Huge chunks of Cole's artistic life are left unexplained (like his absolutely horrible later recordings in the early 1960s), yet his TV show receives page after page of attention, especially the segment with Sammy Davis, Jr. That's well and good but look up the entries for Billy May or Pete Rugolo in the index and you'll realize author Esptein can't put Nat Cole's life in perspective any better than Rosemary Clooney can do for herself.
We're not one hundred percent sure what Sessions With Sinatra is supposed to be about, really, but we don't care. At once, it's a critical look at the Sinatra catalogue of music, a diary of life in the studio, a history of recording techniques and a coffee table book loaded with great photographs. How it's a cohesive whole or how it succeeds at any of these individual goals is beyond us, but what a great time we had reading this book.
Sessions With Sinatra is a chronological history of Sinatra's time in the recording studio with large chunks of information on recording techniques and the musicians that helped create the Sinatra sound. References to Sinatra's personal life, even in relation to the sessions, are few. It ends up not mattering.
The interviews with the technicians and musicians are fascinating. Author Charles L. Granata gets them to shed light on how Sinatra worked, they way he treated his employees and how Sinatra understood, more than most of his contemporaries, that the work he was committing to vinyl was a real part of his legacy.
Every great singer of classic popular music deserves a book like this.
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