Entertainment » Music

’Unforgettable’ Benefit Celebrates Two Great ’Mad Men’-Era Artists

by John Amodeo
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Saturday Nov 10, 2012

You might not think it, but Nat King Cole and Rosemary Clooney had a lot in common. They both came from musical families, began their performing careers in their teens singing with a sibling, had successful recording careers in the 1950's, hosted their own television variety shows in the same year, worked with exceptional arranger Nelson Riddle, and left a legacy of recordings that place them among the master interpreters of the Great American Songbook.

They also had one far less enviable thing in common: they both died of lung cancer, Cole at the young age of 46 in 1965, and Clooney, far later at the age of 74 in 2002. This Monday, November 12, five local cabaret performers will appear at the Lyric Stage for one night only, called "Unforgettable: Celebrating the Music of Nat King Cole and Rosemary Clooney," presented by Upstage Lung Cancer in its fourth annual benefit for lung cancer awareness and research.

"In the past two shows we honored two fabulous composers who lost their lives to lung cancer--Frank Loesser and Leonard Bernstein," notes cabaret singer Hildy Grossman, herself a lung cancer survivor and founder of Upstage Lung Cancer. "I like the idea of honoring great musical talents who lost their lives to lung cancer. I reviewed some of the vocalists who lost their voices to lung cancer and realized that Rosey and Nat [King Cole] are from the same era, inspire much of the same nostalgia, and taking their music together would make a spectacular show.  I also thought that people are so fascinated with the TV show 'Mad Men'--the era of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Nat and Rosey personify the best of the pop songs of this time."

First African American host

Cole, who began his own jazz combo, the King Cole Trio, helped build the recording empire that would become Capitol Records, feeding them a string of hits that began with "Straighten Up and Fly Right," which Cole wrote himself. Eschewing the popular big band sound, he popularized the jazz trio of piano, bass, and guitar that typified his early sound. Cole is best known for such hits as "Mona Lisa," "Too Young," and of course, the iconic "Unforgettable," a song his daughter Natalie famously used in a posthumous duet with her father to reinvent herself as a jazz vocalist.

Cole’s charm, good looks, and appealing smooth jazz vocals helped usher him into circles and opportunities that few other performers of color were afforded in the 1940s and 1950s. Cole created controversy as the first African American host of a television variety show, "The Nat King Cole Show," in 1956. And not a holiday season has gone by since 1946 that doesn’t find his version of "The Christmas Song" playing in the background somewhere.

Reinvented in the 1970s

Clooney also left her mark on the holiday season, starring with Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye and Vera Ellen in the wildly popular film "White Christmas," in 1954. By that time, Clooney was already a household name, having begun a recording career in the late 1940s with Columbia Records, and landing major success with her recording of "Come On-a My House," which opened doors for her everywhere. Like Cole, she had her own television variety show, "The Rosemary Clooney Show," in 1956 and had a string of hits with various record labels, such as "Tenderly," "In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening," "Hey, There," "Blue Moon," and "Too Close for Comfort." Like Cole, she worked with Nelson Riddle, with whom she was romantically involved, and sang regularly with Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin.

In 1968, struggling with depression compounded by an addiction to pills and alcohol, Clooney suffered a nervous breakdown that stalled her career for nearly a decade. But she returned in 1976, and reinvented herself as a cabaret singer and began a long recording relationship with Concord Jazz that lasted 25 years, making over 30 recordings. Her gigs at Rainbow and Stars atop Rockefeller Center were sold out affairs, and her goal in those years was to feature the songwriters of the American Songbook, especially, Harold Arlen, Irving Berlin, Jimmy Van Huesen, Rodgers and Hart, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and songs from Broadway Musicals. Johnny Mercer being one of her favorites, she championed a song with a once lost lyric of his, that Barry Manilow put to music for the first time years after Mercer’s death. The song is the heartrending gem, "When October Goes."

Celebrating the ’Mad Men’ era

The Upstage Lung Cancer benefit, "Unforgettable" will try to recapture the romance and sophistication epitomized by the music Cole and Clooney made famous. For this, Grossman has assembled some of the area’s top cabaret and theatre performers Leigh Barrett, Brian De Lorenzo, Paula Markowicz, and Scott Wahle, in addition to herself, to present this treasured material.

The performers all leapt at the chance to participate in this benefit when they learned of the theme. Barrett says "I LOVE both of these amazing artists and their music. It’s an honor to sing their songs," while De Lorenzo added, "I knew we would be singing some wonderful songs from the Great American Songbook. "For Markowicz, who gets to sing the title song, "Unforgettable," and the wistful "I’ll Be Seeing You," it is even more personal. "My sister, also named Rosemary, passed away from uterine cancer a year ago this month," recounts Markowicz. "I see her everywhere...in all the old familiar places."

Markowicz also notes, "It is always such a blow to the music industry when we lose giants like these two. From the beautiful, silky smooth voice of Nat King Cole to the spunky, playful and moving Rosemary Clooney, to be taken by this terrible disease is nothing short of tragic." Wahle elaborates, "This was my parents’ generation, and everyone smoked! Pro athletes-Joe DiMaggio, for goodness sake - were spokesmen for cigarette companies! It was a different time. Today, we know that smoking can kill you, and you wonder why it didn’t occur to anyone back then that inhaling pollution into your lungs was a dangerous thing to do."

Surprisingly, Cole believed that smoking three packs a day gave his baritone voice its rich sound, and he would chain smoke several cigarettes in rapid succession just prior to recording a song. His premature death at 46 could likely be traced directly back to that regimen.

But "Unforgettable" is more about celebrating Cole’s and Clooney’s marvelous musical legacy. On hand as emcee will be the ever-perky Joyce Kulhawik. De Lorenzo, who gets to swing on Cole’s "Day In, Day Out" in the show, effuses, "Just the act of singing these songs brings me joy. And I’m pretty sure that hearing the songs brings joy to the audience, which brings me even MORE joy.!" Grossman, who looks forward to having fun with "Come On-a My House," arranged for vocal trio with De Lorenzo and Barrett, muses,"Both Cole and Clooney were able to access the listener’s emotions. --But-- particular emotions-- comfort, sweetness, reminiscence, sadness, deep pleasure.  In our current life of razzle dazzle, hurry up, hype it up, --listening to either Nat or Rosemary legitimize moments to sit quietly and listen to wonderful jazz music and savor life."

"Unforgettable: Celebrating the Music of Nat King Cole and Rosemary Clooney" will be performed on Nov. 12,2012, at 7:30pm at The Lyric Stage, 140 Clarendon Street, Boston, MA. Tickets: $40 and $100. For tickets, visit: www.upstagelungcancer.org or www.lyricstage.com, or call 617.585.5678.

John Amodeo is a free lance writer living in the Boston streetcar suburb of Dorchester with his husband of 23 years. He has covered cabaret for Bay Windows and Theatermania.com, and is the Boston correspondent for Cabaret Scenes Magazine.


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