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'White Christmas': A Holiday Concert With Rosemary Clooney

To celebrate Christmas, Fresh Air listens back to a concert given by the late singer and actress on Feb. 11, 1997. Clooney spoke about her childhood and working with Bing Crosby and Billy Strayhorn.

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Other segments from the episode on December 25, 2020

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 25, 2020: Interview with Rebecca Kilgore; Interview with Rosemary Clooney.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Well, many of us can't be where we want to be this Christmas or celebrate the holiday with the friends and family we hope to be with. But no matter where you are and whether you're with friends, family or alone today, we hope you enjoy the music we're going to present. First, we go into our archive for this 2005 holiday concert by jazz singer Rebecca Kilgore. We like her so much. We've had her perform several times on the show. In The Wall Street Journal, Will Friedwald described Kilgore as the living embodiment of the hippest singers of the big-band era. She's made over 50 albums - including solo albums, albums with Dave Frishberg and with the Rebecca Kilgore Quartet, which was formerly known as BED. The trombonist from the quartet, Dan Barrett, joined her for this performance, along with Italian pianist Rossano Sportiello.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: Dan, Rossano, Becky, welcome, all of you, to FRESH AIR. Becky, you've chosen some songs that I'm confident will be new - Christmas songs that will be new to most of our listeners, even though they are very old songs. But I'd like to start with a familiar one, one that happens to be one of my favorites. Would you introduce it for us?

REBECCA KILGORE: Sure. It's also one of my favorites. It's from a 1944 movie, "Meet Me In St. Louis." It was sung by Judy Garland. And let's dedicate it to Hugh Martin. He co-wrote it with Ralph Blane. It's so pretty. It's called "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas."

(Singing) When the steeple bells sound their A, they don't play it in tune. But the welkin will ring one day, and that day will be soon. Have yourself a merry little Christmas. Let your heart be light. Next year, all our troubles will be out of sight. Have yourself a merry little Christmas. Make the Yuletide gay. Next year, all our troubles will be miles away. Once again, as in olden days, happy golden days of yore. Faithful friends who were dear to us will be near to us once more. Someday soon, we all will be together, if the Fates allow. Until then, we'll have to muddle through somehow. So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.

GROSS: That was a beautiful rendition of that. Thank you, Becky. Rossano Sportiello is at the piano, Dan Barrett on trombone. It's funny how some of the most beautiful Christmas songs are the sad ones.

KILGORE: Yes, it is a sad song, but that's part of the bittersweet pathos of the season.

GROSS: Becky, is Christmas a good time for a singer? Do you look forward to having to sing all the Christmas songs?

KILGORE: Sure. You get to bring out your old friends from the previous - last year songs that you haven't had a chance to sing all year. And people really resonate with them, so it's a lot of fun.

GROSS: I'd like to really just go around the room for a second and ask you all to name a song that you really love from Christmas and a song that you are really tired of or you think is really musically trite, and you wish it would be put aside for a good many years. Dan, you want to start?

DAN BARRETT: Well, I guess my favorite would be "O Little Town Of Bethlehem." I remember when I was first starting to play trombone, and my friends and I would get together and play all of the old traditional Christmas carols with a brass choir walking around the neighborhood. And that was a particular favorite of mine, "Little Town Of Bethlehem." I'm not sure that I have any least favorites because when Christmas comes around, I kind of like all of the songs. I get sentimental. In fact, I'm so sentimental, I even like "The Chipmunks Song."

GROSS: (Laughter). Rossano, do you hear a lot of these songs in Italy?

ROSSANO SPORTIELLO: Yes. But, you know, I'm sorry for Rebecca, but I should say that my favorite Christmas song is just "Jingle Bells," you know, because I'm a fan of Fats Waller. And he recorded that playing that stride. Fantastic, you know?

GROSS: How true. How true.

SPORTIELLO: So that's why.

GROSS: Becky, do you have a favorite song and one you'd like to see retired?

KILGORE: I'm going to plead the Fifth because I think it's incumbent upon the musician to make what they can out of a song. You know, we've already done "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas." I think that's just about my favorite. But I'll just let the others fall where they may.

GROSS: OK. Well, I promised our listeners some songs that they probably are not familiar with. So you've got another one - one that Bessie Smith recorded.

KILGORE: Yes, 1925 - early Bessie Smith. It was a - I guess, quite a hit for her. It's called "At The Christmas Ball."

One, two - one, two, three. (Singing) Christmas comes but once a year. And to me, it brings good cheer - and to everyone who likes wine and beer. Happy New Year is after that. Happy I'll be - that is a fact. That is why I like to hear folks who say that Christmas is here.

Christmas bells will ring real soon, even in the afternoon. You'll hear those chime bells ring at the Christmas ball. Everyone will watch their step, or they will lose their rep. Everybody's full of pep at the Christmas ball.

Grab your partner, one and all. Keep on dancing around the hall. And there's no one to fall. Don't you dare to stop. If your partner don't act fair, don't worry, there's some more over there. Taking a chance everywhere at the Christmas ball. Oh, yeah.

GROSS: That's a great song. Thanks for doing that. A song from - what? - 1925?

KILGORE: Mmm hmm.

GROSS: That was Becky Kilgore singing, with Dan Barrett on trombone and Rossano Sportiello at the piano. And he's visiting New York from Italy, where he lives.

How about another winter song for our end of the year concert, one that I think should be one of the winter classics along with "Let It Snow" and "Baby, It's Cold Outside." And this is one written by your friend, Becky, and a great friend of our show, too.

KILGORE: Sure. We've been on your show many times. Dave Frishberg - he's a cohort from Portland, Ore. And he wrote this song in 1994. And it's exciting, I actually remember when he wrote it. And I love it very much. It's called "Snowbound."

(Singing) The north winds blow. It's 12 below. Streets like ice - ain't it nice to be snowbound? No place to go hip-deep in snow. We're all right tucked in tight 'cause we're snowbound. Yes, we're snowbound.

The bad news is the weather man says more bad weather. Snowbound, the good news is that here we are, socked in together. The corn is popped. The clock is stopped. What a storm, what a sight. We'll keep warm through the night 'cause we're snowbound. Yes, we're snowbound. The bad news is the weather man says more bad weather. Snowbound - the good news is that here we are, socked in together. The corn is popped. The clock is stopped. Pass the wine. Light the fire. Half past nine, let's retire 'cause we're snowbound, snowbound. Snowbound, just us two. Snowbound, snowbound. Snowbound, me and you.

GROSS: Great song, a song written by Dave Frishberg and performed for us today by singer Becky Kilgore, trombonist Dan Barrett and at the piano Rossano Sportiello at the piano. And he's visiting New York from Italy, where he lives.

Well, next song we're going to do - this is a really fun novelty jazz song. Becky?

KILGORE: It's a great song, and I'm very excited about doing it. It's called "Santa Claus Blues." It's quite old. It's from 1924. And we actually borrowed a portion of an arrangement by John Sheridan of this song. It was recorded by a dear friend, a great vocalist, Banu Gibson. Thank you, John and Banu, for allowing us to use this arrangement of "Santa Claus Blues."

(Singing) The merry bells are ringing today, but they don't mean nothing to me. I hear the children singing today, but I'm as blue as I can be. Oh, Santa Claus forgot my address. That's one thing I can plainly see. It may be Christmas to some folks. It's just December 25 to me. No money, no honey to buy a present for me. Nobody, no toddy to make things pleasant for me. Last night my stocking I hung, just like when I was young. But this morning, there was vacancy. No mingling, no jingling of coin. No pickin' on chicken, a pork chop tenderloin. And soon I'll hear the Happy New Year chimes. That just means that there's more hard times. Bad luck, you're hard to lose. I got the Santa Claus blues. (Scatting).

(Singing) And no mingling - no jingling of coin. And no picking on chicken or pork chop tenderloin. It seems to me that every now and then, the poorhouse pages me again. Bad luck, you're hard to lose. I got the Santa Claus blues. I got the Santa Claus blues.

GROSS: Well, Becky, I have to thank you for introducing us to that song and for such a great performance of it. And that's singer Becky Kilgore, Rossano Sportiello at the piano, Dan Barrett on trombone. Well, at this point in our end of the year concert, I'd like you to do a song that is really about not being able to be home for Christmas, although it's called "I'll Be Home For Christmas." Would you sing it for us, Becky?

KILGORE: I sure will. It's by Kim Gannon, Walter Kent and Buck Ram - 1943 - "I'll Be Home For Christmas."

(Singing) I'm dreaming tonight of a place I love even more than I usually do. And although I know it's a long road back, I promise you I'll be home for Christmas. You can plan on me. Please have snow and mistletoe and presents on the tree.

Christmas Eve will find me where the love light gleams. I'll be home for Christmas if only in my dream.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to our concert by singer Rebecca Kilgore, with trombonist Dan Barrett and pianist Rossano Sportiello. It was a concert of Christmas and winter songs. But the year we recorded the concert - 2005 - marked the centennial of Harold Arlen's birth. So we asked the performers to do a couple of Arlen songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: Becky, the first one you're going to do is - it's a great rhythm song. And you're such a great rhythm singer, so I'm glad you chose this one. Why do you love it?

KILGORE: I love it because it moves right along, and it's peppy and fun to sing. It's from Cotton Club Parade, 22nd Edition. Ethel Waters sang it in the original production. Ted Koehler wrote the words - Harold Arlen, the music - 1933. And by the way, that same review had "Stormy Weather," another song that you're probably familiar with. But this is "Happy As The Day Is Long."

(Singing) I got my trousers pressed, shoes shiny. I got my coast and vest relined. Take a look at my lapel, see the flower. Can't you tell I'm happy as the day is long. I haven't got a dime to lend. I got a lot of time to spend. Just a pocketful of air - feeling like a millionaire. I'm happy as the day is long.

Got a heavy affair (ph). And I'm having more fun. Am I walking on air? Gee, but I'm the lucky one. I got my peace of mind, knock wood. I hear that love is blind. That's good because the things I never see never seem to worry me. So I'm happy as the day is long. I've got my trousers pressed, shoes shined. I have my coat and vest realigned. Take a look at my lapel. See the flower? Can't you tell? I'm happy as the day is long. I haven't got a dime to lend. I got a lot of time to spend. Just a pocket full of air, feeling like a millionaire, happy as the day is long. (Scatting). I'm the lucky one. I've got my peace of mind - knock wood. I hear that love is blind. That's good because the things I never say never seem to worry me so I'm happy as the day is long. I'm happy as the day is long.

GROSS: That's "Happy As The Day Is Long," sung by Rebecca Kilgore, as sung by Harold Arlen. And, of course, Harold Arlen wrote all the songs for "The Wizard of Oz." He wrote "Stormy Weather." Becky, what are some of your other favorite Arlen songs, ones that you won't be doing today?

KILGORE: It was too long a list. It was a hard assignment to pick two Harold Arlen songs. You've got "Come Rain Or Come Shine." You've got "As Long As I Live." The list was very long. So for the second selection, I chose a song from 1934. Again, words by Ted Koehler. And Dan discovered a great arrangement that Benny Goodman used for this, so we were quite taken by that. It's called "Let's Fall In Love."

One, two, one, two, three. (Singing) I have a feeling. It's a feeling I'm concealing. I don't know why. It's just a mental, incidental, sentimental alibi. But I adore you, so strong for you. Why go on stalling? I am falling. Love is calling. Why be shy? Let's fall in love. Why shouldn't we fall in love? Our hearts are made of it. Let's take a chance. Why be afraid of it? Let's close our eyes and make our own paradise. Little we know of it, still, we can try to make a go of it. We might have been meant for each other. To be or not to be, let our hearts discover. Let's fall in love. Why shouldn't we fall in love? Now is the time for it. While we are young, let's fall in love. We might have been meant for each other. To be or not to be, let our hearts discover. Let's fall in love. Why shouldn't we fall in love? Now is the time for it. While we are young, let's fall in love. Let's fall in love.

GROSS: I want to thank you all for some beautiful and moving and entertaining and fun songs. It's been a wonderful concert. And I want to join you all in wishing everybody a merry Christmas and a happy new year.

KILGORE: Thanks, Terry. It was a pleasure.

BARRETT: Thank you, Terry.

SPORTIELLO: Thanks.

GROSS: Our concert with singer Rebecca Kilgore, trombonist Dan Barrett and pianist Rossano Sportiello was recorded in 2005. Rebecca Kilgore's latest CD with guitarist Andy Brown is titled "Together - Live."
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.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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