GIRL SINGER

An Autobiography

By Rosemary Clooney with Joan Barthel

Doubleday. 336 pp. $24.95

By Jonathan Yardley, whose e-mail address is yardley@twp.com.

The film appearances of Rosemary Clooney have been less than distinguished or memorable, but in the right hands and with the right leading lady her own story is the stuff of the movies. Born in 1928 in a small town in Kentucky, she started singing almost as soon as she could speak, got her first radio job when she was 16, started her apprenticeship at the tail end of the big-band era before she was 18, had her first hit record five years later, had numerous amorous liaisons before marrying a celebrated actor, went into a tailspin induced by drugs, divorced, hit bottom, pulled herself back into the limelight while finding artistic satisfaction for the first time and married the sweetheart of her youth in her 70th year.

Those are just the bare bones of it. Like many who have achieved success in show business, Clooney is a person of deep insecurities and self-doubts, which gives her a psychological connection to many who live in comparative anonymity. Still, she lives in another world. Bouncing back and forth between New York and Hollywood for half a century, with innumerable side trips to England and Europe, she made many notable friendships--Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Nat "King" Cole, Billie Holiday, Tony Bennett--and what's interesting about these is that they seem to have been genuine friendships as opposed to exercises in air-kissing.

Clooney has her self-doubts, but she seems never to have doubted that she could make it as a singer. By the time she was in high school she "felt sure" she could support herself: "My confidence seemed to come naturally, based on my early and continuing interest in music. I'd listened to so many singers that I just somehow knew I could do it as well as almost anybody." In 1946 she and her younger sister, Betty, joined the big band of Tony Pastor, which "was a defining experience in my life." The "discipline and unbroken attention" demanded when she was "singing from a bandstand with a full orchestra" shaped her singing for the rest of her life:

"I've never thought of myself as a jazz singer," she says in "Girl Singer." "I know a lot of people--musicians, mostly--do think of me that way, because I have certain jazz attributes that I can incorporate into whatever I'm singing; I have good time, and a certain way of phrasing, and I know where the beat is. But my definition of a jazz singer is an improvisational musician, like Ella [Fitzgerald], or Carmen McRae, or Mel Torme. I have very little in the way of improvisational skill, because I don't read music . . . and I don't have the ear for it. I'd call myself a sweet singer with a big band sensibility."

As a young woman she could get by on the sweetness and clarity of her voice and the girl-next-door quality it suggested. Under the decidedly mixed influence of Mitch Miller, who ran the pop shop at Columbia Records in the 1950s, she had a monster hit in 1951 with "a quasi-Armenian pseudo-folk number called 'Come On-a My House,' " which made her famous and, for a time, wealthy, but it also put her into a novelty-song rut from which she did not really emerge until the late 1970s, when she began to record for a new label called Concord Jazz.

In between "Come On-a My House" and the two dozen albums she's thus far recorded for Concord, Clooney went through her own private soap opera. She had many romances, but the big one was with Jose Ferrer, a brilliant if excessively flamboyant actor whose sophistication and patina of erudition "dazzled" her. They married in 1953. Clooney wanted to be "the perfect Fifties Wife," to "have babies," so she had six of them. But Ferrer was compulsively unfaithful--"You knew before you married me the kind of man I am," he told her. "I can't change"--and was glad to let her be the family's principal breadwinner; they separated, got back together, but in the end divorced.

By then Clooney had gotten herself into a lot of trouble with sleeping pills. In the summer of 1968, at the age of 40, she cracked up and "was locked up in the psychiatric ward" of a hospital. She gained weight at an alarming rate--she says now she's come to terms with her size--but she got what seems to have been tough, sensible counseling, and her friends came to her aid. Merv Griffin brought her onto his television show to talk about what had happened to her, Bing Crosby took her on tour, and then along came Concord, which has produced many of the finest jazz recordings of the past quarter-century.

Over the years, she says, "I'd earned a freedom, an artistic authority, that I'd never dared to imagine." Her voice isn't what it used to be--whose is?--but she's learned how to get across the meaning of lyrics and how to find a song's inner music. She's happy with her singing and happy, so it seems, with her life, which is to say the story has what Hollywood loves above all else: a happy ending.