|Bob Thompson Music|
[The stories here come from the Rosemary Clooney autobiography with my memories thrown in where indicated. -ST]
For Rosemary Clooney, the words of a song were the bridge to the audience and just as important as the music. In her autobiography, Girl Singer, she says: "I only knew one way to sing a song. The words had to mean something and you had to be sure you knew what they meant before you started to sing." This attitude helped her connect with audiences and contributed to her becoming one of the most famous people on the planet in the 50s and 60s, as big as her nephew George is now. She was presented as the Girl Next Door by the record companies and she knew who she was musically. Rosie calls herself "a sweet singer with a big band sensibility.“
Bob Thompson was one of Rosemary Clooney's arrangers and touring bandleader in the 1960s. His big band background, light touch, and inventiveness with a pop orchestra made them a musical match--as you can hear an RCA album they recorded together called Clap Hands! Here Comes Rosie.
Rosie preferred Sinatra to the country music she had heard in her small Kentucky hometown, "[admiring] his beautiful, clear diction: He dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s in every word.“ That’s what I hear in the way she splashes in to the word "fresh" in my favorite Bob and Rosie number: "Aren’t You Glad You’re You."
Every time you're near a rose
aren't you glad you've got a nose?
And if the dawn is fresh with dew,
aren't you glad you're you!“
The song is a bubbly, but not silly, and crisp as a spring morning. The flutes flap along like butterflies.
Ella Fitzgerald was the master of breaking up a song into a hundreds of syllables where each note seemed to have its own identity. She was another influence on Rosie, although once her uncle (and manager) danced by the stage and shouted "Go Ella!“. Rosie said she never tried to imitate anyone again after that moment. Of Ella she said, "...that sound flowed out with no effort at all. If I had never believed in God before, I believed when I listened to her sing.“
The Push to Pop
A song Rosie didn’t want to sing – "Come On-a My House" - was her breakthrough song. Rosie considers her signature song to be "Tenderly" (neither recorded with Bob). She was pushed in to "Come on-a...:" by her manager even though she had resisted it as a "novelty" song with a corny accent written into the lyrics! You can also here the push to pop in the title track of the Bob-arranged Clap Hands! Here comes Rosie! It was most likely a flop and features Bob’s game attempt at using – you guessed it – clapping hands in the background. This try-hard number reminds me of Frank Sinatra’s attempt at the title track of Nice and Easy, which is a brilliant LP the rest of the way. "You Go to My Head" from that record is on heavy rotation at my house. In the mid to late 60s many jazz and pop musicians started to cover Beatles songs, contributing to a glut of "Yesterdays."
The Love and Art of Music Arranging
Three of the best pop arrangers in the world were working for RCA in the early 60s: Bob, Billy Mae, and Nelson Riddle. (Bob told me that he and Rosie accompanied Billy Mae on a date, where she was obliged to play the role of the beard.)
Rosie admitted in her autobiography that she developed crushes on many of her bandleaders. My mom used to roll her eyes and say: "Of course she liked him! She’d write notes to him that said, 'Bobbie darling'". Rosie had a prosperous love life even though she was marketed as the 1950s Girl Next Store. Although there were no sparks between Rosie and Bob, she and master arranger Nelson Riddle had a love affair. When they recorded Love together, tears came down Rosie’s face as sang a song while watching Nelson from across the room. The songwriter (not Bob) was disappointed to hear it was not his song that moved her!
We also treasure a note from Rosie that says "Bobby Dear you are one hell of an arranger“ and in the book she calls Bob "a top notch musician who studied music theory.“ Rosie is what my dad would call a "real musician who knew how to swing" and was never - in my dad’s most damning phrase - "a showboat.“
The title Girl Singer takes its name from a pejorative term for big band ladies that were treated as window dressing. That wasn't Rosie. Seeing her voice as part of larger musical presentation, Rosie as a girl she would sing a capella in the house and pause for a number of bars when the orchestra "played."
About Bob she said:
"[Bob] has no illusions about the chaos arrangers have to run into order. [He said] you sit down and make parts for every player who is sitting there and hopefully out of that mess will come something pleasing."
If you knew Bob the tendency to describe everything in negative terms is evident in that quote!
"A good arranger reads the words and knows exactly what the song should convey. He knows which words the orchestration should support and what mood it should create.“
You can hear that sensibility in the solo cello that mournfully announces the song "Black Coffee," on the second-and-last Bob/Rosie collaboration, Thanks for Nothing.
Bob's arrangement of Black Coffee
When Love was re-released on CD decades later, RCA included "Black Coffee." Unfortunately, that is the only cut from Thanks for Nothing that made the cut; both Rosie and Michael Feinstein say that LP is not her best work. She always had sounded light, not lugubrious, and the stone-faced cover just doesn't seem like her. Her husband’s infidelity and the end of the Riddle affair had gotten to her. Denial and downers were the easy answer. Once pointed out, I can hear the drugs in this album but "Black Coffee" really does sound great.
Bob’s single inclusion in the reissue of Love – side-by-side with Nelson's arrangements – captures what I call the "almost“ nature of Bob’s career and its redemption at the same time. It’s clear from her book that Rosie’s favorite arranger was Nelson. Although he writes wondrous musical tapestries, I feel he‘s too extravagant and lugubrious at times. But I am the ultimate interested party!
Ups and Downs
Bob and Rosie's LPs were recorded after her initial rise to fame. Sales were declining sales as the Rock era began. Bob saw Elvis in the halls of a recording studio and described them as "hudlums." In Rosie's book Bob describes Rock as "the end of music as we know it." At the same time – the early 60s – Bob’s solo orchestral albums more or less flopped and "they couldn't figure out what to do with me."
Rosie sang every possible kind of song, children’s songs, a few novelties (like "Come on-a..."), standards, show tunes, and American Song Book. Bob was called in to orchestrate a record where she was paired with Bing Crosby in the unremarkable How the West was Won: a collection of western tunes. Bing was not Bob’s favorite artistically, and representative of a sensibility that Bob wanted to leave behind. Bob said he would sing anything for a buck and was not the warmest person. Rosie describes Bing turning and quietly facing the wall when too many people were in the recording studio. Sounds about right!
The Long Road
Bob and Rosie had similar roots as country folk, with origins in Shasta County and Kentucky respectively. Rosie began her in high school, singing at a local radio station with her sister. Radio stations back then were little media centers, with musicians, broadcasters, and radio shows. Bob did his first arrangements at a radio station in San Francisco‘s Marina district at the time, living in the basement of an apartment of one of the station managers.
It‘s a long way from the country to the Copa – one of the most elegant rooms in new York – and they both made the journey. They toured around the world; and my dad, the small town kid, was thrilled. I also believe they played for some of the Kennedys at a fundraiser. At home we had the program for the event covered in red wax drippings. Must have been a lot of drinking involved.
Rosie’s rise to celebrity was Sputnik-like: from singing on the local radio to to getting a call from the White House, throwing on a strapless Edith Head dress with a low neckline, and meeting JFK who asked how the dress stayed up. Pretty glamorous. She seems totally guileless and comfortable with meeting everybody from her friend Marlene Dietrich to Marlon Brando who walked in to a party cradling his pet raccoon. (Sounds about right, too.)
Bob spoke kindly of the man who convinced Rosie to record Come on-a My House, Jose Ferrer. He was just the kind of man that Bob got excited about – very highly educated, high energy, and man of the world. Jose told Rosie about the intellectual underpinnings of the song being Armenian folk songs that were accompanied by a plucked instrument which you can hear on the arrangement (not Bob’s). Bob had an intellectual voraciousness that came from his feeling of deprivation in his home town. I can imagine Bob almost wagging his tail with excitement, quizzing Jose about his acting and all that he knew.
Jose was rarely on the road with Rosie – contributing to their estrangement – but in one case they were in Ireland with Bob. A mutual friend told Jose and Rosie to keep their distance from Samuel Beckett because of the writer‘s "aversion to adulation“. Things didn’t go as planned according to a 1978 biography of Beckett:
"[Bob] however was so surprised to meet Beckett that he lavished praise on him and then fired questions about his writing. As always the question turned to the question of Beckett’s indebtedness to Joyce: Yes I did a great deal of work for Mr. Joyce...a man for whom I hold enormous respect.‘ Then as if he wanted to be sure that Thompson understood what he was saying, enunciating carefully Beckett replied at length to the question...“
I am sure he did. Bob pulled out some of his own stationary and had Beckett write "Wait for Godot“ rather than the title of his absurdist play Waiting for Godot. Well, he signed it insulted, puzzled, or not! With Bob were always waiting for his “Come on-a…”; we had a little statue of Sisyphus at the house.
The Greatest Generation
I was also pleased to read in Girl Singer about Bob trying to help Rosie at a time when her career was waning and she was broken up about a much-younger lover in her band. He also urged her to jump under the table when the shots rang out in the Ambassador hotel. Bob told me he told Rosie that the gunshots that killed RFK were a car backfiring. She pretty much lost it.
The word I would use to best describe Rosemary Clooney's singing is tasteful. I am grateful that Bob was there for and that he was mentioned in a book where he is not the star - a tasteful thing to do.
"Oh an arranger from, Holl-y-wood!"
That's what Dizzy Gillespie said when my dad was introduced to him as such. Bob said: "As soon as I heard that introduction I thought Oh boy, here it comes!" I'm proud that dad was introduced to the Bach of his time, and it is certainly an honor to meet someone like that even if taken down a notch or three! However, Bob in no way thought of himself in the same universe as Dizzy.
Charlie Parker's Hot House Video
I stumbled on a pretty unique performance of Hot House from 1952 on YouTube because of the
encounter between Earl Wilson and Charlie Parker that comes before he launches in to Hot House, one of the definitive be-bop songs. The show was called Stage Entrance, and Wilson, a New York Post columnist, hands Bird a plaque for winning a Downbeat award. It's weird to see the equivalent of Mozart getting a little wooden award for making good music. AWKWARD. In all fairness Wilson was not with Downbeat, and that publication has been a respected champion of the art form for over 60 years; and I imagine its editors would appreciate the moment's irony and awkwardness.
"...if you don't mind"
"If you don't mind"! There's so much in those four words and the exchange, although at face value there is so little. The moment is more than just AWKWARD.
Scott Yanow in Jazz on Film calls Wilson "moderately prejudiced and somewhat befuddled" while David Yaffe takes it further in Fascinating Rhythm: Reading Jazz in American Writing:
Yaffe fills in a blank when he describes what came before the You Tube clip in question:
I broke the satirical slogan of YouTube, and did read the video's comments; and there's some disagreement as to whether or not the moment has any racial context, and what the look on Bird's face (about 30 seconds in) means. Yaffe calls it a "furious glance." At the very least there are racial overtones to this scene. It also may be the melody itself. There is a kind of simultaneous disconnect between Bird's place in musical history and the plaque, and between the sounds we hear on YouTube and at what point in American history this chat takes place. In this video you see both.
Yaffe says Hot House is a reworking of a genteel Cole Porter tune, which is renamed, given a be-bop edge, and turned into a "withering musical response" to the situation to what immediately preceded it.
Other than meeting him, my dad told me a few things about Dizzy over the years, I suppose through other musicians. Some racist guy was hassling Bird and grabbing him while Dizzy shouted: "Unhand him, you cur!" - answering savagery with sophistication. He also told me that Dizzy that was very good with money and that many musicians were not.
As Bob said about his much less significant advertising awards, "none of them are worth a red cent."
Spenser Thompson shares anecdotes, music, and videos from Bob Thompson's music career plus thoughts on artists from Duke to Devo.