Debby Boone is not so keen on mother-in-law jokes.
It’s no secret that she and her famous mom-in-law, the late Rosemary Clooney, got along, well, famously.
The now 57-year-old daughter of 1950s and ’60s crooner Pat Boone remembers how she first met Clooney while dating one of Clooney’s sons in high school.
The son, incidentally, was not Gabriel Ferrar, the son she eventually married.
I was dating his older brother (Miguel). We dated for about two weeks and then moved on. It was nothing serious, Boone recalls.
At that point, I was 17 or 18 years old, and I knew who she was. And when I met her, I thought she was this cool singer and really elegant lady, but I didn’t know the half of who she really was.
A year later, when I started to date my husband – we’ve been married now for 34 years – I fell head-over-heels in love with her.
Boone, who performs Sunday afternoon at Niswonger Performing Arts Center in Van Wert, Ohio, says she found Clooney talented, of course. But she was also funny, tough, loving and generous to a fault, especially where grandchildren were concerned.
The mellow-voiced, blond bombshell who starred opposite Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye in the classic holiday film White Christmas, Clooney had rough times in her life – battles with bipolar disorder and addiction and divorce from actor Jose Ferrar, followed by a rocky remarriage and a second divorce.
The turmoil sidetracked her career in the 1960s. For a while, Clooney was known as the singer who swore at audiences and had a nervous breakdown onstage.
But Boone watched as Clooney rebounded in the late 1970s, around the same time Boone was having success with her own mega-hit, You Light Up My Life.
Clooney morphed into an in-demand singer for supper clubs and performing-arts centers, Boone says, but she always made time for her.
Having the privilege of knowing her and working with her, being around her, and hearing her talk and being onstage with her and listening to her record; to me, it was a master class. It really was, Boone says.
I think she had the strongest influence on me (of anyone) in my career.
That’s why the woman Boone simply refers to as Rosemary is never too far from her mind.
In 2005, Boone, who toured with Clooney’s Christmas show for eight years, recorded Reflections of Rosemary, dedicated to Clooney, who died in 2002 of lung cancer.
Boone’s new recording and show, Swing This, draws on the swing era of Clooney’s heyday, as well as reprising some of Clooney’s famous songs.
I had the idea to go back to Las Vegas in the 1960s, where I really believe the seed of my dream of becoming a singer was born, Boone says.
I was 8, and my dad was headlining at The Sands, which was the place to be in Las Vegas. It was the most exciting, glamorous place I’d ever been. People didn’t go (to the casino or a show) in jeans back then, she continues with a laugh.
I felt it was like I was the little kid being able to come downstairs to the grown-up party when you were supposed to be in bed. It was the Rat Pack/Mad Men’ era, and it really influenced me.
In the show, Boone includes songs and stories about people she met then – Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin.
Two of her favorite numbers are swing standards – the sultry Mexican mambo Sway, done famously by Martin, and Mack the Knife.
They’re fun to perform and a little daring – I mean, Mack the Knife’ is so associated with Frank (Sinatra) and Bobby (Darin) and Louis (Armstrong), and now I’m going to take a crack at it?
So I know it’s a little risky in one way – you’re kind of putting yourself out there, and it’s easy to take a pot shot, she says.
But I don’t care. It’s so exciting and so fun. I have my own way of doing these songs. My hope and goal is that the audience will be having as much fun experiencing them as an audience as I am as a performer.
Boone says the biggest thing she learned from Clooney is the value of quality. She says her mother-in-law always surrounded herself with top talent in musicians, arrangers and musical directors – Nelson Riddle, Billy May and John Oddo, to name a few.
Boone continues to use some of Clooney’s collaborators, including Oddo, Clooney’s longtime musical director. She also uses vocal arrangements she was lucky enough to be bequeathed.
For Clooney, It was always about gathering the best songs and the best arrangements – it wasn’t about chasing the latest pop song, Boone says.
When she sang, it was coming from a deeper place within herself. She brought herself and who she was and her life experience into the heart of these great songs and performed them with these great musicians.
It was elegant, and it was simple, but it was first class. Once I got exposed to that, there was no other way.