The year was 1929. At the age of six, Rose Marie Mazzetta headlined a Warner Bros. Vitaphone short film entitled Baby Rose Marie: The Child Wonder. The star was already a showbiz veteran, having begun performing at the age of three; at five, she was offered a seven-year contract by the NBC radio network. Though Rose Marie would soon drop the "Baby," she would remain a wonder as, simply, "Rose Marie" for the entirety of her extraordinary career which ultimately spanned ten decades until her death at the age of 94 in 2017. Director Jason Wise's documentary Wait for Your Laugh - which premiered earlier that year with its subject in attendance - celebrated an unsurpassed legacy of entertainment. Though viewers were likely familiar with Rose Marie's seminal turns as wisecracking comedy writer Sally Rogers on The Dick Van Dyke Show, Doris Day's pal Myrna Gibbons on The Doris Day Show, or as herself on the original Hollywood Squares, the film shed light on her incredible early years on stage, screen, radio, and records. It's that last aspect of Rose Marie's history that might still be the least well-known; yet thanks to her 1932 hit "Say That You Were Teasing Me," she was the last-surviving recording artist to have a hit record pre-World War II. Now, The Rose Marie Estate and Sepia Records have given longtime fans - and new ones, too - the chance to explore Rose Marie's discography with the delightful new release Rose Marie Sings: The Complete Mercury Recordings and More. Its 29 tracks span almost thirty years, 1938-1966.
Rose Marie had already recorded for labels including Victor (home of "Say That You Were Teasing Me"), Bluebird, and Brunswick by the time she joined Mercury in 1946. No less an eminence than George Gershwin was enthusiastic about Rose Marie's gifts as a vocalist; the booklet reprints a clipping in which the esteemed composer (who died in 1937) selects five female singers who "have a true conception of rhythm and its interpretation...One of these is Baby Rose Marie, juvenile song stylist. The youngster, he understands, has an absolute understanding of and feeling for rhythm." (The others on his list? Ethel Merman, Mildred Bailey, Sophie Tucker, and Tess Gardella, a.k.a. Aunt Jemima.) That sure sense of rhythm is evident on the two brassy, swingin' single sides which open this set, "My Mama Says 'No-No'" and "I'm Crying My Heart Out Over You." (The latter song will be recognizable to Dick Van Dyke Show fans!) These 1946 recordings - as well as the familiar Italian tune "Chen' a' Luna" and "In the Land of the Buffalo Nickel" - featured accompaniment from the orchestra of Dick Maltby, father of Broadway lyricist Richard Maltby, Jr. (Miss Saigon, Baby). Subsequent sessions would team Rose Marie with such bandleaders as future Dick Van Dyke Show theme composer Earle Hagen, Hal Hastings (original Broadway conductor of Cabaret and Company), Van Alexander and Carl Stevens. The Hagen sessions would welcome Rose Marie's husband Bobby Guy on trumpet.
The first nineteen tracks on Rose Marie Sings comprise her complete Mercury output; eight of these were compiled as the 10-inch LP Show Stoppers. Despite the title, the album didn't feature Broadway showtunes (wouldn't that have been something!) but rather consisted primarily of novelty tunes. Though she could handle "straight" material with brash aplomb, Rose Marie gamely drew on her Italian heritage for the humorous likes of "Open Up That Door, Mama" and "Romo, The Romeo of Rome." She wasn't limited to an Italian accent; Jimmy Durante was a specialty of hers, as can be heard here on a cover of his infectious novelty "Chidabee, Chidabee, Chidabee." These recordings are still charming mainly due to Rose Marie's distinctive comic timing, every bit as strong as her sense of rhythm. She shines just as bright on the straightforward material including Johnny Burke and Jimmy Van Heusen's droll "Love Is the Darndest Thing" (introduced by Betty Hutton in the film Cross My Heart) and the ballad "You're Not Worth My Tears." Burt Bacharach's future lyrical partner joined with composer Leon Carr for "That's a Fine, Fine Howdy Ya Do," a typical slice of '50s pop delivered with gusto by Rose Marie.
Some might be surprised to find that Rose Marie wrote a number of the Mercury sides herself - no small feat in an era where female songwriters were far and few between. The boisterous "Oh, Maria" was one of her own songs (co-written with Bud Green and Beasley Smith) that remained in her stage act for years. The assured and sassy "Pappy" and Italian-flavored "Cheap Tomatoes" and "The Ice Man" all came from her pen. Before they were paired as co-workers Sally Rogers and Buddy Sorrell on The Dick Van Dyke Show's show-within-a-show The Alan Brady Show, Rose Marie and Morey Amsterdam were longtime friends and collaborators. They co-wrote "Chenaluna Rock and Roll," a timely 1957 update of "Chen' a' Luna" (which by then had already become a staple of her club act).
An album's worth of bonus rarities rounds out Rose Marie Sings, the earliest of which is 1938's "You Better Change Your Tune." Collectively, these beautifully showcase the singer's range and versatility. Rose Marie is a precocious teen on this track, sounding years beyond her age in both voice and confidence. ("I had a deep voice, not like Shirley Temple but more like Sophie Tucker," she once freely admitted.) Her own, lively "This Is It" is joined by a clutch of wonderfully-sung American standards including "My Blue Heaven" (1951, with Bobby Guy on trumpet), a jazz-infused "Somebody Loves Me," commanding "One for My Baby" (both 1955, with Frank DeVol's Orchestra), swinging "Cotton Fields" (1964, from The Dick Van Dyke Show), lush "Little Girl Blue" (1966), and delicious "I Wanna Be Around" (1963, also from DVD). Both "One for My Baby" and "I Wanna Be Around" were co-written by Johnny Mercer; Rose Marie had starred opposite Phil Silvers in Mercer's 1951 Broadway musical Top Banana and its 1954 filmed version.
Best of all are two cuts from Arthur Laurents, Jule Styne, and Stephen Sondheim's 1959 musical Gypsy. Rose Marie recorded both "Some People" and "Small World" as an audition to dub Rosalind Russell's vocals for the 1962 Warner Bros. film version. (Ethel Merman introduced both songs as Madame Rose onstage.) Lisa Kirk ultimately got the job, but it's fascinating to hear these fully orchestrated takes. As Rose Marie channels Russell's rasp, she sounds as if she's holding back from fully unleashing her own personality and strong belt. One thing is clear, though: she would have made one hell of a Rose herself.
Rose Marie Sings: The Complete Mercury Recordings and More has been produced by Kathy R. Brown and mastered from various sources by Robin Cherry. The CD is handsomely packaged with a 12-page booklet containing heartfelt (not to mention informative) liner notes from the star's daughter Georgiana "Noopy" Rodrigues as well as photos and memorabilia. It's a stellar tribute to a consummate entertainer on the occasion of what would have been her 100th birthday. One hopes Sepia will follow this release up with Rose Marie's 1963 Kapp album Songs for Single Girls as well as more from her musical archives. In the meantime, Rose Marie Sings is sure to bring a smile - or 29! It makes for a welcome almost-80 minutes spent with one of showbiz's all-time great ladies.