April 28, 1924– Blossom Dearie:
A lot of musicians say that they couldn’t play and sing at the same time—and singers say that they couldn’t sing and play at the same time. Well, with me it’s all just one and the same thing. I don’t like to do either one separately.
Today marks the day of the birth of a wonderful artist who is well represented in my music collection who was famous for being a bit of a recluse and guarding her privacy. I saw her perform at New York City’s Danny’s Skylight Lounge, dozens of times in the mid-1970s, when she was at the very height of her considerable talents.
Dearie was a Jazz pixie with a pageboy haircut who had a little girl voice with a bit of squeakiness; a singer, pianist and songwriter with an independent spirit. She had a career that blurred the line between Jazz and Cabaret. An interpretive minimalist with caviar taste in songs, she rarely raised her sly voice, and she confided song lyrics in a playful style with layers of insinuation. But, just under that fey mask was a needling wit. She brought a breezy sophistication to her recordings. If you listen closely, you can hear the caustic contempt she brings to her signature song, I’m Hip, by Portland’s very own Dave Frishberg.
She was a cult, a musicians’ musician, but her fame spread wider through television and radio. Kylie Minogue names Dearie as a primary influence in 2007. Many people who had only a passing acquaintance with her songs did not realize that the exquisitely shaded piano accompaniment was hers. Dearie’s piano-playing was as unique as her singing.
The name is real. She was born 150 miles from New York City, in the Catskills. She took the Richard Rodgers / Oscar Hammerstein song The Surrey With The Fringe On Top at a very relaxed tempo, and Dearie pointed out that she was brought up in the country and remembered seeing horses and buggies: “I slowed the song down and made it real.”
Dearie started piano lessons at five-years-old. It was the big band era, and she was drawn to the sound of Count Basie, Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington. Dearie:
I’m definitely a jazz musician, learning to be a jazz singer.
In the mid-1940s, and finished with school, she moved to Manhattan. She was one of the female trio, The Blue Flames, that played with Woody Herman‘s band, and then The Blue Reys with Jazz guitarist Alvino Rey. She played cocktail piano and contributed an eight-bar vocal to a recording by Jazz singer King Pleasure.
Early in the 1950s, at the invitation of the French label Barclay Records, she moved from NYC to Paris. She shared an apartment with Jazz singer Annie Ross and formed an eight-piece vocal group The Blue Stars, with Michel Legrand doing an arrangement of George Shearing‘s Lullaby Of Birdland in 1954, sung in French. She worked with Ross, both as a singer and pianist, and met the Belgian tenor saxophonist Bobby Jaspar, whom she subsequently married. The Blue Stars later turned into The Swingle Sisters.
Dearie lived in Paris for the next five years. When she was offered a contract with the new Jazz label Verve Records in 1956, Dearie returned to NYC, and settled in Greenwich Village.
She began her solo career with Blossom Dearie (1957) and made a half-dozen Verve albums concluding with My Gentleman Friend (1961). She performed at Jazz clubs in Manhattan and Los Angeles, sometimes working with Miles Davis. She did her thing on television, including performing on NBC’s the Tonight Show with Jack Paar who was a big fan. She was usually supported by a trio of guitar, bass and drums. A song for a Hires root beer commercial grew into the Blossom Dearie Sings Rootin’ Songs (1963) album and her Capitol LP, May I Come In? (1964) featured a full orchestra.
Dearie became popular in Britain in the 1960s, playing at Annie Ross’s club and recording four albums in London, a city that she loved. The first was Blossom Time (1966) and the last was That’s Just The Way I Want To Be (1970) featuring Dearie’s tributes to fellow musicians, Hey, John (John Lennon), and Dusty Springfield. Dearie also became a British television regular, often appearing with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore.
Dearie started her own label, Daffodil Records, in 1974. Fifteen albums followed, the last, in 2000, was Dearie’s Planet, which includes what may be the definitive interpretation of Antonio Carlos Jobim‘s Wave. Her wistful romanticism most discernible in her interpretations of Brazilian bossa nova songs was material ideally suited to her delicate approach. A year later she released a single in response to the 9/11 attacks, It’s Alright To Be Afraid.
In between the recordings and the live shows there were more appearances television shows, notably on the Schoolhouse Rock children’s series. She contributed to film soundtracks too, including on The Squid And The Whale (2005).
Cigarettes lessened her appearances; Dearie’s tender vocal cords could not stand smoke. When she appeared in clubs in the 1980s and 1990s, Dearie asked audiences to stop smoking 10 minutes before each of her sets. What a precious instrument it was, intimate and breathy with a fragile silvery quality that floated on very little breath support. Her tiny, little-girl-lost tones were only part of a subtle range of colors she produced.
Dearie’s piano-playing was equally special; a flickering keyboard style of great restraint. Her keyboard work set off the wit of Frishberg’s songs so effectively. There My Attorney Bernie (When Bernie says we sue, we sue/When Bernie says we sign, we sign) and Peel Me A Grape, and of course, I’m Hip.
All six Verve albums Blossom Dearie, Give Him The Ooh-La-La (1957), Once Upon A Summertime (1958), Blossom Dearie Sings Comden And Green (1959), My Gentleman Friend (1959) and Soubrette Sings Broadway Songs (1960) are considered cult classics and are still available.
She was a fixture in NYC for decades. I saw her on the streets of Greenwich Village when I was studying at HB Studios.
Dearie left this existence in 2009 in the same Greenwich Village apartment she had lived in for 50 years. She was 84-years-old.