Dearie: she was brisk and aimed to make an album of 12 songs in six hours
With a tiny, girlish voice, and an intimate coyness of delivery that sometimes sounded too silly to be serious, Blossom Dearie had one of the most distinctive vocal sounds in jazz and popular music. Singers from Cleo Laine to Kylie Minogue say they have been influenced by her, and she was greatly loved by her public from the time of her first vocal group recordings in the 1940s to her final appearances in 2006.
She accompanied herself at the piano with a minimal but precise style that perfectly matched her voice.
Dearie also developed a repertoire of unusual songs that came to be particularly identified with her. These ranged from the deadpan delivery of comic ditties by Dave Frishberg, such as Peel Me a Grape, My Attorney Bernie and I’m Hip to heartfelt versions of some of the most celebrated songs of the past 50 years such as Once upon a Summertime, for which she commissioned Johnny Mercer’s timeless lyrics to go with Michel Legrand’s memorable melody.
In I’m Hip she beguiled audiences with such verses as:
I’m in step
When it was hip to be hep, I was hep
I don’t blow but I’m a fan
Look at me swing
Ring a ding ding
I even call my girlfriend man
I’m so hip.
Marguerite Blossom Dearie was born in 1926 in East Durham, New York, on the edge of the Catskills, into a family of Scottish and Scandinavian extraction and was known from infancy by her middle name.
After a temporary move to Washington, where she took classical piano lessons, and time spent back in East Durham playing in her school dance band, Dearie moved to New York in the late 1940s to join Woody Herman’s close-harmony vocal group the Blue Flames, who sang with his big band. Soon afterwards she also sang with Alvino Rey’s orchestra.
In 1952, after appearing on King Pleasure’s hit recording of Moody’s Mood for Love, she moved to Paris, and formed her own vocal group, the Blue Stars. The cream of French musicians backed her ensemble, such as Fats Sadi and Roger Guérin, and she went on to marry another of them, the Belgian flautist and saxophonist Bobby Jaspar. Singing in French, her group had a hit with a version of George Shearing’s song, Lullaby of Birdland, and the Blue Stars went on to be a direct influence on the distinctly Gallic style of close-harmony vocal jazz subsequently performed by the Double Six de Paris and the Swingle Singers.
In 1956 Dearie returned to America, settling in Greenwich Village, where she signed for Norman Granz’s Verve record company, for which she made six solo albums that were the foundation of her subsequent career. “I could pick the songs and write the arrangements,” she wrote, “so how could a girl go wrong? By twisting my arm a few times, Norman seemed to persuade me to go ahead with it.”
In the studio Dearie was brisk and precise, aiming to make an entire album of 12 songs in six hours, helped by the engineering talents of Tom Nola, who was particularly successful in making the most of her delicate voice. She remembered: “We would talk about the tempos and the arrangements for a few minutes, then I would count to four and away we would go. We would run it through one time, then run it through a second time adding my voice . . . and one more time for Tom to adjust his controls and prepare the two-track tape. The next time was a take!”
The two most successful of her Verve discs were Blossom Dearie and My Gentleman Friend. During the period of this record contract, she worked in and around New York with her trio of guitar, bass and drums who backed her piano and vocals, and she also started making frequent television appearances, usually as a musical interlude in the pioneering chat shows of the late 1950s. In 1963 Jaspar died, and she did not remarry. After recording regularly for Capitol in the mid-1960s she went on to found her own company, Daffodil Records, for which she began recording an increasing number of her own compositions.
At a time when rock was in the ascendant, Dearie worked hard to ensure that she and her songs were not overlooked. When she and Linda Albert wrote Inside a Silent Tear, she sent it to Cleo Laine to record on a disc of songs entirely by female songwriters, Woman to Woman.
After that, Laine recalled, “Blossom always kept me informed about her new songs, either by song copies or tapes.”
From the beginning of the 1960s Dearie became a regular performer in London, first at Annie’s Place (run by the singer Annie Ross, with whom Dearie had lodged in Paris), and then for many seasons at Ronnie Scott’s. She was to make several records in London, of which Blossom Time at Ronnie Scott’s catches the atmosphere of one of her live appearances there.
Latterly she preferred to play at the Pizza on the Park, although her dislike of cigarette smoke led to some strict no-smoking rules at the club, years before the law caught up with her demands.
From 1999 she was to be heard from time to time at Danny’s Skylight Room in New York, which is where she played her last gig in 2006 before declining health forced her to retire. Her legacy is not only a sizeable catalogue of recordings, but a number of first-rate songs, including I’m Shadowing You, I Like You, You’re Nice and Hey John. Her half-brother Barney survives her.
Blossom Dearie, singer, pianist and songwriter, was born on April 28, 1926. She died on February 7, 2009, aged 82