Monday, February 9, 2009

Remembering Blossom Dearie

Many Ben Bagley album covers feature images of chorus girls or women bound or unbound.

Blossom Dearie--1956

I'm sure that you love musicians who for others are an "acquired taste." Blossom Dearie, a singer who died last Saturday at 82, was one of mine.

Perusing her obituaries on-line, I saw her referred to as "one of the last remaining supper-club performers." That's an apt description, as well as "sophisticated" in reference to her catalog. Blossom Dearie was a tremendous singer and songwriter whose material ranges from the light and winsome to the sweetly sad and melancholy.

Among the cabaret cognoscenti, she was a towering figure. Her work did not sell well, and it was hard to find. One site mentioned that, in 2005 when Dearie permitted the releases on her Daffodil Records to be put on CD, the vinyl versions of these works were going for around $250 in used record stores.

Baby boomers may be unaware that they know her voice from her work on Schoolhouse Rock! with Bob Dorough. Blossom sang "Mother Necessity," "Figure Eight," and "Unpack Your Adjectives."

Her voice was an utterly unique instrument: extremely high-pitched, Blossom sounded like a coquette in her twenties throughout her career. Her name too connoted something strange and trippy to those who didn't like her, I suppose. (She got it from a neighbor who delivered peach blossoms to her house the day she was born.)

I always enjoyed Blossom's playfulness. I first heard her on May I Come In?, a Capitol Release from the 1960s She swung extremely well in her vocals, and I liked her material, but she didn't seize my attention until I caught her on some of Ben Bagley's Revisited albums.

These albums salute the lesser-known works by legendary songwriters and feature a cavalcade of off-Broadway stars and nightclub artists from the 1960s (Dorothy Loudon and Arthur Siegel being my favorites here)—plus prominent jazz figures like Cab Calloway and Margaret Whiting and TV and movie celebrities like Gloria Swanson and Richard Chamberlain. The enterprise is presided over by Ben Bagley, who writes the most hilarious liner notes. Here's what he wrote about Blossom.

Flayed alive 'neath her pearly mask, Blossom murmurs her songs through unmoving lips, as if trying to contact someone who is in another world...someone probably encased in a satiny grave. She has visited hell in her many attempts to communicate with us. Beneath the scarred tissue, her face is the most beautiful face in the world. She has killed, but in innocence. She has sacrificed her physical face. She frees the cats and birds, she is the Goddess of Mercy. She is mad, but her madness has the serenity of Cordelia's dying.

OK, so I'm not sure exactly what he's talking about, but I'm glad to have the record and be able to read these words and imagine these two people traipsing around Greenwich Village in the grooviest decade of the twentieth century.

After confessing to a lesbian colleague at work that I'd purchased a slew of Ben Bagley records from Tower Records before it closed, she lent me all of her Blossom Dearie records on Daffodil Records. What a treasure trouve! It was here that I cemented my deep respect for her songwriting skill.

She'd usually collaborate with someone—most famously Johnny Mercer on "My New Celebrity Is You" and "I'm Shadowing You." She wrote the memorable "Hey John" about John Lennon. Carmen McRae delivers an unforgettable interpretation of Dearie's "Inside a Silent Tear" on It Takes a Whole Lot of Human Feeling, and Susannah McCorkle sings a heart-rending version of "Bye Bye Country Boy" on the fabulous album The People That You Never Get to Love. Signature work from a great artist!

My favorite albums are Blossom Dearie from 1956 (featuring a swinging, infectious version of "'Deed I Do") and Blossoms on Broadway. I don't own much of her work, but I am enticed, especially by the bossa nova albums she released late in her life. Let's hope I can find a reasonable price for these releases!

I never got to hear Blossom live. In the last decade when my wife and I visited New York I would threaten her with a visit to hear Dearie at a local club, but I never followed through because I'm ultimately compassionate. (Blossom is a taste that, to put it lightly, Lisa is yet to acquire!)

I have her tapes out now, and I'm revisiting why I love her. Another jazz great has departed, and we marvel at her achievements. Let's end by visiting a lovely performance by her of "Don't Wait Too Long" in a tribute on YouTube.


Lisa said...

Am I missing something? How is it relevant that your colleague who had all the Ben Bagley records was a lesbian?

sallie parker said...

@Lisa: I think the 'lesbian' mention is a relevant bit of information. If he just said it was a coworker, you'd presume it was a gay man, no? More pertinently: in my observation, lesbians are much more likely than other women to know of Blossom Dearie.

I saw her perform once, in 2003, and met her years before that (1990). Interestingly, the one time I met Blossom Dearie, it was in a lesbian bar. So there we go.