Earworms

I write about songs.

Archive for the ‘Blossom Dearie’ Category

Blossom Dearie, “Surrey With the Fringe On Top”

In 2002, I was fortunate enough to interview the jazz singer Blossom Dearie for Newsday, the newspaper where I was then an editor. I had been a fan of Blossom’s since the late 1980s, when I worked at a Boston bookstore that also sold, somewhat eccentrically, a selection of albums by jazz and cabaret artists. My friend and co-worker Tess discovered a Blossom Dearie tape on the wall of cassettes. We loved the picture on the cover of Blossom, sitting at a piano wearing tortoise shell glasses, looking a little bit like a librarian. But the music inside was better than anything we could have imagined. Blossom sounded a little bit like a librarian too. Her singing was soft and clear and crisp—no brassy belting. But the music swung, as they say in jazz circles. Also, the Broadway standards Blossom recorded were sometimes funny, like Rodgers and Hart’s  “Everything I’ve Got”: “I have eyes for you, to give you dirty looks/I have words that do not come from children’s books.”

That album, Blossom Dearie, from 1956, was one of her first, and the first of a great six-record run for Verve, the classic jazz label. (I’m guessing that the clip above is from 1958—the year that “Surrey With the Fringe On Top,” a song from Oklahoma!, appeared on her best album, Once Upon a Summertime.) There wasn’t “very much steam” about those recordings, though, Blossom told me—“they’re just getting off the ground now.” She went on to play mostly supper clubs like Julius Monk’s in New York and Ronnie Scott’s in London, recorded a few albums in London in the late 1960s, then started an independent label to release her own music. She famously sang a couple of songs—“Unpack Your Adjectives” and “Figure 8”—for Schoolhouse Rock, a series of animated interstitials that once ran between Saturday morning cartoons. When I met her, she was in her late seventies, and was a year into a long-running engagement at Danny’s Skylight Room, a slightly offbeat combination of cabaret and Thai restaurant just off Times Square.

Blossom wasn’t so easy to interview. I asked her about the humor in her songs. “Which songs are you referring to?” she asked, a little skeptical. I mentioned a few: “Rhode Island is Famous For You,” “Give Him the Ooh-La-La.” “There’s a little humor in those songs,” she admitted. She said that she had learned about rhythm from Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra. I cited a phrase she had written in the liner notes to one of her early records, about the “economy” of her playing and singing—was this something she had also learned from other singers? “Nope!” Just something you developed on your own? “That’s right.” Through trial and error?  “No, just … from God.”

Of course, I mostly wanted to talk about her years on Verve. But she wasn’t so much interested in discussing that. She had just released a CD of Brazilian-inspired music, and she was planning another one. She wanted to talk about playing at Danny’s, the crowds that came to see her. “We’ve got to get up to the present time here,” she said. But, I said, New York in the 1950s! London in the 1960s! “How many people are interested in that?” she asked. Lots, I said. She shrugged. I asked her if she had seen Kissing Jessica Stein, a movie from the previous year that had used a number of her songs on the soundtrack. She hadn’t. “Did you see it?” she asked. “It’s an art film,” she said, decisively. We broke the ice a little when I said that I had grown up in Albany. She was born and raised in a small town in the Catskills, only about thirty miles away; she used to visit Albany with her parents when she was young. We both used to shop at the same Montgomery Ward.

I complimented her on her voice, which was almost as clear as it had been fifty years ago. “Thank you!” she said. “I’ve just had my tea with honey.” How did she take such good care of it? I asked. She laughed. “I drink a bottle of Scotch a day, and I smoke three packs of cigarettes a day. And I stay up very late. And I carouse in the Village.” Blossom died in 2009 at the age of 84.

Written by peterterzian

January 18, 2010 at 5:07 pm

Posted in Blossom Dearie

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