Sunday, February 8, 2009

BLOSSOM DEARIE R.I.P.

With her cartoon name, little girl voice—even in middle age, even in old age—doll-like size and porcelain white skin, and taste for songs with humorous lyrics, Blossom Dearie was too often dismissed or overlooked or merely appreciated, but not nearly as much as her amazing talent deserved.

She was known as a cabaret artist by many, one of the tribe whose most successful representative for decades was Bobby Short, another piano playing singer of old style songs with well written lyrics. But for my taste, Short wasn't all that great. He was famous, at least to many, partly because of his tenure at Manhattan's Carlyle where Woody Allen often saw him and used him in his movies (his music and even an on camera performance).

But as a piano player I thought he was just okay, and not very original at all. As a singer, I just didn't dig his voice or the one dimensional way he interpreted the songs he chose.

But Blossom Dearie. I'm only sorry I didn't go see her every time she was playing anywhere near where I was. Her piano playing was often overlooked or underrated, even by people who should have known better. It was sometimes described as "jazz-tinged"—no, it was jazz piano, period, just extremely subtle in the ways her enormous technical virtuosity was displayed. It was there to compliment the voice and the voice was there to interpret the lyrics.

Yes she often chose songs that made her audiences laugh out loud at the stories the songs told, but more often it was her interpretations that were always so insightful and clever that you got even more meaning than the lyricist might even have intended. (Listen to her live version of "Always True to You Darling in My Fashion").

Back when I was actually making part of my living playing a little jazz piano (very little, rim shot), I knew many musicians who dismissed her talent as not that great at best and too cartoonish at worst. But as someone referred to it more recently (Jonathan Schwartz?) it was "deliciously eccentric"—which is exactly correct. She was an original. And I suspect had she not been white, or female, or diminutive, or had a deeper voice, or a more serious handle, she'd have been recognized as a premier jazz innovator, or at least a pioneer female jazz interpreter.

I think I'll try and see if I can find any video of a live performance on youTube. If I do, try to surrender the prejudices her appearance and style might initially create and listen to the keyboard phrasing as well as the vocal phrasing and interpretation and see if you don't think to yourself, this woman is a unique treasure in the history of "American" music—in particular "jazz"—and more people should have known about her.

Maybe they will.

[I couldn't find the few that I was looking for, like the one mentioned above, but here's a tune she was closely identified with: "I'm Hip" (but remember she's playing the piano as well as singing, and it's from the mid'60s (the version I first heard mentioned Sammy Davis not Bobby Darren) and it's not the best example of her suggestive interpretive skills since it's such an obvious lyric, but even so, listen closely and you'll be rewarded on several phrases, more than the lyrics might suggest)]

13 comments:

Butch in Waukegan said...

John Lennon was a big fan and she wrote "Hey John" for him.

Caitlin said...

Aw, I'm sad to see this. I youtubed a bunch of stuff and enjoyed her as usual. What a pity.

Anonymous said...

Lal--Thanks for posting this tribute to Blossom Dearie. She's been one of my favorites since somewhere around 1956 or 57. I first heard tunes of hers over WWL in New Orleans, on a midnight to 2 AM show called "Moonglow With Martin." Two tunes from one of her earliest records completely knocked me out,
"Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most," and "Try Your Wings." The latter is on the YouTube link you posted. Dig the changes, her piano playing, and some very tasty guitar. Enjoy. And may Blossom sweeten your day.
Bob Berner

Toby Thompson said...

There are some great shows with Blossom at what used to be called the Museum of Television and Radio in New York. That museum is an overlooked treasure, by the way. You can go in, register, then pull up historic shows at will.

J Catlow-Shea said...

Thanks for this great entry.

More people SHOULD have known about her and I'm hoping as time passes more people will.

RJ Eskow said...

She was the only one I know of who could really pull off some of those more off-th-wall Bob Dorough tunes.

I hadn't heard she passed ... thx, Michael.

AlamedaTom said...

Lal:

You know I was a big Blossom fan, but unless my old ears are deceiving me, that cut you linked to has Blossom singing noticeably out of tune. Hmmm.

~ Willy

Lally said...

Willy, You always had a better ear than me for the technical stuff. Which is why I could get by with a 25 dollar Penny's all-in-one stereo and you had that monster set up that was like being inside the instruments. I can hear the emotional and intellectual and expressive intent and all the nuances of individual creativity, but usually that overwhelms and sometimes drowns out the technical stuff (even though I'm always voicing my opinions about that too!). All that is to say, you're probably right.

Connie said...

I discovered Erin McKeown due to a great cover she did of one of my favorite Blossom Dearie songs, "Rhode Island is Famous for You."

Lally said...

Conni,e That's a great song. I think there's a John Pizaarelli version that's really great too, if I'm not mistaken.

Connie said...

And my favorite Pizzarelli song is "I Like Jersey Best."

Lally said...

Totally

Fred said...

I too first heard Ms. Dearie on the Moonglow with Martin radio show around 1960 (KMBC Kansas City)singing "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most" and have never forgotten that rendition or her voice. Where can I find it?