DAVE DAVIES, host:
Blossom Dearie, the jazz singer and songwriter whose little-girl voice, playful style and unique phrasing made her popular in nightclubs for decades, died on Saturday in New York. She was 82. Stephen Holden of the New York Times called Dearie a genre unto herself, pursuing a singular career that blurred the line between jazz and cabaret.
She was born Marguerite Blossom Dearie in East Durham, New York. Her middle name came from a neighbor who delivered peach blossoms to her house the day she was born. She trained in classical piano but embraced jazz after high school. She sang in New York City clubs in the 1940s, and in the early '50s she moved to Paris where she made six solo albums on the Verve label, now regarded as classics.
She formed her own label, Daffodil Records, in the early 1970s, and continued performing well into her 70s. Her final album, "Blossoms Planet," was released in 2000. Terry spoke to Blossom Dearie in 1998. They began with one of the songs in her repertoire, "They Say It's Spring," recorded in 1957.
(Soundbite of song "They Say It's Spring")
Ms. BLOSSOM DEARIE: (Singing) They say it's spring This feeling light as a feather They say this thing This magic we share together Came with the weather too
They say it's May That's made me daft as a daisy It's May, they say That gave the whole world this crazy Heavenly, hazy hue
I'm a lark On the wing I'm the spark Of a firefly's fling
Yet to me This must be Something more Than a seasonal thing
Could it be spring Those bells that I can hear ringing It may be spring But when the robins stop singing You're what I'm clinging to Though they say it's spring It's you...
(Soundbite of archived interview)
TERRY GROSS: Blossom Dearie, welcome to Fresh Air. Now, you have a very small voice when you sing.
Ms. BLOSSOM DEARIE (Jazz singer and Pianist): Yes, I do have a small voice, yes.
GROSS: Did you ever try to make that into a big voice?
Ms. DEARIE: Ah, into a big voice. I have taken voice lessons a couple of times from legitimate voice teachers. In fact, I'm going back to a teacher now. Once in a while, once every 10 years, I go to a voice teacher, and we work on my voice a little bit. But they all say the same thing, that they tell me I'm not breathing properly. Ha - and it's very funny to have worked and sung for so many years and then someone say to you, well, you're not breathing properly. Also, I do turn to the side - to the right when I sing, and they say that that constricts the vocal chords.
GROSS: Oh, because you're sitting at the piano and you're turning to face the audience.
Ms. DEARIE: I'm sitting down. That's right.
GROSS: Mmm hmm.
Ms. DEARIE: But it's mostly the breathing that they are concerned about. They say, you have to breathe right in this diaphragm and work on it. And I think that would probably make my voice more powerful, but at this age I don't think I'm going to worry about it. And I have never been a singer who could stand up and sing like a theater - theatrical singer. I just sit down, and I've always had - used a microphone. I have a kind of a microphone technique.
GROSS: Now, I think because you have a very unique voice that you often rethink songs, though maybe that's just your unique sensibility. But I mean, another - you know, I love you for the obscure songs that you find and sing. But also, when you do a standard, it often sounds very different than the ways I've heard it done before. And I think an excellent example of that is your "Surrey With a Fringe on Top."
Ms. DEARIE: I was just going to say that.
Ms. DEARIE: And I've had so many requests for "Surrey With A Fringe On Top" that I'm doing it again after many years.
GROSS: Oh, good. See, most singers, I think, do this at a kind of clip-clop type of pace, and you slow it down to a...
Ms. DEARIE: I slowed it down.
GROSS: And it's really lovely.
Ms. DEARIE: And well, when I first heard the song sung in the Broadway show, I didn't like the interpretation at all.
GROSS: Me neither.
Ms. DEARIE: But I liked the song, and I could sort of relate to that being from the country and the horse and buggy, which is something I always liked. So I just slowed it down to give the words more meaning. The same thing with "Tea For Two." I slowed that way down, and "Manhattan."
GROSS: Well, why don't I play "Surrey With A Fringe On Top" from one of those Verve reissues?
Ms. DEARIE: All right.
(Soundbite of song "Surrey With A Fringe On Top")
Ms. DEARIE: (Singing) Chicks and ducks and geese better scurry, When I take you out in the surrey. When I take you out in the surrey with the fringe on top.
Watch that fringe and see how it flutters, When I drive them high-stepin' strutters. Nosey polks will peek through the shutters, And their eyes will pop.
The wheels are yellow, The upholstery's brown, The dashboard's genuine leather. With isinglass curtains, You can roll right down, In case there's a change in the weather.
Two bright sidelights winkin' and blinkin', Ain't no finer rig I'm a thinkin' You can keep your rig if you're thinkin' that I care to swap For that shiny little surrey with the fringe on the top.
GROSS: That's Blossom Dearie, recorded in 1958 from one of the records reissued on the Verve label. Now, I know when you moved to New York, you became friends with Gil Evans, the arranger who, among other things, arranged the Miles Davis records, "Birth Of The Cool" and "Porgy And Bess." You met Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.
What was the impact of Bebop on you? So many musicians were absolutely taken by bebop, and you are much more involved with standards, and you know, much more melodic style than bebop. So I'm wondering about the impact of that on you.
Ms. DEARIE: The impact of bebop was a great impact on me, and I knew those musicians and loved them very much. I heard Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and then eventually, I worked at the Village Vanguard opposite Miles Davis, and that was one of the highlights of my career, I think. Working at the Vanguard opposite Miles Davis and that group, that was just tremendous.
GROSS: Now, Miles is a musician who I think always loved the songs. He recorded a lot of songs...
Ms. DEARIE: Yes, he did.
GROSS: On his records, and I know he liked a lot of singers. Did you trade song ideas with each other?
Ms. DEARIE: Yes, we did. We were very friendly. We belonged to a kind of a social circle, and we'd meet at parties and things like that. And he liked "Surrey With A Fringe On Top," as a matter of fact.
GROSS: Oh, no kidding.
Ms. DEARIE: And we were very friendly, and then he finally arranged for me to work opposite him at the Village Vanguard for five different - on five different occasions. That was in the early 60's, and that was very memorable.
GROSS: What do you do when you're learning a song? Do you feel like you need to know it by heart? Would you go up with sheet music for a performance?
Ms. DEARIE: No, not sheet music. I have to learn the music first. I have to learn to play the song, get it in the right key, and I learn the song at the piano. But I have lyrics on the piano which are hidden, you know. The piano part is just about all I can handle for the beginning of the song, then I sort of refer to the lyrics now and then.
And it depends on the lyrics. If there's a story involved, it's easier to memorize the lyrics than just impressions and things. Like, "Peel Me A Grape," well, I guess it took me a long time to learn that because there's no story, there's no continuity. I mean, it's just one thing after another. A love song is easier to memorize.
GROSS: Why is that?
Ms. DEARIE: Because of the continuity. I mean, if it just has images, then you just sort of have to memorize it.
GROSS: Well, Blossom Dearie, thank you so much for talking with us.
Ms. DEARIE: Thank you.
DAVIES: Blossom Dearie, speaking with Terry Gross in 1998. Dearie died Saturday in New York. She was 82. Coming up, Maureen Corrigan on a new satirical novel from China. This is Fresh Air.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.