By Kenneth Jones
08 Feb 2009
Into the 2000s, the blonde Ms. Dearie was tickling the ivories and singing her signature tunes, including "I'm Hip" and "Peel Me a Grape," in the now-defunct Danny's Skylight Room on Restaurant Row in the Broadway theatre district. Salty and seemingly sometimes more committed to her keyboard and mike than to her audience, she was known for telling listeners and waiters to make less noise while she worked. At Danny's, the septuagenarian was not above being a pitchwoman for her CDs, on sale at the venue. Sometimes personally prickly, she nevertheless greeted fans and signed autographs after shows.
Ms. Dearie was born in East Durham, NY, near Albany, in 1926. She reportedly got her first name, Blossom, after a neighbor brought the Dearie family peach-tree blossoms to celebrate her birth. Her given name was Marguerite.
She showed an interest in the piano as a child, and was seduced by jazz over classical. After high school, she moved to New York City. In the late 1940s and '50s, Ms. Dearie sang with jazz bands and plunged into the jazz-club community. She performed in Paris, which led to many fresh contacts for the singer. Norman Granz of Verve Records signed her to a contract of six albums, and the CD re-releases of those discs have now reached new generations.
With her chunky glasses, pageboy haircut and decidedly unsexy look, she nonetheless had a kittenish, wispy voice that was unlike any in pop music. While artists such as Peggy Lee or Julie London boasted smoky sexuality, Ms. Dearie, for decades, always sounded a little bit like a 14-year-old girl caught up in the cigarette smoke and syncopated swirl of the Manhattan club scene.
Her beloved early-career discs include "Blossom Dearie," "May I Come In?," "My Gentleman Friend," "Blossom Dearie Sings Comden and Green," "Once Upon a Summertime," "Give Him the Ooh-La-La" and "Soubrette Sings Broadway." In recent years Verve released two Dearie compilations (in the Diva series and the Jazz Master series) drawing from the label's vaults.
Ms. Dearie also wrote her own songs, collaborating with Johnny Mercer, Jack Segal, Johnny Mandel, Duncan Lamont, Mariah Blackwolf, Sandra Harris, Walter Birchett, Dave Frishberg, Len Saltzberg, Michael Conner, Jim Council and more. Her songs — many recorded in the 1970s and into the 1990s, sometimes boasting unusual "mod" arrangements and singular vocal riffs — include "Bye-Bye Country Boy," "I'm Shadowing You," "Sweet Georgie Fame," "Long Daddy Green," "Flame to Fire," "Touch the Hand of Love," "Winchester in Apple Blossom Time," and more.
Latter-day recordings of her own work were released independently on her own label, Daffodil Records ("Our Favorite Songs," the two-disc "Blossom's Own Treasures"and "Blossom's Planet," among others).
Some of her best known and most loved recordings are of songs by Dave Frishberg, Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Cole Porter and Michel Legrand.
Ms. Dearie once told Tony Vellela of the Christian Science Monitor, "I choose material that I like. The music has to be of a certain standard. If the music is no good, I'm not interested in the song."
In 1983 Ms. Dearie was the first recipient of the Mabel Mercer Foundation Award.
A new generation of listeners knew her voice from the 1970s educational cartoon TV series "Schoolhouse Rock!," for which she sang "Figure Eight," "Mother Necessity" and "Unpack Your Adjectives." She also sang obscure show music on the idiosyncratic record producer Ben Bagley's series of "Revisited" series on his own Painted Smiles label.