I once described Blossom Dearie as “the hippest person in the world.” It was a forgivable piece of hyperbole, though she was surely one of the strangest creatures in the world, a fey woman with a tiny, childlike voice and a hard-earned reputation for craziness who sang in a style precisely equidistant between jazz and cabaret, accompanying herself on the piano with supreme delicacy and finesse. She was also an exceptionally fine composer whose best songs, “I’m Shadowing You” and “Sweet Surprise” in particular, deserve to be much better known. Her long run at the now-defunct Danny’s Skylight Room, which lasted into the twenty-first century, gave those not yet born when the New York cabaret scene was at its height a chance to know something of what it was like.
Her best records were the solo albums she made in the Seventies for Daffodil, her own label, all of which, alas, are now out of print, including Needlepoint Magic, the live album that introduced me to her crystalline way with a song and to which I am listening as I write these words. This compilation of her earlier sides for Verve is almost as good, though, and provides an even clearer sense of her jazz roots, which ran very deep (Miles Davis admired her greatly).
I first heard Blossom sing in 1979, became a fan on the spot, and stayed that way forever after. She was the first cabaret singer I made a point of hearing in person when I moved to New York, and I continued to seek her out from then until 2002, when I caught one of her last live shows and wrote about it in my Washington Post column:
As for Blossom Dearie, who has settled into Danny’s Skylight Room for a hyper-extended run, I can do no better than to say of her what Walter Winchell said of the Stork Club: She’s the New Yorkiest thing in New York. Her piping, super-sly voice and crystalline pianism haven’t changed much in the past four decades–the only difference is that she now brings a sharply sardonic edge to tough-minded songs like “The Ladies Who Lunch”–and if you long for the long-lost days of cabaret at its classiest, you’ll find them here.
That brief review sums up part of what Blossom Dearie meant to me: I identified her with New York, the city of my dreams, so much so that I named a cat after her. The cat and I finally made it to New York, but now that Blossom is gone, my dreams will never again be the same.
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Stephen Holden’s excellent New York Times obituary is here.
Doug Ramsey’s eloquent tribute is here.
Blossom Dearie sings “Surrey with the Fringe on Top” on The Jack Paar Show: