By Mary Lou Nahas
For Capital Region Independent Media
Every spring when the trees flower and the daffodils bloom, I think of singer-song writer Blossom Dearie, who was born April 28, 1924, in East Durham to Henry A. Dearie and his wife, Margarete, who had three sons from a prior marriage.
She was reportedly named Blossom because a neighbor delivered peach blossoms to her house the day she was born. Or some say her brothers picked them and brought them to her and that they were pear blossoms.
Blossom grew up in her parents’ home on Stonebridge Road Extension.
The Oak Hill Acorn newspaper, published by Carl Ratsch on Dec. 6, 1934, reported “Durham Center Has Gay Thanksgiving Party. Popular Hostess Entertains. One of the high spots of Town of Durham society life was the recent party given by Margarete Dearie for her sons, James, Walter and Francis Birchett. The assembly included the following guests: Mr. and Mrs. Paul Treyer and daughters, Ernest and Helena Millett, Clarence and Helen Mackey, Mrs. Chas. Francis and sons, Gladys Haskins, Helen Haskins, Ruth Proper, Irene Gates, Bonnie Lee York, Blossom Dearie and Stella Pumphrey. Paul Wilson, Sheldon Ives, Carl Vining, Howard Winegard, and Carl Ratsch. The group enjoyed games, music, cards and dancing. The boys returned Sunday to Washington, D. C. where they resume their engineering duties.”
By the age of two, Blossom could pick out songs on the family piano. Piano lessons began when she was about five. Accounts say Blossom was classically trained as a pianist and that she switched to jazz in high school. I’ve always wondered where she was “classically trained” and just recently read that at 10, while living with her stepbrother in Washington, D.C., she received instruction in the classical compositions of Bach and Chopin.
Blossom attended high school in Cairo where the yearbook says she was an accompanist for the Glee Club for three years; a member of art club; her hobby was collecting records; her favorite expression was “Are you kidding?” and that her nickname was Babe.
In her high school class were people some of you will remember: Harriett Abrams (Sis), Phyllis Allen, Carol Duncan, Anna Gustavson, Jeannie Knoblock, Walter Scholer, Maude Goff, Virginia Hempstead, Walter Hoare, Edward Jones, Sally Jones, Jack Knapp, Joseph Kruppenbache and Josephine Maggio.
The class prophecy announces: “Blossom’s wish had come true. She is now a full-fledged model, in demand continually by such firms as Life, Mademoiselle, Esquire, Red Book, American Mag., Cosmopolitan, the Rota Gravuer, and Rouges Gallery. When Blossom’s in the dumps, she takes her mind off her troubles by playing the blues on her grand piano. She doesn’t play ‘Am I Blue’ or anything like that; she resorts to the classic, ‘Deep Purple.’”
After high school in the mid-1940s Blossom moved to New York City to pursue a music career. She first sang with a group and then embarked on a solo career. She travelled to Paris in 1952, where she met Norman Granz, owner of Verve Records, who signed her to a six-album contract between 1956 and 1960. In 1966 she began traveling regularly to London to play in a night club and recorded four albums on the Fontana label.
Although she had achieved international fame major labels did not seem interested in her, so back in the United States she established her own label, Daffodil Records, in 1974. It was one of the first independent labels founded by a woman and Blossom was the label’s only artist.
When Blossom died in 2009, The New York Times wrote: “Blossom Dearie, the jazz pixie with a little-girl voice and pageboy haircut who was a fixture of New York and London nightclubs for decades, died on Saturday at her apartment in Greenwich Village. She was 84.
“She died in her sleep of natural causes. Her last public appearances, in 2006, were at her regular Midtown Manhattan stomping ground, Danny’s Skylight Room.
“A singer, pianist and songwriter with an independent spirit who zealously guarded her privacy, Ms. Dearie pursued a singular career that blurred the line between jazz and cabaret. An interpretive minimalist with caviar taste in songs and musicians, she was a genre unto herself. Rarely raising her sly, kittenish voice, Ms. Dearie confided song lyrics in a playful style below whose surface layers of insinuation lurked. Her cheery style influenced many young jazz and cabaret singers.
“But just under her fey camouflage lay a needling wit… Ms. Dearie didn’t suffer fools gladly and was unafraid to voice her disdain for music she didn’t like; the songs of Andrew Lloyd Webber were a particular pet peeve.”
Apparently, this speaking her mind could apply to more than just her music, as some local residents remember.
Blossom Dearie liked songs with the word “spring” in the title. In 1956, she recorded “It Might as Well Be Spring” by Rodgers & Hammerstein (singing in French), as well as “A Fine Spring Morning,” which was composed by Marty Clark and Bob Haynes.
Even if you don’t think you know Blossom, I believe many of you have heard the popular ABC TV math show “Schoolhouse Rock!” The television series began in January 1973 and taught numeracy to a generation of American kids! You can see it on YouTube today.
Or you might have heard the famous Hires Root Beer commercial that Blossom recorded for television. The company then made an album “Blossom Dearie Sings Rootin’ Songs.” The album was available for 50 cents and two bottle caps and included versions of “Days of Wine and Roses,” “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” and “Fly Me to the Moon.”
She wrote the song “Hey John” after John Lennon did an imitation of her on the David Frost show in London.
If you want a list of her recordings, check her website: BlossomDearie.com and the Facebook page Blossom Dearie. Anne Keary did a wonderful presentation about Blossom at the Durham Community Center in 2020. The program was attended by people who had known Blossom the person in East Durham and people who had no personal connection but loved her music, which is continuing to grow in popularity.
Today the Dearie house in East Durham is owned by Daniel Rodriguez and Kane Sarhan.
“We’ve tried to preserve as much of the original house as possible,” Daniel said. “At the house were two of Blossom’s pianos as well as documents about her record label.”
Kane said, “It’s been such an awesome experience to get to know her story and childhood home.”
Happy birthday, Blossom!