Pixieish cabaret veteran keeps packing in her fans

Cabaret singer Blossom Dearie is more than surviving. She's thriving. "My phone rings constantly, to go to Chicago, San Francisco, London, Paris, even Australia. Right now, I want to stay in New York."

In a career that kicked off in the late '50s, Ms. Dearie has carved out a distinctive niche in the highly perilous world of nightclub entertainers.

Whenever she chooses, club managers open their doors to the now-legendary vocalist, who accompanies herself on piano and specializes in doing songs that are witty, lyrical, and sometimes not well known.

With her trademark pixie bangs, and measuring five feet tall, she could pass for a sweet-faced senior on the bus, heading home from church.

But her looks are deceiving. With just a nuanced inflection, a raised eyebrow, or a shoulder shrug, she can convey salty messages in a lyric, always bringing smiles to her audience. Right now, she's delivering her sophisticated show at Danny's Skylight Room in midtown Manhattan.

"I choose material that I like," Dearie says during a break in her upstairs dressing room. "The music has to be of a certain standard. If the music is no good, I'm not interested in the song."

Her repertoire, for concerts and her many albums and CDs, is drawn from the best songwriters, from Johnny Mercer, Cole Porter, Cy Coleman, and Carolyn Leigh to Sheldon Harnick and Stephen Sondheim.

"I grew up in the era of wonderful music," she continues, referring to her childhood in upstate New York in the 1930s and '40s.

"I'd always be listening to the radio, for Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, and even Jack Benny's tenor, Dennis Day. It was all marvelous, a lot of it show music."

Then, barely into her 20s, she headed south to New York City.

"When I first started," Dearie says, "I was working on West Third Street in the Village, at a place called The Chantilly. Now, it's a laundromat! I played the piano and accompanied the singers. And every so often, I'd sing."

A chance meeting with vocalist Annie Ross led to Dearie and Ross doing duets. Ross later became one of the founding members of the venerated jazz trio Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross.

"I was then invited to work in Paris, and the people who were booking me also knew Annie, so they invited her to come, too," Dearie says. "We went to work at the Mars Club."

Slowly, her reputation grew, despite a reluctance on her part to promote herself. Early television appearances make the point.

"I was on the Jack Paar Show a couple of times, and I didn't realize the importance of it at the time."

After the appearances, she returned to Europe. "I guess I should have stayed around and taken advantage of it," she says.

When Dearie got back to the United States, she worked in jazz clubs and became a frequent guest on television variety shows. A record company executive caught her act, and soon she was recording albums. Once again, her reputation grew, as listeners on jazz radio stations were introduced to the soft, silky sounds she created.

"I always try to get to the essence of the song," she says, acknowledging that her style is deceptively simple.

"I start playing it, and then the voice comes in. I think of it as an art form, where the voice and the piano are one thing, the piano accompanying the voice. That's the simplicity."

And Dearie expects her audience to share her dedication.

"For instance, piano bar is a term I don't like, because I don't like mixing the word 'piano' with bar. It's selling whiskey using music, and I resent that.

"I work in a cabaret room, where you have to sit down and pay attention."

Dearie now insists that no drinks are sold while she is performing with her trio, which includes a drummer and bass player. She has prohibited smoking from her performances for many years.

"When I work in London," she laughs, "I say 'no smoking,' and sometimes they don't like it. I say, well, take it or leave it. I'll go home."

Home for her is divided between her childhood residence in upstate New York and a modest apartment in Greenwich Village. She also runs her small record company, Daffodil Records, from her country place. Hard at work shaping a new CD, she prefers to do her composing upstate.

"It's easier for me to do it in the country, and I have to do it in the morning. I get up, and go right away to the piano. If I start with phone calls, my mind goes off."

Along with her own company, the Verve Music Group is also reissuing compilations of her earlier work through its verveinteractive.com website. Dearie fulfills orders through her blossomdearie@mailcity.com e-mail address.

Whenever a concert series is announced, it sells out, filling the room with admirers of all ages.

"There are, of course, the people who have been with me from the beginning, but I have a lot of young fans. Many are the offspring of parents who were fans, but there are a lot who are aspiring singers, musical artists, or songwriters," she says. "I encourage them, because you can't knock people's dreams down."

Not one to look back, she does regret not collaborating more with her good friend Johnny Mercer.

"I wrote one melody, and he wrote the lyrics for it, called 'I'm Shadowing You.' The last song he wrote for me was 'My New Celebrity is You,' which is the title tune on one of the CDs," she says. "I wonder why we didn't write more songs together."

Snapping back into the present, she reports that she's already got at least a dozen "good songs" for a new album.

"I don't believe in giving people trash and then saying that's what they want," Dearie says. "That's not my philosophy of life."

Fans of Blossom Dearie can keep up with her schedule of appearances at www.BlossomsPlanet.com

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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