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Thursday, January 24, 2008

Episode 49 - Blossom and Jack

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Overture - The Girl with the Baby Doll Voice

[Figure 8 - Blossom Dearie]

Blossom Dearie with the winsome Figure 8 from Schoolhouse Rock!. And to answer the second question that everyone asks, the story goes that she got her first name after her delighted brothers brought fresh pear blossoms into the house to celebrate her birth. "Dearie" is a family name originating in Scotland.

Born in upstate New York, Blossom Dearie began playing piano at an early age and studied classical music before switching over to jazz while in high school. She headed straight to New York City after graduating, playing at clubs both solo and with other performers, including the titian-haired Annie Ross, who would later go on to be the "Ross" of the Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross scat jazz group. Even though Blossom Dearie recorded her first album for Verve in 19 and 56, and had nearly a half-dozen years of performing under her belt by that time, she later said that she felt her professional career didn't really begin until the early 1960s when she began writing songs while working at a London jazz club and making regular guest appearances on the popular Not Only... But Also television show with Dudley Moore and Peter Cook.

Dearie is probably best remembered by jazz aficionados for her string of records for the Verve label in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and her regular appearances on the New York City cocktail club circuit. Dave Garroway, original host of the Today show, was a huge fan of Blossom Dearie's, featuring her on the morning show several times, which helped expand her audience past New York City and Europe.

John Lennon was another Blossom Dearie fan, and the feeling was mutual. Blossom would write a fan letter in song, 1970s Hey, John, after meeting Lennon on a television show.

And Blossom Dearie was no stranger to commercial affiliation either, which Our Host would likely approve. In 19 and 62, she recorded a radio commercial for Hires Root Beer, a song that proved so popular that the company commissioned Dearie to record a full LP, Blossom Dearie Sings Rootin' Songs. Hires offered the album as a mail-in premium that could be had for two bottle caps and 50 cents. Today, the original LP goes for hundreds of dollars on eBay - when you can find a copy - or as a pricey CD import from Japan.

In her later career, Blossom Dearie was a fixture at Danny’s Skylight Room, a back room lounge of a New York Theater District Thai restaurant that played unlikely host to many legendary jazz artists. She sang in that sweet baby-doll voice from the 1990s almost up until the Skylight Room's closing, a frail lady in her seventies, still winning over crowds and critics alike, garnering enough attention that several of her classic Verve albums were finally re-released on CD as the new century began. After her set, Blossom would sit in a corner booth, receiving fans, signing autographs and selling CDs from her own private label, Daffodil.

Now 80, Blossom Dearie seems to have finally retired, both professionally and from the world. Her web site and record label site are closed, and little information is available about her after 2006. She reportedly lives a quiet, private life in the Woodstock, New York area.

I like to think that you might go out to Woodstock on some winter's day and see a little old lady skating by herself on a frozen pond, quietly singing Figure 8 in that baby-doll voice.

Intermezzo - Schoolhouse Rock!

If you're a child of the `70s or `80s, you probably first heard Blossom Dearie's voice on Schoolhouse Rock!, the educational animated shorts that originally aired on Saturday mornings on the ABC network during the early `70s into the mid-'80s. Advertising exec David McCall had the original idea for Schoolhouse Rock! when trying to help one of his sons memorize the multiplication tables. As usual with kids, McCall's son seemed to remember the lyrics of pop songs effortlessly, and McCall wondered whether a catchy tune might be the key to help kids learn their three Rs. In a stroke of genius, McCall's agency commissioned be-bop great Bob Dorough to write a test tune, and Three Is A Magic Number was born. McCall's agency pitched the idea of an animated series based on the song idea to ABC, and Schoolhouse Rock! was on its way to becoming a Generation X legend.

Of course, the "Rock!" portion of Schoolhouse Rock! is a little misleading, as there's little rock-and-roll in the 52 episodes of the series. And you know, that may be what made Schoolhouse Rock! so memorable. Instead of forgettable bubblegum pop that the series could have easily adopted, we got catchy, jazzy tunes from greats such as Bob Dorough, Grady Tate, Blossom Dearie, and, of course.... Jack Sheldon.

[I'm Just a Bill - Jack Sheldon]

Finale - The Last Cat Standing

Jack Sheldon is one of those ubiquitous characters that you've seen or heard whether you know you have or not. If you're close to my age, you probably first encountered Jack as resident sidekick and foil to Merv Griffin, who - after the jokes and insults - would often break loose with just these incredible trumpet solos. Or maybe you saw him on the Dragnet series of the `60s and `70s. Jack would usually play the same character, sometimes the bewildered victim, sometimes a slightly drunk or drugged hipster witness. Or maybe you were a fan of his one-season series from the `60s, Run Buddy Run, a very loose comedy version of The Fugitive.

If you're a bit younger than me, you know Jack best from Schoolhouse Rock! of course, and I'm Just a Bill and Conjunction Junction (What's Your Function?). Sheldon would later parody his classic Just a Bill performance on both The Simpsons and Family Guy.

But, if you're a bit older than me, you probably know Jack Sheldon best as a jazz giant, collaborator with Dizzy Gillespie, Dexter Gordon, Frank Sinatra, Benny Goodman, Mel Torme, Lena Horne, Peggy Lee, and Rosemary Clooney, among many others. Blossom Dearie is one of those "others." Sheldon backed her on Dearie's probably most successful album, May I Come In?, and Jack was reportedly deeply in love with Blossom for a time.

Billy Crystal calls Jack Sheldon "the last cat standing," a man who survived drugs and a tough personal life and kept on going, still playing his music every day.

[Dylan on seeing Jack]

Our Host wasn't kidding, either. You can catch the Jack Sheldon Cool Quartet nearly any weekend at a variety of clubs in L.A. And in March of this year you can catch the premiere of a new documentary on Jack, "Trying to Get Good: The Jazz Odyssey of Jack Sheldon" at the Crest Majestic Theater in Westwood, CA.

Closing out our show tonight is Jack Sheldon performing the theme from The Sandpiper, a very bad movie starring, as one critic put it, "Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, and a bird." But that forgettable movie left us with an unforgettable piece of music... The Shadow of Your Smile, as played by Jack Sheldon.

[The Shadow of Your Smile - Jack Sheldon]

Sources: Most of the information on Blossom Dearie and Schoolhouse Rock! comes from their respective Wikipedia articles. Blossom's personal web site and her label - Daffodil Records - site are both closed, and the last information on her at the Verve Records site and on MySpace is from circa 2001. According to newspaper listings, she was still performing at Danny’s Skylight Room into 2004, and may have performed there up till the club closed in late 2006. While researching her whereabouts, I came across a unverified fan comment noting her retirement to Woodstock.

As well as his Wikipedia listing, information on Jack Sheldon came from his web site and the site of the new documentary on his life:
"Trying to Get Good: The Jazz Odyssey of Jack Sheldon."

For an excellent synopsis of Sheldon's discography, I recommend this posting at the Rifftides site. A commenter there notes, "my wife and I stayed at a 5 unit court owned by Jack's aunt. His aunt taught babies how to swim and one of Jack's first albums has Jack, trumpet and baby swimming underwater." That album is Freaky Friday - no relation to either of the Disney movies - whose cover is reproduced above.

Like the late Down in the Flood show, the Destinyland podcast seems another unfortunate podfading victim, but still up on its site are two good episodes: one on Schoolhouse Rock! and one on Blossom Dearie. Both are recommended listening, as are all the Destinyland shows.


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