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Friday, May 13, 2011
Thursday, April 28, 2011
Today being April 28, my wedding anniversary, I glanced at the Wikipedia almanac page to see what other momentous events occurred on this day. What caught my eye immediately is that this is Blossom Dearie's birthday. She was born April 28, 1924. And I defy anyone to think of Blossom Dearie without smiling.
For the uninitiated, Blossom Dearie was a wonderful bop-style jazz pianist (her first solo LP, “Blossom Dearie Plays 'April In Paris,'” was all instrumental), but she was most famous for her distinctive, little girl voice. Depending on the mood of the song, it could be playful, heartbreaking or hilarious. You could practically hear her famous platinum blondness in her helium-high vocals.
If you don't know her, I'm sad for you, but not surprised. She passed away two years ago in her Greenwich Village apartment, and despite making many highly-regarded recordings, Blossom remained the ultimate Manhattan cult act. She could never fill an arena in Sheboygan like Lady Gaga, but her acolytes were just as slavishly devoted as Gaga's little monsters are to her. Blossom may have played small cabarets and clubs, but only she had the juice to insist that her shows start at 5:30 pm so she could get home early, and her audiences would actually show up at 5:30! She was also reportedly the first act ever to insist that the audience not smoke when she was on stage. And because she was Blossom Dearie, they snuffed out their butts. If you came of age during the non-smoking era, you have no idea how revolutionary a change that was. Most nightclubs used to be smokey enough to cure hams in.
For you poor deprived souls who've never experienced Blossom, here is a link to her rendition of one of my favorite songs, Gershwin's “Little Jazz Bird.” I hope you enjoy it as much as my houseful of rescued parrots do, and that it encourages you to seek out more of her recordings and YouTube videos. And if you'd like to hear some funny personal stories about her that never could've made it into her obituaries, click here and here for a remembrance by my favorite contemporary singer, the dazzling Mary Cleere Haran. We also lost her very recently, but that's another tragic story that I don't want to think about when I'm celebrating my anniversary and Blossom Dearie's birthday.
How about you? Are you a Blossom fan, or have you become one after checking out some of these links?
Sunday, April 24, 2011
Monday, April 25, is the most sacred of holidays to a singer like me: it is the late Ella Fitzgerald’s birthday.
I grew up worshiping Ella Fitzgerald, which was not typical of most kids in the rock era. My school friends probably had, at most, a vague notion of who she was. But I was lucky to be born into the household of a renowned Big Band sax/clarinet player, and my musical horizons had expanded far out of the pop mainstream. A precocious jazzman, my dad Bill Ainsworth played for Tommy Dorsey while still in his teens and ended up backing the fledgling Frank Sinatra. Thus it is that, years later, I grew up hearing Frank, Peggy Lee, Nat “King” Cole, Mel Torme, Jack Jones, and, of course, Ella Fitzgerald. My dad not only played their records, he actually played with many of them.
To me, Ella was the absolute greatest of them all. Though she could scat and soar with an inventiveness and sophistication that shames today’s over-the-top pop artists, I came to love her most for the rich, pure, perfectly-pitched voice that blended deep chest tones with a headier resonance as she advanced far up the scale. (She could have trained as an operatic mezzo-soprano with unbelievable results). She had such a natural way with the lyrics, too. When the beauty of that voice was placed with the most wonderful songs ever written and simply gorgeous arrangements, nothing could touch the results. I feel a great sense of accomplishment when I am able to sing her songs in her exact keys and produce notes in the same range with similar vocal technique. She really did help teach me how to sing! That’s why my debut CD, “Keep It To Yourself,” includes the classic, “Midnight Sun.” I wanted to include my own take on one of Ella’s songs that I’ve studied the most to help me develop as an artist.
I saw Ella perform live with my dad only once. She was performing at the legendary Fairmont Hotel Venetian Room, and my mom and I got in on “comp night” for band members’ families. She was very old by then, with choppier phrasing and a little rasp to her voice, and coping with serious health problems. But she was still fabulous. Years later, I asked my dad for some little “inside” story about her that no one else knew. He said she’d spent her entire stay quietly in her hotel room, watching her favorite soap operas. Apparently, Ella in her later years grew to be quite a soap opera addict. She’d watch soaps all afternoon, come down and wow her adoring crowds, then head straight back up in the elevator to her beloved TV.
I wonder if Ella, if she were starting out today, would even get anywhere in the modern music marketing machine. She had enough trouble in her day conforming to the glamorous image stars were supposed to have. And I contend that looks are more important now than ever. She’d probably have to win a contest, as Susan Boyle did, to get a record contract. Of course, they’d make fun of her on national TV for being frumpy. Then they’d insist she lose 50 pounds, give her an extreme makeover and PhotoShop her like crazy.
If we hadn’t lost Ella in 1996, she would be turning 94 on Monday, and probably still sound better than most modern singers. In her honor, I plan to listen to her version of Cole Porter’s “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye.” Just think – if she’d been born a century earlier, before the miracle of recorded sound, that voice would’ve been lost to the ages. But we’re lucky; we get to enjoy her voice forever. As her famous commercial for audiotape used to note, it may not be live, but thank God it’s on Memorex.