GOODBYE TO MISS BARBARA LEA (1929-2011)

Young Miss Lea

The remarkable jazz singer Barbara Lea has left us.  Her dear friend Jeanie Wilson writes, “I am deeply saddened to have to report the death of our own Barbara Lea, “The High Priestess of Popular Song”. She died peacefully yesterday, Monday, December 26, here in Raleigh, North Carolina; I was with her as were my husband, Bill, and our dear friend, Junk. And as most of you already know, Barbara has been battling Alzheimer’s for quite some time. So, “Sleep Peaceful”, dear Barbara… we will miss you but now you are free to sing once again.”

I know that many JAZZ LIVES readers have their own memories of hearing and working with Barbara, which I will share in an upcoming post.  For now, this is the way I and so many others will think of her:

It’s an informal exploration of SKYLARK at the 1983 Manassas Jazz Festival — where Barbara is backed empathically by tenor saxophonist Mason “Country” Thomas, who also left us in 2011; Larry Eanet, piano; Butch Hall, guitar; Van Perry, bass; Tom Martin, drums.  Thanks to Sflair for the original video and for sharing it with us on YouTube.

A musician who worked and recorded with Miss Lea several times is the fine drummer Hal Smith, who had this to say, “She had a lovely voice, terrific intonation, perfect diction and her voice aged very well.  I had heard that she adopted the last name of “Lea” as a tribute to Lee Wiley.  If that’s true, she deserved to invoke Ms. Wiley’s name. At the recording session she was well-prepared with a list of songs and keys, easy-to-read charts and ideas for routines.  In that respect, and in her pleasant demeanor, she reminded me of another great vocalist — with the last name of Kilgore.”

Saxophonist, pianist, and director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, Loren Schoenberg, also worked with and learned from Barbara: “Barbara Lea passed away this week and the world has lost an exemplary interpreter of 20th century popular music and I’ve lost a dear friend and mentor.

I was driving Benny Carter down Seventh Avenue to a rehearsal years ago and Louis Armstrong came over the radio playing “Ain’t Misbehavin’” . Benny’s response was “Listen to that – no bullshit!” And in the generous sense in which Benny meant it, one can transpose the same comment to Barbara’s music, though I’m sure she wouldn’t be happy with that language.

She was above all an intelligent and classy lady, with a gift for discovering the melodic and lyrical essence of a song. We started working together in the late 70’s and continued up to the point her illness made it impossible several years ago.  If I heard her sing one tune, I heard her sing several hundred, because I was first and foremost a fan, and went to as many of her gigs as I could, many times with my parents. The Mr. Tram ensemble we had with Dick Sudhalter and Daryl Sherman was nothing less than a joy. You should have heard the conversations; they were as good as the music! Barbara was incapable of coasting when she sang.  No wonder so many composers, starting with Alec Wilder, were so crazy about her. What a variety of timbres she had, and a variety of ways of phrasing to match the words.  Scatting wasn’t for her, and she was forthright about her opinions, and blessedly empathetic with others who didn’t necessarily agree with her.  There’s much more to be said about her, but for the essence, just listen. It’s ALL there.”

We’ll miss Barbara Lea.

(Thanks to David J. Weiner, Hal Smith, and Loren Schoenberg for their help.)

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9 responses to “GOODBYE TO MISS BARBARA LEA (1929-2011)

  1. A beautiful obituary for a a very special voice, thank you.

  2. I discovered her through my research of Lee Wiley.She was a dynamic and irreplaceable songstress. A truly beautiful lady, talent, and a prime example of how to do It right! She will be missed.

  3. Barbara wrote this about her friendship with the difficult Ms Wiley:

    We became friends at Storyville’s summer location in Gloucester, Massachusetts, amid lots of smoking and drinking at all-night parties. When I moved to New York I got swept up in her circle. My memories of this time have no continuity; rather, they exist in sights and sounds and feelings stored in sensory banks. So there is a picture of June sunlight pouring into a taxi as we rode downtown at 6 A.M. from an all-night party on the upper East Side, where I had fallen asleep on a chair; we arrived at 7 Park Avenue and discovered that we had, between us, just enough money for the fare, no tip. There is Lee with a cold, taking penicillin, insisting (for she loved to share) that I had to take some too (I did). There is Lee in the hospital with pleurisy, trying to make her worried friends laugh by protesting against an X-ray: “Oh, no, I can’t have my picture taken looking like this.” There is Lee seeted with three or four others around a small table with a scotch bottle, daintily enquiring, “Shall I pour?”

    There is the apartment itself, rather small, rather dark, and much too expensive. Lee decided to move. I searched the classified ads and found several less expensive places that sounded acceptable. Lee chose a much larger apartment in a much more luxurious building at 60 Sutton Place South, complete with terrace and sunken living room, and of course, much more expensive, explaining simply, “Don’t you understand? I can do it better this way than any other way.” In the new apartment she sent for her furniture, which had been stored in California – white wrought iron lawn furniture with peach cushions. It looked really wonderful in New York, on peach carpeting…
    …There was very little work for Lee in the 50’s. As her friend, booking agent Jack Whitmore told her, “I can get *Barbara* a job easier than I can get *you* one.” He did succeed on occasion: an appearance on the Tonight Show; a weekend at a dismal place in Philadelphia called the Showbar, where name performers worked on a platform within the oval bar while bartenders plied their trade. But her style was out of place both in the larger, more boisterous rooms and in the smaller, more intimate supper clubs. She went to IIomay Bailey (who had been a top vaudeville performer with her husband, Lee Sims) for coaching, especially her visual presentation. She departed for Chicago with every gesture in place – entrance, exit, bows. On her return, we asked her how it went. “Oh, I decided to forget all that stuff and just do what I always do”…

    …It’s a curious fact that one of the most important of all singers never placed anywhere in the major magazine polls that nwere concucted from the late 30s through the 50s. Lee Wiley’s influence extended far beyond the sphere of those who actually became familair with her. She was a singer’s singer, a musician’s singer, a songwriter’s singer, a songlover’s singer.

    Should she be called a jazz singer? In earlier days, when innate musicianship, phrasing, sound, great time and intonation were all that counted, yes. These days, when scatting is all the rage, probably not. Which is all to her credit.
    (From Barbara’s notes to ‘Lee Wiley -As Time Goes By’ Bluebird CD ND83138): and those last couple of paragraphs could apply to Barbara just as well as to Lee.

  4. What sad news to hear of Barbara`s passing, especially at this time when we were in the midst of releaseing on Cd , featuring Barbara Lea, a concert we did in 1995, with Jonn Bucher and ” The Speakeasy Jazz Babies.”.I got to work with Barbara a lot over the years and one of my favorite vocalists. I will miss her dearly.

  5. I had the pleasure of bringing Barbara to Los Angeles for the first time in 31 years and she was a hit as always. Here is Leonard Feather’s review from 1987:

    http://articles.latimes.com/print/1987-10-23/entertainment/ca-10703_1_barbara-lea

  6. I was listening to her early records on Prestige & Riverside just last week.
    she had it then-and never lost it.

  7. Hi Michael – My memories of Barbara, whom I never met only passed on 52nd street one night, involve our mutual boyfriend, Johnny Windhurst. It was good to hear Johnny playing behind her in that quartet bit.
    Nancy (Miller) Balf

  8. I read the news of Barbara’s passing with mixed feelings: sad about the loss of a wonderful lady of great talent, but relieved that her sainted friend Jeannie Wilson will now be free to pick up the life that she devoted to Barbara for the last decade by caring for her 24/7 as she sank deeper and deeper into the oblivion of Alzheimer’s.

    I don’t recall exactly when I first met Barbara but I know that I videotaped her several times with Loren’s Big Band as well as Dick Sudhalter’s groups and documented almost every one of her local club appearances, including her “Farewell” show. One of the performances that I shot was released on a DVD as a tribute to her pianist who had died a few months before.

    Whether or not she was a “Jazz” singer depends on your personal interpretation of the word. She always sang in tune, had immaculate phrasing and diction, swung when it was called for and interpreted the words as the lyricist intended them to be heard. She always surrounded herself with the best jazz players available and although she did not “scat” or take many liberties with the melodies of the classic, tasteful standards she chose, neither did Billy Eckstine, Woody, Jackie Paris, Mildred Bailey, Billie Holiday,
    Lee Wiley or Frank…unless you consider “Doobie-doobie-doo” scatting.

    Barbara will be greatly missed by those who knew her personally and were fortunate enough to catch her in person, but there is a small but very tasty discography still available for enjoyment by those who want to hear some really fine singing that transcends a narow concept of what a “jazz”” singer should be. She was that and much more.

    Bill Spilka

  9. Pingback: The Lovely Bones* « Log24

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