Etiquette books don’t line my shelves (I find the word difficult to spell), so I don’t know if sending someone birthday felicitations this late is forgivable. But Barbara Lea, the wonderful but oddly under-recognized singer, turned eighty years old on April 10.
Readers of this blog should know her and have her imperishable recordings with Johnny Windhurst, Dick Sudhalter, Loren Schoenberg, and others. (Barbara was a fine writer, too: her liner notes to the Sudhalter-Connie Jones CD, GET OUT AND GET UNDER THE MOON, still stick in my memory.) But for those of you who never heard her sing, a few words. Although Barbara has been compared to Lee Wiley, Billie Holiday, and Mildred Bailey, she sounds like herself. Her voice is warm, her delivery powerful yet subtle. She conveys emotion without strain; she swings in the great manner. She is at home with a solo pianist, a Condon-style ensemble, a lush big band.
Her most recent CDs find her in the latter two settings. The first, DO YOU KNOW WHAT IT MEANS TO MISS NEW ORLEANS? (Audiophile) was recorded there in March 2006, with Barbara fronting a small band featuring such wonderful players as Hal Smith and Bob Havens. Here, she shows her fine unfettered range of feeling, from the Morton romp DR. JAZZ to the rather ephemeral wartime favorites I COULDN’T SLEEP A WINK LAST NIGHT and MY DREAMS ARE GETTING BETTER ALL THE TIME — songs that have never sounded so good. She weaves in and out of the band with great style.
The second CD, BLACK BUTTERFLY, has special meaning for me. The only time I ever saw Barbara perform was at the benefit for Dick Sudhalter held in St. Peter’s Church in New York City. And if memory serves me, she sang only one song — Ellington’s sorrowing BLACK BUTTERFLY — backed by the Loren Schoenberg big band. Her performance had the intensity of a great aria and the intimate immediacy of trumpeter Joe Thomas’s magnificent 1946 Keynote version. This CD captures Barbara and Loren’s big band doing that song and sixteen others — ranging from classic themes by Arlen, Wilder, Victor Young, Oscar Levant, Berlin, and Monk — to lesser-known gems: RESTLESS (Sam Coslow) and WHEN THEY ASK ABOUT YOU (Sam H. Stept) as well as a few songs composed in part by Barbara herself. To accompany Barbara, there are lovely curtains of sound illuminated by beautiful solos by Mark Lopeman, Bobby Pring, James Chirillo, and Loren himself. It’s an ambitious recording but a hugely gratifying one.
Barbara’s health hasn’t been good of late, and her medical bills arrive with the regularity of the Basie rhythm section. Why not give yourself a gift in honor of her birthday and consider purchasing one of her CDs from her? (I know that buying CDs from a variety of third-party sellers is economically tempting, but the artists get nothing for their work.)
The list of CDs currently available is at the bottom of this posting. Each one is $17 (including postage). Send your check or money order to Jeanie Wilson, 212 Ramblewood Drive, Raleigh, NC 27609-6404.
2007 Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans? (Audiophile)
2006 Black Butterfly (THPOPS)
2005 Deep In A Dream, Barbara Lea Sings Jimmy Van Heusen (Leacock Does Babcock) (Cape Song)
2004 Barbara Lea and Keith Ingham Celebrate Vincent Youmans (Challenge)
2004 Barbara Lea and Wes McAfee Live @ RED — our love rolls on (THPOPS)
2002 The Melody Lingers On (BL)
1999 Barbara Lea and Keith Ingham Are Mad About The Boy: The Songs Of Noel Coward (Challenge)
1997 The Devil Is Afraid Of Music (Audiophile) Added tracks. Original LP 1976
1996 Fine & Dandy: Barbara Lea and Keith Ingham Celebrate The Women Songwriters (Challenge)
1995 Do It Again (Audiophile) Added tracks. Original LP 1983
1995 Remembering Remembering Lee Wiley (Audiophile) Added tracks. Original LP 1976
1994 Hoagy’s Children: A Celebration of Hoagy Carmichael’s Music, v. 1 & 2 (Audiophile) Added tracks. Original LP 1983
1993 Barbara Lea & The Ed Polcer All-Stars “At The Atlanta Jazz Party” (Jazzology)
1991 Barbara Lea (OJC/Fantasy) Added tracks. Original LP 1956
1991 A Woman In Love (Audiophile) Added tracks. Original LP 1955
1990 Sweet and Slow (Audiophile)
1990 Lea In Love (OJC/Fantasy) Original LP 1957
1989 Getting Some Fun Out Of Life with Mr. Tram Associates (Audiophile)
1989 You’re The Cats! (Audiophile)