Lee Wiley

It happened at Jazz at Chautauqua. 

I was idling around the tables of compact discs when I heard a woman say to someone else, “Yes, I saw Lee Wiley.” 

I waited for a discreet interval and went over to the woman — and after apologizing for eavesdropping, asked her to tell all.  It’s a brief story.  She was meeting friends for a drink in Newark, New Jersey, about 1953-54, and they had agreed to meet at a swanky Chinese restaurant called “The Hour-Glass.”  A woman was at the piano, playing, and she sang a few songs.  That was Lee Wiley. 

I grilled my Chautauqua informant a bit.  How did she know the woman was Lee Wiley?  Well, she thought there had been a sign on the piano.  I said, “I didn’t know Lee played the piano,” to which the woman said that Lee did, at least on this occasion.  She didn’t recall much more, except that she loves the sound of Wiley’s voice and was sure the woman was Lee. 

It didn’t have the ring of invention, and my Chautauqua friend (whose name is Mary) sounded sincere, enthusiastic, and clear-headed.  Can anyone explain?

A second chorus: while searching online for a new picture to illustrate this post, I found the lovely portrait above, and it led me to a site called “People vs. Dr. Chilledair,” which has posted the Japanese documentary I referred to in an earlier Wiley posting — about a young Japanese actress / singer who searches for people who knew her beloved Miss Wiley in America.  One posting is from February 10, 2008, called “My Lee Wiley” ( and a four more postings follow — I gather Bill Reed, the writer and creator of the blog, has made it possible to see the entire documentary.  Bravo!



  2. A couple of things about Lee Wiley: in imagining that she might have appeared as a singer-pianist in a Chinese restaurant, one doesn’t have to risk conjecture over the exceedingly remote possibility that she could (or would) accompany herself on piano. The more verifiable aspect is that her appearances as a solo act in nightclubs were strikingly rare. Further, at that point, singer-pianists were a dime-a-dozen, and it have appeared as such would have been unthinkably declasse for a figure so notable as Lee Wiley under any circumstances.

    In addition, Wiley was noted, from her earliest days in radio, for her lack of ease and confidence in a live audience situation, and seems generally to have avoided public performance. She of course did the Town Hall concerts with Eddie Condon, and toured to some degree with Jess Stacy’s short-lived orchestra during their stormy marriage, but not a lot more than that. While I’d be delighted to learn otherwise, in the 1950s, I am aware only of an appearance at The Blue Angel, where she was accompanied by pianist Al Waslon, a very young player from Ohio who was briefly on the scene in NYC around 1950-51.

    There is, however, another bizarre possibility in the form of a singer who billed herself as, believe it or not, Lee Wiley Jr. I first saw a reference to this person some 35 years ago, and had filed it away mentally until some years later, when the late Dick Sudhalter confirmed “Junior’s” existence.

    One can only imagine the real Lee Wiley’s wrath; she was anything but pleased when the great Barbara Lea began, at the beginning of her career in 1956 to be compared to her in voice and style.

    It’s one of the sad realities in jazz history that “the trail” on Lee Wiley has pretty much gone cold. There are only a very few people still living who knew her at all, and even for them, she seems to have had a quality of enigma, an effect not the least mitigated by her extensive use of alcohol.

    Thank heavens for the recordings.

  3. Dear Jeff,

    Thank heavens for such an informative response! I have only two things to add: the elusive pianist Al Waslohn did some time as a member of Jimmy Dorsey’s orchestra, and he seems to have been someone discovered or helped by John Hammond — hence his appearance on a Buck Clayton Jam Session circa 1955, in the most exalted company.

    I have to wonder about your speculation, though, that Lee was angry when Barbara Lea appeared and comparisons were made; does this fit with Lee’s friendly kindness to Barbara later on? Barbara is now not well, but what she has told us hardly fits with “wrath.” I would think that Lee’s ire would be justly directed at an impostor billing herself “Lee Wiley Jr.” Of all the things!

    Many thanks, Michael Steinman

  4. I loved this post, you know how much I love reading new things about Lee Wiley.
    I don’t know if Lee was the woman behind the piano at the Chinese restaurant, it’s kinda weird, though but yes, I know that Lee could play the piano, I have a picture of her playing, a rare picture from the mid 1930’s.
    As of the picture you posted, yes, I first saw it on Bill’s blog about a year ago. And also the documentary is fantastic and Bill has been very kind to me answering to some questions I used to have…he is the only one who has told me about an existing video footage of Lee on the Jack Paar archives…

    I created a MySpace page for Lee, there are lots of rare pictures that I collected from mi visits to the Library of Congress and the Library of Los Angeles, you can go and see them if you want:

    Thanks for writing about Lee again

  5. BTW why did you say that Barbara Lea is not well???

  6. It’s great to be having this kind of dialogue about Lee Wiley. I am from Ohio, and am now in my mid-50s; when I first learned that Al Waslon had played for Lee in NYC I was stunned — he was extremely active and well known in both Cincinnati and Columbus in the 60s, and I remember being around him as a child. (Waslon and another good OH musician, bass player Joe Schmaltz show up on a Johnny Hodges recording; Schmaltz’s delightful widow Rita is still very much around.) I was shocked and sorry when Waslon died. He’s still remembered.

    Re: Wiley and Barbara Lea. We are about to delve into Way Too Much Information, but here you go. Barbara befriended me in 1976, and we have been close up until the time of her illness. I dearly love Barbara, who is an utterly singular person. The last five years of her life have been a tremendous challenge to all who care about her.

    However: My great aunt by marriage was the former Katie Culter, who was very much a friend with Wiley in the 50’s (and Wiley, save for Fran Allison and Phyllis Condon, was not much given to women friends). Katie’s first husband Bill, an avid jazz fan and collector, was very much a part of the “Nicksieland” scene and the whole Condon crowd.

    Things, to a varying degree, were rocky for Wiley in the 1950’s. From her early days, she was ever the femme fatale; alas, with the onset of middle age, her looks were fading, the booze was getting increasingly out of control, and the music scene was passing her by. When Barbara Lea’s first 10″ LP happened in ’56, Wiley, known for her tempestuous nature, was, according to my aunt ( a reliable source) quite incensed by the comparisons that were bring made to her, and in private, was distinctly nasty and dismissive. If one digs around, there are, I think, one or two remarks from Eddie Condon that would support that. I don’t think Barbara ever knew much of this… had I mentioned it to her, I think she would have been more surprised than anything else, and here’s why.

    From the early 1940s up until the early 60s, Lee Wiley and singer-pianist Larry Carr were great pals. Larry adored her, was extremely handsome, and moved with a certain ease among the level of society that Wiley, who had a side to her personality that was drawn to grandness, enjoyed. (I have Wiley’s “V-Mail” correspondence to Larry when he was in the Army during the war — it’s quite charming, and rather interesting.)

    In the late 40’s, Barbara Lea was an undergrad at Wellesley College. Her very close friend then, and for years and years to follow, was a Texas girl named Franny… who was Larry Carr’s niece, of whom he was quite fond. Larry and Barbara began their friendship at that early time.

    It’s my educated guess that once the disgruntled Wiley actually became acquainted with the young, thoroughly guileless Barbara Lea, that she had a change of heart. They were utterly dissimilar women and, so far as I am concerned, singers. Wiley was the great sensualist of jazz singing; Barbara brought a restless intelligence and a quest for depth and meaning to her work.

    It’s also important to remember that the young Barbara worked for a time at George Wein’s Storyville in Boston, collecting cover charges and whatever else, so she had been exposed to Wiley through that venue as well.

    I felt that Barbara’s recorded tribute to Wiley on Audiophile was badly marred by the mediocrity of her accompaniment; a treasured memory is her Jazz Festival concert from the early ’90s, when Joe Bushkin unexpectedly commandeered an ensemble of the best and the brightest young players in New York at the time.

    On a smaller scale, until his death in the early ’80s, Barbara and Larry Carr periodically made concert and cabaret appearances together, celebrating Wiley and her music.

    I feel that Lee Wiley’s stature as a singer has, after no small period of neglect, established itself in a way that I hope would give her tremendous satisfaction.

  7. Jeff, I love your comments, you make me feel closer to my favorite singer, like I know her a little bit more after reading this!
    What about Wiley’s V-Mail, that’s sooo interesting, you’re soooo lucky to have it!!!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s