April 10 was Barbara Lea’s eighty-first birthday. I am quite late, but hope that no one minds my tardiness.
She is deeply respected by those who know, although by my reckoning there could be many more people aware of her special approach. Barbara has always worked wonderfully with jazz performers of a subtle kind — she is not someone shouting over a full-tilt ensemble . . . but like her idols Mildred Bailey and Lee Wiley, she is a singer comfortable with a few horns threading through her vocal and a supportive rhythm section.
In some ways, she is the musical equivalent to Ruby Braff, somewhat of a delicious anachronism, making her peaceful way amidst the noise of the last fifty years. The recordings I most treasure of Barbara’s find her alongside players who summon up great emotional force without ever raising their voices: Johnny Windhurst (her Bobby Hackett), Dick Sudhalter, and Vic Dickenson at the very end of his recording career.
Barbara’s recording career began with a two-song session for Graham Prince’s Cadillac label in 1954 (those days of transition where a new single was issued both on 45 and 78): a pop trifle called I’LL BET YOU A KISS backed with Barbara’s choice, ANYPLACE I HANG MY HAT IS HOME. The band? Amateurs . . . Pee Wee Erwin, Cutty Cutshall, Bill Pemberton, George Wettling, and Bill Austin. Here’s a photograph from that session:
Here’s Barbara with an unknown fan, some hanger-on:
At the Village Vanguard, 1956:
With the noted cellist Morey Amsterdam:
And in the present day, with her dear friend Jeanie Wilson, both in high style:
It’s sad to report that Barbara no longer sings, owing to Alzheimer’s disease. But she enjoys listening to music and is strong in body — and much loved. We have the music she made — a substantial legacy.