On hearing of Barbara Lea’s death, I, too, went back to her recordings. And what strikes me now (and impressed me the first time I heard her) was her clarity and simplicity. No tricks, nothing to obscure the melody and to place the singer in front of the song. Barbara had most often been compared to the female singers she so admired — Lee Wiley, then Mildred Bailey and Billie Holiday — but at this distance she sounds much more like a medium-register cornet, on track and sweetly focused. She was also a great interpreter of the lyrics, without ever seeming to “dramatize,” to deliver certain words or lines in italics. The music flowed through her to us. She respected the composer’s intentions and offered the song — with a lightness of heart yet a great deal of feeling.
What also remains is the memory of her sharp-edged prose: if you have the vinyl or CD version of the sessions Dick Sudhalter and Connie Jones did first for Stomp Off Records as GET OUT AND GET UNDER THE MOON, read her notes: they have a gentle pungency — serious truths are being told here although without belligerence.
We are lucky to have had her and her music!
Here are two more reminders. The first is a candid photograph taken by Sonny McGown at the 1983 Manassas Jazz Festival (Barbara’s studio recordings from that time are collected on a CD titled DO IT AGAIN, which pairs her with Vic Dickenson, Billy Butterfield, and Johnny Mince). Johnny had a headache so Barbara offered a neck massage — and it looks as if she knew exactly what she was doing:
Before I close this post, the person I want to call to your attention is Jeanie Wilson, Barbara’s dear friend from North Carolina. Jeanie stayed out of the spotlight and does so even now, but the way she and her husband Bill took care of Barbara in Barbara’s last years is a model of loving solicitude and generosity of spirit that we could all try to live up to. As we are bereft of Barbara, we should send thanks to Jeanie for being the most devoted friend anyone ever had.
And let’s have Barbara and Johnny Windhurst, both young, fill our ears with their golden music. If there are echoes of Wiley and Hackett, that doesn’t bother me: