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:


  1. Nice Article Michael, and On Jeanie Wilson`s Behalf, I can tell you first hand , That woman is a saint. the last time i saw Jeanie and Barbara together was at Arthurs Tavern, about 2-3 years ago. Barbara always sat in and was still singing well, and you can see the happiness on her face, being on stage. Jeanie came in Quite a bit with Barbara there for awhile, untill her illness became less manageable.Jeanie was a gaurdian Angel to Barbara and certainly made life easier for Barbara in the time she had left. God Bless you Jeanie for all you did for your dear Friend Barbara Lea, whom im proud to have known and worked with.

  2. Nice couple of articles on BL!

    FWIW, here’s Jeanie Wilson’s Barbara Lea discography at Mike Fitzgerald’s Jazz Discography pages:


    Best regards and Happy New Year to all Jazz Lives readers… (and to Michael as well!)

  3. Beautifully expressed, Michael, particularly “she sounds much more like a
    medium-register cornet, on track and sweetly focused”. Barbara and Sudhalter would especially appreciate that. Thanks also for finding that great photo. Barbara had many special healing gifts besides her singing. I don’t ever remember her cooking dinner (maybe someone else does) but she was generous, thoughtful and brilliant at everything else. And absolutely beautiful to look at, all the way up to the very end.

  4. I am saddened to hear of Barbara’s death, but relieved to know she will no longer be tortured by her illness. Jeanie is the best friend a person could ever have! Barbara was so kind to me and even came out to one of my gigs which meant a whole lot. She is one of my absolute favorite singers. Her her tone is so unique and always draws me in. Her intonation and time are perfect and I’m happy you picked “Where Have You Been.” It has always been one of my favorites of hers.

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