Spiritual Sisters of American Song

by Will Friedwald
New York Sun, January 22, 2007

"Black Butterfly" is the kind of song it takes a lifetime to learn to sing properly. Indeed, even its composer, Duke Ellington, never bothered to perform it with the lyrics. Even though Barbara Lea has been performing "Black Butterfly" for decades in a marvelous arrangement by the late Benny Carter, she has only just recorded it for her most recent album (available from CD Baby), on which it is the title track.

Ms. Lea waited this long for several reasons: first, because opportunities to record with a full orchestra are rare, and this new album utilizes the big band of her frequent collaborator, the pianist and saxophonist Loren Schoenberg. No less important, it took Ms. Lea this long to get her interpretation of "Black Butterfly" exactly where she wanted it, and it's a difficult song to get right. The lyrics, credited to Ben Carruthers, are clearly derivative of Ellington's 1932 "Sophisticated Lady." Where that song scolded its subject for dancing and dining with men in restaurants, the Black Butterfly's sins are apparently so heinous that they can only be intimated in the text, in which the speaker lambastes her -- "laughter's yours, so is scorn" -- and wags a finger at her -- "change your ways and repent!"

Ellington apparently approved of these lyrics, but it's hard to imagine that he shared their sentiments. From what we know of the Maestro's private life, both "Black Buttterfly" and "Sophisticated Lady" are precisely the kind of playmates with whom he would have enjoyed spending an evening. I doubt Ms. Lea agrees with the message of the song, either; as an independent woman who has made her own way in the jazz business for 60 years, she is obviously aware of the inherent sexism in the text. Yet the great actress and singer doesn't let this prevent her from giving the song a thrilling performance.

In the hands of a lesser interpreter, Carruthers's text might seem awkward and sanctimonious. But Ms. Lea has spent decades learning how to exploit the critical distance between the words and the performer. When she sings, "But with morning's early light / there's not a heart to really call your own," she's not singing with scorn but lovingly, with such utter conviction that the speaker's views, far-fetched as they might seem in the printed text, become not only hers but the listener's as well.

There are different grooves on Ms. Lea's album. The obscure "When They Ask About You" and the classic "Come Rain or Come Shine" are in a slow blues feel, while "I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart" (also arranged by Carter) and "If I Love Again" are measured swingers in a gentle, rocking tempo. But it's the ballads that linger the longest in the heart, particularly the moving "How Will I Remember You?" "Blackberry Winter" is a typically somber dirge by Alec Wilder -- whatever musical or lyrical value it has is compromised by the sheer gloom and depression it projects (like much of Wilder's music) -- yet Ms. Lea makes it more than potable. Likewise, the same composer's "It's So Peaceful in the Country" is a tune whose sentiments have always irked me: It's always brought to mind the W.C. Fields line, "The city is no place for girls, but pretty men go thar." But when Ms. Lea sings it, I find myself taking a sentimental journey to a place I've never been -- or ever wanted to go to.

Ms. Lea, now 77, is unusual in that she has done much of her best work in her 70s: She's recorded or released six CDs this decade, not counting reissues. As a young singer in the 1940s and '50s, Ms. Lea fell under the spell of the pioneering vocalist Lee Wiley, one of the great primary singers of American jazz and standards, on the same level as Mildred Bailey and Billie Holiday. The primary difference was that Wiley's output was relatively miniscule -- a single here, an aircheck there, with big gaps between gigs and projects. There isn't likely to be a 10-CD box set of her music anytime soon. Wiley was the first singer to do songbook albums (as early as 1939), but only made a handful of LPs in her career. Of these, at least two, 1950's "Night in Manhattan" and 1956's "West of the Moon," are among the greatest jazz vocal albums ever recorded.

Fortuitously, the latter album has just been reissued in a deluxe edition by Mosaic Records. It contains, among other things, just about the greatest "As Time Goes By" ever recorded, with author Herman Hupfeld's remarkable verse, and an easy-swinging, two-beat version of "Keepin' Out of Mischief Now," by Wiley's friend and one-time accompanist Fats Waller. The Dixieland qualities of the latter are supplemented in two bonus tracks from earlier in 1956, in which Wiley interfaces with a traditional style band fronted by the brilliant trumpeter Billy Butterfield.

With her smoky timbre and deep Oklahoma-territory soul, Wiley was one of the first white vocalists to fashion her own take on the blues, and she sang many variations on the form. The closest she comes on "West of the Moon" is the British song "Limehouse Blues," a jam session standard rarely done as a semi-slow ballad. Even with its chinoiserie lyric, "Limehouse" was neither authentically Asian (even though arranger Ralph Burns opens with a flourish of an oriental fantasia) nor a genuine 12-bar blues.

It's easy to see what Ms. Lea learned from Wiley: Like her disciple, Wiley made songs that might otherwise have been hard to swallow believable. "Limehouse Blues," Wiley makes me realize, is a second cousin to "Black Butterfly," a tale of a good-time girl who wears rings on her fingers and tears for a crown. This opium-smoking "Limehouse Kid" is also heading for bad times ("going the way that the rest of them did") unless she changes her ways and repents, but Wiley's masterful phrasing and cool confidence makes it utterly believable.

Lee Wiley left us in 1975. And though there's no reason to believe "Black Butterfly" will be Ms. Lea's last hurrah, it seems unlikely she'll be given the chance to record with a full orchestra again anytime soon. Nevertheless, now at last is the time to recognize her, not merely as one of our last living links to the era of Wiley, Bailey, Holiday, and Ethel Waters, but as one of the greatest interpreters of the American Songbook.