A Singer’s Singer
Barbara Leacock Lea ‘51
By Laura Clayton
If you were born before 1950, there’s a good chance you can hum these gems: “Begin the Beguine,” “Blue Skies,” “Call Me Irresponsible,” “Georgia on my Mind,” or “Embraceable You.” These are the kind of tunes that soothed a war-weary and Depression-Era generation.
But each dreamy melody written decades ago by a Hoagy Carmichael or a Harold Arlen needed an equally dreamy performance – and Barbara Lea knew from the beginning how to give one. With a deep, velvety voice, and a natural musicianship that informed every phrase and dramatic pause, she established herself soon out of college as one of the top interpreters of American song. She went from music theory major Barbara Leacock – to Barbara Lea, the singer.
Lea has since been called a “walking encyclopedia” of the Great American Songbook (that body of popular songs roughly spanning 1920 to 1960), based on years spent collecting sheet music (her New York apartment has six giant file cabinets full) and researching composers. But her intimate knowledge of this music comes, not from bookishness, but from untold hours of late-night gigs behind the microphone laying bare for her listeners the musical and emotional rebar of the genre.
“She could really cast a spell,” says Loren Schoenberg, jazz saxophonist and band leader who has performed with Lea and known her since the late 1970s. Though her style of singing was never destined to appeal to the masses, he says, “she doesn’t take a second seat” in his eyes to super-star singers he has jammed with such as Rosemary Clooney and Ella Fitzgerald. Similar assessments abound, most notably in the 1991 landmark book “Discovering the Great Singers of Classic Pop,” by esteemed critics Roy Hemming and David Hajdu. They place Lea side by side with the likes of Frank Sinatra, Nat “King” Cole, and Barbra Streisand.
From the very beginning of her professional career, heads began to turn. Her first recordings in the 1950s for the Riverside and Prestige jazz labels led her to win the DownBeat International Critics’ Poll as the Best New Singer of 1956. She developed a reputation as an “intelligent” singer who could fuse music and lyrics and delivery into a persuasive whole.
“I’m totally involved when I’m singing,” she once told The New Yorker’s veteran jazz critic Whitney Balliett, who considered her “a singer’s singer.” “I want to weave as nearly complete a tapestry as I can,” she said. “Music is sacred. The song has to control the performance. Doing anything else – employing this or that trick – to make the audience applaud is an outrage. Then you are making them applaud you.”
Over the years Lea was dedicated to advancing the quality and sophistication of popular singing (much like her idol, Lee Wiley, did decades before). This drew her into deep explorations of great composers and lyricists such as Cole Porter, Alec Wilder, Jimmy Van Heusen, Rogers and Hart, Johnny Mercer, and Noel Coward. This effort also extended to lesser-known names whose work she felt deserved attention including women songwriters such as Dorothy Fields, Carolyn Leigh, and Lily Strickland. She had a canny ear for great melodies and great lyrics — and no patience for anything less.
“Her musicianship was impeccable,” says dorm mate Charlotte McCreary Culver ’51, who sang with Lea in the college choir. “When most of us were trying to figure out what to do for a major, she was clear about going into music.” At Wellesley she threw herself into everything musical, both popular and classical, having grown up in a musical family back home in Detroit, Michigan. She wrote a jazz column for the campus paper, worked at the radio station, conducted a madrigal singing group, and sang with a Harvard dixieland band called the Crimson Stompers.
Stompers’ band member Bill Dunham remembers those days. “We were knocked out after hearing her sing, and we quickly appointed her the band vocalist. She was an instant success and a great hit with all the fraternities and concerts we played.”
Unfortunately, Lea no longer sings because of health reasons. She was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease seven years ago and now lives full-time with her publicist and caregiver, Jeanie Wilson. But that didn’t stop her initially from performing. “Singing wasn’t just a career for Barbara,” says Ms. Wilson. “She never gave up growing and expanding. At age 75 she was having voice lessons to make sure she could do the best she could to.” Her last recording was in 2007.
Those tireless efforts have left a legacy of some 20 available compact discs, including digital reissues of vinyl recordings, in which she has collaborated with some of the best musicians in the business such as Marian McPartland, Johnny Windhurst, Yank Lawson, Billy Butterfield, Bob Dorough, and Richard Sudhalter. Her interpretative style, deliberately void of improvisation and “riffing” with melodies has been characterized as a “songwriter’s dream” for the way it adheres to the composer’s original intent.
“She just hated bad performances,” relates fellow classmate and longtime friend Frances Maxon Huxley ’51, as when, for instance, people would sing Les Brown’s bluesy “Sentimental Journey” at breakneck speed. “She cared about the words,” she says. “When you hear Barbara sing something, it’s a revelation….You are listening to a song that you thought you knew, and then you sit up straight and say, ‘oh, this is what this song is about!’”
Lea’s spare singing approach infused with a quiet, determined passion endeared her to serious jazz and cabaret fans. During a 1987 run at the veteran cabaret owner Jan Wallman’s hotspot in New York, Stephen Holden of The New York Times penned this description: “Ms. Lea’s singing appears almost artless in its simplicity. Everything she touches is suffused with an aura of calm self-possession colored by a steady, understated sensuality of tone and inflection.”
One of the instrumentalists on that occasion was jazz pianist Daryl Sherman who had gotten to know Barbara in the mid-‘70s when she was singing at another top New York nightclub, Michael’s Pub.
“She was very serious about the craft. She’d take ‘Begin the Beguine’ and strip it down to its naked self and not do it as this snappy Latin thing. It then became a dramatic tour de force,” she says, with a kind of parlando breathiness that brought out the heartbreaking emotion of lost love.
Such soul-baring, however, had not always come easy. Remarkably, Lea suffered from shyness and stage fright up through the early part of her career. In the 1960s, with the onset of Beatlemania and a downturn of public interest in classic pop, she saw an opportunity to improve her stage presence by pursuing the theater, performing an impressive list of leading and feature roles around the country. She got a masters degree in drama from San Fernando Valley State College (now California State University at Northridge) but eventually returned to New York where she taught drama and speech, feeling that her days of singing were probably over.
In the 1970s, however, interest in show tunes and jazz standards revived, and so did demand for her singing, especially after an appearance on the Peabody-Award winning National Public Radio series, “American Popular Song with Alec Wilder and Friends.” She went on to perform at the Rainbow Room, Carnegie Hall, and Town Hall in New York, and at the JVC, Kool, and Newport Jazz Festivals. Her myriad appearances and recordings thereafter, right up through her last recording in 2007, “You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans?” (Audiophile), demonstrated that with advancing years, her musicality deepened.
Alan Brody, professor of theater at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with whom she studied acting, sums it up this way: “Barbara had found an ability to go to her own inner imagery, and the singing became that much richer.” Subordinating ego and artifice, she lived “in the musical moment.”
Published in the alumnae magazine, Wellesley Spring 2009