From Whitney Balliett’s Jazz Survivors column in the New Yorker, May 20, 1985
Here is how one of Barbara Lea’s sets went recently at Jan Wallman’s. She warmed up with Alec Wilder’s “It’s a Fine Day for Walkin’ Country Style,” decorating it with a passage of handsome whistling. Cole Porter’s “Dream Dancing”, brought out of obscurity during the past ten years by jazz musicians, followed in a medium tempo. Then she did a slow “Limehouse Blues,” converting it into a sad ballad and linking it to an equally slow version of the beautiful “Poor Butterfly.” She did some growling and shouting on “Harlem on My Mind,” written by Irving Berlin for Ethel Waters,and passed easily through Annie Dinerman’s busy “Valentine.” She sang Rodgers and Hart’s “I Must Love You” and Kurt Weill’s “This Is New,” ad lib. She swung Rodgers and Hammerstein’s waltz “Hello Young Lovers,” and Rodgers and Hart’s “My Funny Valentine,” which she did with the verse and partly a cappella. And she put great resonance into Jerome Kern’s “Make Believe.” She sang two Dave Frishbergs — a blues and the almost heavy “Green Hills of Earth.” She did a puzzling, very fast rendition of Billie Holiday’s “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” forcing that silly song past its limits. She sang all hundred and eight measures of Porter’s “Begin the Beguine,” doing it a capella and ad lib and in medium-slow time; the song, usually cardboard and paste, became an elegant, even sinuous, ballad. She closed with a dramatic reading of John Clifton and Ben Tarver’s “Come to the Masquerade.” It was an almost flawless set — fulll of first-rate songs, sung with imagination and great care by a singer who sings as easily as she breathes.
“The Young Artist: Miss Barbara Lea”
by Gene Feehan
Metronome, August, 1957
[This page marks the beginning of our two-issue tour through the music
business, covering every aspect of this business as it affects musicians and
singers, particularly jazz musicians and singers. Barbara Lea, whose story
follows below, is representative of the young artist just beginning to find
public acceptance on a scale which is businesslike. The September issue will
similarly feature another young artist, rather four of them, in much the
same way, but otherwise that issue will deal with other subjects.]
It has been too long a time since American music has produced a voice of the
stature of a Lee Wiley, a Lena Horne or a Peggy Lee. There are indications
that Barbara Lea, Down Beat’s “New Singer of the Year,” may fill that gap.
Lest this sound too grandiose a claim, enter Exhibit A: her current prestige
LP, entitled, appropriately enough, “Barbara Lea.” Two hearings should
convince even the most hidebound that this is a voice of rare and
Interviewed after a week-long stint on the Ted Steele TV opus, the
articulate Miss Lea had several carefully chosen words to say on a number of
musically pertinent topics. In discussing the question of vocal
interpretation, she maintains, “A singer should show sincerity,
understanding and feeling. That’s why the thing I dislike most in a singer
is affectation.” It’s a fault common to the current crop of singers, it
would appear: “Many of them seem to be imitating the sounds of the more
established singers, like Sarah, Anita and Chris.”
But there are exceptions, Barbara was happy to add. Among them are Lynn
Taylor and Pinky Winters: “Lynn is the best of the modern jazz singers. She
sounds like the best of Peggy Lee — that is, she sings the way I wish Peggy
would sing more often.”
As for herself, the pert Miss Lea is quick to name Lee Wiley as “the
greatest” in terms of influence on her own development. “People are always
comparing us, but really, I don’t try to sound like her.” Barbara also
nominates Mildred Bailey, Jack Teagarden and Bing Crosby as personal
favorites. “As for Sinatra — well, what can I say? He’s the singer’s
singer.” Her love for the more traditional forms of jazz is the key to her
preferences: “I like Dixie first, and my tastes grow out of that.”
This love is amply reflected in her moving treatment of “I’m Comin’
Virginia,” a standout number on her Prestige LP. It has a personal
reference, too. While she was studying Music Theory at Wellesley, she swung
with the Crimson Stompers, Harvard’s Dixieland crew. “I sang some Dixie
tunes, did rhythm numbers, and, of course, ballads.”
Despite the scholastic demands on her time, the young Detroit miss dedicated
herself to building a solid backlog of show biz experience. She sang with
the Wellesley Choir, handled a jazz deejay spot on WBS (the school’s radio
outlet), wrote a jazz column for the campus sheet, appeared in a student
showcasing of “The Beggar’s Opera,” conducted and arranged for the Wellesley
Madrigal Group — and somehow managed to maintain superior grades.
In 1951, with her A.B. degree firmly in grip, she departed for more
professional pastures. First step was a series of appearances at cocktail
lounges in Boston. (“It’s still my spiritual home,” she admits.) A switch to
the northern New Jersey circuit brought her to the attention of New York
deejay Art Ford of Station WNEW. He signed her to a spot on his talent show,
“One Week Stand.”
The Lea telephone began to jangle, and Barbara was on her way. Her
appearances since that date sound like an itinerary of American niteries:
Child’s Paramount, the Westmore, the Village Vanguard, Dore’s, the London
East, Winston’s Theatre Grill in Toronto, and many more. TV and radio dates
followed in like profusion.
And, like all good singers, Barbara made some records. A single for Cadillac
(“Anyplace I Hang My Hat Is Home” / “I’ll Bet You a Kiss”) created a splash
among the critics. Her next move was to cut an LP, “A Woman in Love,” for
Riverside, and once again the reviewers were delighted. Eddie Condon,
conscious of his role as the Evelyn Waugh of West 3rd Street, intoned the
following (presumably for quoting purposes): “She’s not bad, and should
improve. The only way for her to go is up. A little more seasoning and she’
ll be a costly act.” Other savants were considerably less inhibited in their
From this reviewer’s standpoint, her sturdiest claim for attention rests on
a two-tiered foundation: her swinging Prestige LP and her personal impact as
a singer. With even better albums and performances just ahead of her, it
looks like Miss Lea is clearly here to stay.
Pdf scans of a New Yorker article by Whitney Balliett published on February 27, 1978.
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.