Barbara Lea was born Barbara Ann Le Cocq in Detroit, Michigan, on April 10, 1929, just in time for the Great Depression. Her family moved to the suburb of Melvindale in 1932, and Barbara’s earliest memories are of that move — sitting on rolled-up rugs in a strange place. Times were bleak in the 1930s and she had her first job at the age of 7, when she took over the Saturday Evening Post and Ladies’ Home Journal routes of her brother, Jim. They were unaware that they were poor since everybody was, and perhaps they were better off than most. Barbara had a lot of fun, was an avid reader from the age of 4 and took piano and tap dancing lessons (Shirley Temple was in her heyday). She went to public schools in Melvindale and in Detroit when the family moved back in 1940, and then later attended high school at Kingswood School Cranbrook.
Barbara’s whole family was musical and there were always pianos and ukuleles in the house, which everyone took turns playing. Her father had been a clarinetist; her brother played trumpet and harmonica. The family entertainment was gathering around the piano and singing while her mother played. Most of the songs were not out of the emerging Great American Songbook but various unusual children’s songbooks and books called Community Songbook or Songs You Like To Sing. But popular music was in the air and somehow, even without a radio or a phonograph, she learned about a hundred songs of the 1920s and early 1930s. The most exciting Christmas present Barbara recalled was a wind-up Victrola with steel needles that had to be sharpened for every third playing. Of the half dozen or so 78 rpm records, she distinctly remembered two titles and melodies: Dardanella and Valencia. By the age of 6 or 7, she had decided on a career as a singer but the moment she became serious about singing (performances taking place mostly in amateur contests and summer camp), she developed stage fright which she did not overcome for nearly two decades.
The move from small-town Melvindale back to Detroit was so overwhelming for Barbara that she became extremely shy. There was a benefit to the move, however: her brother made friends with a newspaper record reviewer who became a source of a few more 78s. She particularly remembered Cab Calloway’s The Ghost of Smoky Joe, an album of Louis Armstrong’s Hot 5 and Hot 7, and gorgeous Fats Waller V-discs, recordings made only for distribution to the U.S. Armed Forces. The wind-up Victrola was at last retired, though steel or cactus needles were in use well into the 1950s. Later additions included albums by the so-called Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street featuring two of her earliest influences, Dinah Shore and Lena Horne.
Eventually, Barbara had a radio in her own room but unfortunately did not know about the big-band broadcasts that were so popular in the 1930s and 1940s. She listened to shows such as the Kraft Music Hall featuring Bing Crosby, the Manhattan Merry-Go-Round, and Your Hit Parade (no, not Frank Sinatra, not Dorothy Collins, NOT TV) with, every Saturday night two or three “Extras” — standards from the 1920s or 1930s. In addition, there were disc jockeys and Song Hits magazines selling for ten cents. Barbara soaked up melodies and lyrics like the proverbial sponge, and by the time she finished high school she knew perhaps a thousand songs. She interviewed Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington for a high school paper. When she heard Billie Holiday’s Fine and Mellow on the radio, Billie became her favorite singer for several years. Recognizing that this was something truly different, she switched tracks from pop music to jazz but never wanted to imitate Holiday or Armstrong or Waller or any of her early influences.
When she was 16, her family bought a summer cottage in Belle River, Ontario. A dance band played outdoors every Friday and Saturday night and, trembling with stage fright, Barbara sat in with them for the last few weeks of the summer. The next winter the band got a Saturday night gig at a nightclub in Windsor, Ontario, and asked her to join them as their vocalist. She was delighted to be paid $5 a night. A vocal coach was found, a Mr. Robinson, who decided she needed work, not coaching. He made a few phone calls and soon she was singing weekends with society bands around Detroit. And within the safety of a band her stage fright temporarily disappeared and she was On Her Way!
At Wellesley College, Barbara majored in Music Theory, her sights set firmly on singing but with no idea how this might happen. Fortunately for her, a friend had a date whose roommate, Bill Dunham, played piano in a Harvard dixieland band called the Crimson Stompers. She became their vocalist, usually accompanied on piano by the trombonist, Larry Eanet, who knew hundreds of tunes which he could play in any key. (Eanet wound up playing with most of the important musicians who came through Boston, from Pee Wee Russell to Charlie Parker.) She also had the pleasure of working with Vic Dickenson, Marian McPartland, Edmond Hall, Frankie Newton, Johnny Windhurst and George Wein. After college, Barbara remained in Boston for a year, singing with the same sort of society bands she had worked with in Detroit. She was very popular for her musicianship; she knew and sang every tune they played, saying simply “Put it in E flat” or “Put it in G”. Because of this ability, she was paid $10 a night, rather than the standard $5. Heaven! Salary doubled!
In 1952, Barbara moved to New York armed with a demo tape and an introduction to a very good independent agent; he wanted to book her, but shy as she was, she never went back to his office. However, a family friend, Graham Prince, who was a musician and arranger, wrote a few arrangements for her and got her a gig at a club (which she described as a dive) in Union City, NJ. She was now in the unenviable position of trying to do a nightclub act when she had never seen one. After several weeks, exhausted and discouraged, she left the club and New York, hot-footing it back to Boston.
Things were much easier in the smaller city; Barbara immediately began working in clubs and finally got steady work seven nights a week in various cocktail lounges, where there would be a trio working behind the bar. Now she did not have the responsibility of trying to do an “act”, she just named the tune and the key, and the trio would comply. She tried twice to move back to New York, but the places where she found work were all “joints”, and she returned to Boston. One advantage to Boston was that she found a little second-hand bookstore behind Symphony Hall which had a couple of 3-foot-high stacks of sheet music selling for a nickel each; she combed these looking for show tunes, and sometimes ran out of nickels. But it was a wonderful time for adding to her already considerable repertoire.
Finally Barbara took a trip to New York to make her first recording for Graham Prince’s Cadillac label. She chose an all-star band from the Eddie Condon crowd: Pee Wee Irwin on trumpet, Cutty Cutshall on trombone, Eddie Barefield on clarinet, and George Wettling on drums. Prince had her record a “commercial” song, I’ll Bet You a Kiss, but for the other side of the 78/45 she chose Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home from her favorite Broadway show, St. Louis Woman. This song came to the attention of jazz critics and was listed among notable recordings in DownBeat. Things began to move quickly: she got an extended engagement at Childs’ Paramount restaurant, and photographer Robert Parent took her disc to Orrin Keepnews and Bill Grauer at Riverside Records. She made an LP for Riverside which earned 4-star reviews and was listed in the New York Times as one of the nine best popular vocal albums of 1955, in the company of Bing Crosby, Noel Coward, Sammy Davis, Jr. and the Oklahoma! sound track. On the strength of that recording, she won the DownBeat International Critics’ Poll as Best New Singer of 1956. She married Robert Mantler, its producer, who became her manager, and booked her into clubs from New York to Atlanta, including nine weeks at the legendary Village Vanguard.
Unfortunately this 10-inch LP was released at exactly the time when the industry changed to the 12-inch size. There was a strange dispute with Riverside; as a result they did not proceed with the plan to expand the record, but the rights were tied up in court. Barbara moved to Prestige, where she made two 12-inch LPs, both very well received. The marriage proved to be a disaster and broke up within two years. With no manager, she was insecure about booking herself, and apart from a long tour with such major musicians as Marian McPartland, Teddy Charles, Mose Allison, and Zoot Sims, her singing career went into a long stall. These events coincided with the sea-change in the music industry as rock and roll took over.
However, there was an unexpected turn of events: she had begun studying acting in order to improve her stage presence and overcome her stage fright. Now Barbara fell smack in love with the legitimate theatre. She began working in summer stock and Off-Broadway, doing everything from glamorous femmes fatales to hillbilly grannies, from Sondheim to Shakespeare. Some favorite roles throughout the years have been Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Portia in Julius Caesar, Carlotta in Follies, Angela in Enter Laughing, Joanne in Company, and Fraulein Schneider in Cabaret. She also made two movies: one very bad movie, Rebellion in Cuba, which was so libelous that it was justifiably withdrawn by order of the U.S. State Department, and one very good film, Finnegans Wake, which was shown once in San Francisco after the reel containing her scene was destroyed in a fire!
On the personal side, utilizing her penchant for inappropriate romances, Barbara moved to Los Angeles in 1966 as a bride and returned to the East in 1970, also as a bride. In between, trying to crack Hollywood, she did several commercials and several plays and then got an M.A. in Drama from San Fernando Valley State College (now Cal. State/Northridge). Now back in New York, she taught acting and modern drama at Hofstra University and speech at the American Academy of Dramatic Art until she re-established herself in the New York theatre.
Barbara knew that the music world had moved on, far away from the Great American Songbook she loved so well, and was resigned to the fact that she would never sing again. But at a theatre audition she ran into a pianist she knew. He was playing Tuesday nights at a restaurant near Gramercy Park and invited her to come down and sit in. She did; she sang for an hour and a half without stopping. When the pianist moved to another restaurant, Barbara went along, at $35 per night. One night, in walked Marian McPartland and Alec Wilder. Wilder invited her to do two episodes of a series he was preparing for National Public Radio — the Peabody Award-winning American Popular Song with Alec Wilder and Friends. Her weekend recording this series was attended by Whitney Balliett, jazz critic of The New Yorker, who wrote of the event in two lengthy articles.
Barbara’s career as a singer was now back on track. The two episodes of the radio series were released on LPs (later CDs) by Audiophile, and she began appearing in major nightclubs, including appearances at Michael’s Pub, the Rainbow Room and the Algonquin. In addition, there were concert appearances at Carnegie Hall and Town Hall in New York, and at the Newport, Kool, and JVC jazz festivals, and jazz parties in Toronto, Atlanta, Manassas, and western Pennsylvania.
On television’s Today show, Barbara was the singer chosen for George Gershwin’s 90th birthday celebration. Her theatre background gave her an increasing interest in interpreting songs as the composers and lyricists intended: she did concerts of the works of Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Arthur Schwartz, Cy Coleman, and the Gershwins, as well as cabaret appearances devoted to Kurt Weill, Jerome Kern, Johnny Mercer, and Yip Harburg. Thanks to trumpeter Richard Sudhalter, she became a major interpreter of Hoagy Carmichael over more than twenty years.
Concurrently, Barbara spent over 40 years in spiritual healing studies and instruction and was an ordained minister in the church of Actualism and even performed a marriage ceremony.
And finally, she became, belatedly but joyfully, a big band vocalist — with Bob January, Benny Goodman and, for over 20 years, with Loren Schoenberg, with whom she made several recordings.
Barbara’s life in Barbara’s words. But there is so much more. For instance, Barbara authored the book How To Sing Jazz (Chappell Music Publishing Co.) and sang for several years in the sixteen voice choral group The Lance Hayward Singers. She made several appearances on Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz and did live in studio performances on David Kenney’s WBAI radio show, Everything Old Is New Again. There were London concerts in 2003 with Dick Sudhalter and 2005 with Keith Ingham at Pizza On The Park and frequent appearances at Dick Miller’s annual Music In The Cape Air jazz series at The Provincetown Art Association and Museum. For several years following the death of Edmund Anderson, Barbara was the producer of Midtown Jazz at Midday at St. Peter’s Church in New York City. She received several Backstage Bistro awards and was a longtime member of and frequent contributor to The New York Sheet Music Society.
A probable Alzheimer’s diagnosis in the early 2000s didn’t deter Barbara — she worked up until 2006, continued recording and performing and in 2009 was awarded Wellesley College’s prestigious Alumnae Achievement Award for excellence in her field.
Barbara Lea passed away on December 26, 2011 in Raleigh, NC.
Please check out Barbara’s discography