Twenty years ago a very promising young singer named Barbara Lea, who reminded some listeners of Lee Wiley, was beginning to make an impression on records and in clubs such as the Village Vanguard. But suddenly nothing more was heard of her– because, it now turns out, she began studying acting to improve her presence as a singer and, through this, went into the theatre. Two decades have changed Miss Lea from a demure, sweet-faced college girl fresh out of Wellesley to a mature, assured, strong-featured woman. And her voice has grown to match her appearance. There are still echoes of Lee Wiley when Miss Lea sings, but her voice has acquired a depth, a deep velvet sound in her chest tones that carries smoothly into the upper register, enabling her to color her songs with exquisite shading and dynamics. Along with this, she has a jazz singer’s ability to lift a dull song, to kick it into life after she has given it the obligatory straight first chorus. She almost invariably succeeds but her full qualities– her easy range, her polish, her sensitive phrasing, the power she can call on– flow brilliantly. There are some things that have to wait for their proper time. Miss Lea’s singing seems to be such a thing and the time, finally, is now. She has become the exemplification of what most singers hope they will sound like but rarely do.
John S. Wilson, New York Times, August 16, 1975
Barbara Lea has no superior among popular singers.
Whitney Balliett, The New Yorker
Out of all the performers to be seen in New York clubs this weekend, none is more artistically distinguished than Barbara Lea…The foremost custodian of an easygoing jazz vocal style… One of the great jazz singers of our time…
Stephen Holden, New York Times
Which brings us to the sublime vocalist, Miss Barbara Lea. A jazz singer in the grand tradition, she would be at home in any era, with any jazz group. Specializing in superior show tunes, she was effective in any setting that she was involved in during the weekend.
Bill Garts, Meadville Tribune
A singer does not arrive easily at that stage in a career when she can be said to hold court during her nightclub appearances. Mabel Mercer was a prime example of one who did, and Barbara Lea, even without Miss Mercer’s regal bearing, has developed that rare aura.
John S. Wilson, New York Times
Lea was just short of astonishing. Closing a medley of songs from Porter’s 1935 Broadway hit Jubilee with “Begin the Beguine,” she treated the tune to a novel reinterpretation by taking to heart its lyrics about romantic chances wasted and singing them with genuine feeling. ..The performance forced you to reconsider the virtues of a song you thought you’d have been perfectly happy never to hear again.
Francis Davis, Philadelphia Inquirer
Aside from the sheer enjoyment of listening to superb music expertly executed, …Barbara Lea can teach you more about music and about singing a song in one hour than you’ll get out of a year of voice lessons.
Bob Harrington, BackStage
Lea’s voice and delivery, her beautiful intonation and interpretations are unsurpassed. Captivating…
Phil Elwood, San Francisco Examiner
Barbara Lea is that rarity in this day and age, a singer whose voice is a musical instrument, whose reading of a lyric makes complete sense, who knows how to phrase and shade, has style, charm, and the ability to evoke the opulent glamour of a night on the town with caviar and champagne.
Mike Butcher, Melody Maker, London
Barbara Lea, one of our finest singers, is simply superb in her rendering of the classics… a great actress…
Bob Goodman, Cab Magazine
…her gift for understatement, her ability to invest a song with a subliminal jazz flavor while avoiding the trap ofbending it out of shape… She can sing “I Got Rhythm” as if she were unaware that it is not supposed to be a ballad, nor is it customary to whistle, as she did, an ad-lib solo in the second chorus. ..
Leonard Feather, L.A. Times
She’s terrific… a fine singer, with good intonation and excellent diction. She takes liberties with time and phrasing, but never to the detriment of the words. Even by cabaret singer standards, Lea has an amazing talent for seeking out fine songs, most from the ’30s through ’50s, with exceptional lyrics.
Todd Everett, L.A. Herald
Her voice is mature without ever seeming old; it has strength, with a touch of fragile huskiness that adds humanity. She brings understanding and emotion to her material, but always with a subtle touch.
The glow on the New York cabaret scene seems to be especially bright these days… Lea is often classified as a jazz singer… While she has a jazz musician’s understanding of and appreciation for music, her renditions are uncommonly direct and pure… with sensitivity, intelligence, and an artistry that is so commanding there is a majesty about it.
Roy Sander, Back Stage
…quite different, quite special vocal gifts… a striking ability to make lyrics sound immediate… thoroughly inimitable…
Peter Reilly, Stereo Review
Her voice has grown steadily in depth and resonance, and her timing and diction are flawless. She works by hand, and she is a masterly craftsman.
Whitney Balliett, The New Yorker
One of the great pleasures of writing songs is that someone with the talent, good taste and sincerity of Barbara Lea may sing them.
Most impressive was the way Barbara Lea sang everything and communicated so completely with her listeners — with her smooth-as-satin tones, her ungimmicky, no-nonsense style, impeccable phrasing, clear but understated dramatic insights, and, where appropriate, her warm sense of humor.
Roy Hemming/David Hadju (Discovering Great Singers of Classic Pop, 1991)
Like a cat with 9 lives, world-class singer Barbara Lea stays poised and ready to pounce on whatever life blows her way. Redefining herself with each new life, she has come full circle. She burst on the scene as a smoky voiced jazz singer 50 years ago. There were critically acclaimed recordings, appearances on TV and radio, touring with top musicians and engagements at legendary jazz clubs like the Village Vanguard. When the changing music scene of the 1960s left her without work as a singer, she morphed into an actress, playing diverse roles in theaters around the country and in two Hollywood movies, swapping the East coast for the West coast for a time. Undeterred by three failed marriages, she found herself back in New York in the 70s, singing once more, playing clubs and again making TV and radio appearances as well as her first studio recording in 19 years. She caught the cabaret bug for a time and later, when important figures in that arena thought she had retired, she jumped back in with a vengeance proving that nothing, especially her 70+ years, could keep her down. This feisty, gorgeous blonde with cheek bones to die for has thrown her hat back into the jazz arena where she rightfully belongs, up there with the best. Time hasn’t changed the voice, which is strong and rock steady, full of the passion and knowing that only maturity can bring. Her interpretations of songs from the Great American Songbook, sung the way songwriters intended, are legendary and her latest repertoire, which returns the smoky voiced jazz singer to her jazz roots, finds her back swinging with the best of them. Welcome home!
Jeanie Wilson, Raleigh, NC