Following is the citation read at the Alumnae Achievement Award ceremony on February 13, 2009:
Barbara Leacock Lea ’51 is one of the most widely respected and admired interpreters of the classic American popular song. An uncompromising jazz singer with style and taste, she has been called “one of the greatest singers of our time” by the New York Times. Her long career has taken her from cabarets and concert stages in Boston to recording studios and the theatres across the world.
Her professional career started upon graduation and her early recordings were met with immediate critical acclaim. In 1956, Ms. Lea won the DownBeat International Critics’ Poll Award as the best new singer. During her career, Ms. Lea has played with Marian McPartland, George Wein, and Bobby Hackett. In 1978, she appeared on the groundbreaking public radio show American Popular Song with Alec Wilder. The program won a Peabody Award and was responsible for the resurgence in her career – leading to albums, performances, and rave notices by the New Yorker, The New York Times, and The Nation.
Although Ms. Lea was an authoritative interpreter of Porter, Gershwin, Rodgers & Hart, and Noel Coward, in her recordings and performances she has made sure to include some lesser-known composers that she felt deserved attention. Her 1996 album, Fine and Dandy, highlighted works from women songwriters whom she felt never got sufficient exposure. Her most recent CD, issued in 2007, “Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans?” was recorded with the Bob Havens Jazz Band in New Orleans post Hurricane Katrina. Ms. Lea has recorded over 450 songs throughout her career.
Joining Kim and me at the podium for the reading of her award citation will be Barbara and her caregiver Jeanie Wilson.
Gifted Jazz musician and inspiring singer, you have been instrumental in establishing the classic pop song as a major art form. You are one of the most respected interpreters of The American Songbook. You have supported young writers, showcasing their work alongside the “standards.” You have brought your intelligence and taste to performing the finest works of both popular and unknown composers.
You entered Wellesley intent on becoming a singer; and indeed your illustrious career began here. You majored in music theory, sang in the college choir, and arranged for and conducted the Madrigal Group. Your professional career began right after graduation and your early recordings won immediate critical acclaim. You have shown uncompromising dedication to sharpening your craft as a musician, despite multiple turns early in your career.
To improve your stage presence, you studied acting, performing an impressive list of leading and feature roles. After receiving a Master’s degree in drama on the West Coast, you returned to New York to teach speech and acting. But your passion has always been singing.
Well known and respected throughout the music world, you have performed in many different venues and your music is available worldwide on dozens of recordings and CDs. You have performed or recorded with artists such as Duke Ellington, Benny Carter, Mel Lewis, Jimmy Raney, Billy Taylor and many, many others. You sing from your heart without ego or artifice. Whatever the music of the day, you stayed true to your voice. One of your Wellesley classmates, a professional musician herself, said of your performances, “She makes every song a moment of truth.” Whitney Balliett, famed critic for the New Yorker, noted, “Barbara Lea has no superior among popular singers.”
A consummate artist, you have a rare and special talent and your career has been one of great achievement, perseverance and dedication. Your life’s work has wrought a profound and positive influence on the American music scene.
For this, Wellesley honors you.