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No one expected Barbara Lea to have opinions. For the “attractive young vocalist,” as Lea was so often sold during her mid-’50s heyday, “attractive” and “young” were inevitably as or more important traits to many of the critics who assessed her work as the quality of her singing.
That meant it took decades for the strident mandates and calculated process behind Lea’s understated, polarizing style to become anything more than an aside — but to her, they were always central. If her approach wasn’t necessarily singular, the ideas behind it certainly were; to use contemporary parlance, her takes were hot.
“A singer should show sincerity, understanding and feeling,” Lea told Metronome in a 1957 profile, published shortly after the release of her second and final album for artsy jazz label Prestige, Lea In Love. “That’s why the thing I dislike most in a singer is affectation.” Not explicitly incendiary, until you consider the implications and collateral flame-throwing: “Affectation,” in Lea’s mind, included all but the most subtle vocal adornments, as well as improvisation via scatting — an art whose foremost practitioner, at that point, was Ella Fitzgerald.
“I don’t agree with a lot of jazz singers that the voice should be an instrument,” she said in a 1959 interview. “I say if they want to be an instrument, let them go out and learn to play one. The trouble with the voice as an instrument is that the words get mangled and meaningless.”
Lea would carry the same strong convictions through her artistic career. Critic David Hajdu once recalled sharing a table with Lea during the performance of a gifted vocal improviser — and Lea covered her mouth with a napkin. “I was ready to cheer,” he wrote in the New Republic upon her passing in 2012, “and Lea looked about to throw up.”
It made some sense, then, that an artist with such a sharp critical sensibility would be a critical darling herself, even if most of the people praising her early and best-known work gave little credence to her own forceful aesthetic principles. Lea was anointed Best New Singer of 1956 by the voters in DownBeat magazine’s annual critics’ poll on the strength of her 1955 debut, A Woman In Love. Her seemingly rigid approach to singing translated in a kind of understated, intimate, cosmopolitan efficiency — just enough smokiness and casual swing to fit in at an after-hours club, but with the polish and slickness of a capital-A Artist who would never privilege atmosphere or cheap thrills over presenting songs in their best possible light.
Lea recorded twice more in the ’50s, an eponymous album followed by Lea In Love. That final installment in the first phase of her recording career found her following the cool jazz leanings that drew critics to her to some of their logical, chamber jazz ends — harp and bassoon make an appearance, among other unorthodox accompaniments. Lea, who would study acting after retreating from the music scene, approached each song like the best possible script, not words to be obscured by overwhelming emotion, but to be elevated by judicious, understated interpretation. She followed her own rules right into an often overlooked, but crucial spot in jazz and cabaret history.
The singer, born Barbara Ann LeCocq in Detroit in 1929, often said she had been certain of her future profession from a young age. Her father, who eventually became the Assistant Attorney General of Michigan, was also an accomplished clarinetist; Lea described their home as full of instruments and songs. By the time she left for Wellesley to study music theory in the mid-1940s, Lea had already done some gigs around Detroit, becoming well-acquainted with the “girl in the band” role that became so ubiquitous during the swing era.
She refined her particular approach to the music accompanying Dixieland jazz groups at Harvard and playing at clubs around Boston — even working at George Wein’s Storyville as a ticket taker for a time. Entering the scene at a time when the New Orleans-fixated moldy figs and the so-called “boppers” were in the midst of an escalating feud about what the future of jazz should look like, Lea had a stated affiliation with the traditionalists. Yet little of that retro sensibility seeped into her own work, made modern by its minimalism.
Instead, by the time she graduated in 1951, Lea was looking for inspiration in artists like Lee Wiley, who seamlessly married American popular song and an easy jazz flair. The most popular singers of the early ’50s — the last gasp of traditional American pop before the rock ’n’ roll and R&B floodgates opened — all dabbled in varying amounts of jazz to temper their overwhelming schmaltz. But Wiley and, later, Lea approached the American songbook with reverence and understanding of how jazz instrumentation and inflection could be used to translate those songs in a fresh way. Both deployed precise phrasing and intonation that scanned as “classically trained,” but with a light touch.
Lea didn’t call herself a jazz singer or a pop singer. Instead, she looked at the songs on their own terms — the notes and words on the page — mining each facet almost exclusively as written, plumbing their depths for more and more meaning. She relished uncovering lesser-known tunes to add to her repertoire, digging through piles of sheet music in record stores, but on A Woman In Love, the singer gave even Gershwin chestnuts a new sheen, simply through a close reading of the score. Accompanied by the impossibly delicate piano of Billy Taylor, Lea performs the rarely heard introduction to “Love Is Here To Stay” (which makes the entire song make a little more sense) and distills the song to its romantic, swaying-on-the-dancefloor core — a performance that earned her acclaim from The New York Times, which described it as “delightfully easy and relaxed.”
It is that effortlessness — or at least the perception of it, since we know how studiously Lea approached her craft — that helped set the singer apart in an increasingly crowded field, and helped set the stage for a slew of cool, sultry contemporaries, many of whom achieved greater success without the same attention to detail.
On Lea In Love, the singer’s restraint serves as the perfect foil for casual, lilting experimentation from her accompanists. They improvise, she plays it straight, and the balance makes it sound like the listener is a fly on the wall of the hippest club in Greenwich Village. It is the opposite of the weighty, overwrought arrangements that so many of Lea’s contemporaries — brilliant singers who were on major labels — had to carry; it is bright, airy and new.
There are intimate ballads. “Autumn Leaves,” performed partially in French and with only piano, bass and guitar accompaniment, becomes practically a contemporary art song in Lea’s capable hands. “The Very Thought of You” is revived with Lea’s approximation of a big band: alto horn, bassoon, baritone saxophone and a standard rhythm section, and an arrangement that leaves acres of space for Lea to wring out the emotion in the Ray Noble classic. A less-known Cole Porter tune, “True Love,” is also given the art song treatment thanks to accompaniment by pioneering harpist Adele Girard, with Lea almost whispering — making a lullaby of the love song.
Equally effective are the jaunty swung tunes, with a healthy dose of whimsy that doesn’t sound trite. “We Could Make Such Beautiful Music Together,” “Am I In Love?” and “Mountain Greenery” all skirt cliché simply by giving all their musicians space to breathe. Her commitment to the text is shown on Cole Porter’s stalker anthem “I’ve Got My Eyes On You,” on which her typically gentle voice flashes a sinister, maniacal edge, and “Sleep Peaceful, Mr. Used-To-Be,” a distilled version of a full-on Broadway production (complete with celeste interlude) that finds Lea in a rare belt: “But you’re never in this world gonna get the best on anybody anyMORE!” she nearly yells to close the album.
Arguably, the album’s greatest triumph is “More Than You Know,” a song with simplicity and depth that seem tailor-made to Lea’s strengths. A break for a Johnny Windhurst trumpet solo, coming from somewhere off to the side of the microphone, adds to its spontaneous feel, as does a breathed “Honey” from Lea. Listeners can certainly hear the influence of Mabel Mercer and the way that Lea fit into the cabaret lineage she spawned, but Lea In Love feels a mote more lively and collective than the more standard one-man-show fare it might have inspired. Lea’s fixation on a kind of personal authenticity — an emotional rendering that felt true to her, rather than to an audience’s idea of a song — translates, for the most part, into an insistent originality, despite the fact that Lea had no intention of carving her own way. She simply had opinions about the best way to do things, and did them accordingly.
Lea’s academic fervor for the music never translated into much more acclaim than that DownBeat poll. Fittingly, given her interest in interpretation, she began studying theatre not long after the release of Lea In Love and soon took a hiatus from music entirely. She returned with the same inimitable gift for translating strident, obsessive process into engaging, evocative and unforced musical results. She even wrote a book on how to sing, and yet the world is not filled with Barbara Leas, suggesting her skill wasn’t simply in her rigor — as she might have insisted — but in something deeper.
“All I can tell you is that you have to know the story before you can tell the story,” she told NPR in 1991. “People are so interested in selling their sadness or selling their joy or whatever it is, but they don't ever bother to feel.”
Natalie Weiner is a writer living in Dallas. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Billboard, Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, NPR and more.