Sunday, January 15, 2012

Remembering Barbara Lea

1956 photo by Bob Parent
Well, better late than never. With my love of American Popular Songs and the people who perform them, I can't believe I missed out on the wonderful singer and song scholar Barbara Lea, who died on December 26. NPR, on top of things as usual, ran an engrossing Fresh Air interview from 1991 in which Lea sings the best version of “Begin the Beguine” I've ever heard, plus several rarities. 
There isn't much on youtube, but what's there is choice, like this rendition of Hoagy Carmichael and Paul Francis Webster's “Baltimore Oriole.” Lea's CDs are fairly pricey at the moment, but I'm going to persevere.


One video finds her discussing the artistry of Lee Wiley with Japanese actress Miyamoto (star of A Taxing Woman). Like Wiley, Lea had both a beautiful tone and intonation as well as out-of-this-world interpretive skills (she was also an actress). She discloses to Miyamoto that Wiley gave her the courage to not improvise.
Pertinently, David Hajdu writes in The New Republic that he had “the equivalent of a seminar in popular singing over drinks with Barbara. As a listener and singer, Lea lived by a small set of classical ideals, which she put into words something like these: the singer should serve the song; improvisation is indulgence; words and lyrics should be honored in careful balance; if you don’t love a song, don’t sing it.”
Johnny Mercer once said of Lea, “One of the great pleasures of writing songs is that someone with the talent, good taste, and sincerity of Barbara Lea may sing them,” and New Yorker critic Whitney Balliett wrote, “Barbara Lea has no superior among popular singers.”
The song may be slight and the sound spotty, but Lea's gifts override it all:

No comments:

Post a Comment