Barbara Lea, jazz singer: 1929-2011

December 28, 2011 at 8:36 pm (Cross-post, good people, jazz, Jim D, song)

From Jazz Lives:

Young Miss Lea

The remarkable jazz singer Barbara Lea has left us. Her dear friend Jeanie Wilson writes, “I am deeply saddened to have to report the death of our own Barbara Lea, “The High Priestess of Popular Song”. She died peacefully yesterday, Monday, December 26, here in Raleigh, North Carolina; I was with her as were my husband, Bill, and our dear friend, Junk. And as most of you already know, Barbara has been battling Alzheimer’s for quite some time. So, “Sleep Peaceful”, dear Barbara… we will miss you but now you are free to sing once again.”

I know that many JAZZ LIVES readers have their own memories of hearing and working with Barbara, which I will share in an upcoming post. For now, this is the way I and so many others will think of her:

It’s an informal exploration of SKYLARK at the 1983 Manassas Jazz Festival — where Barbara is backed empathically by tenor saxophonist Mason “Country” Thomas, who also left us in 2011; Larry Eanet, piano; Butch Hall, guitar; Van Perry, bass; Tom Martin, drums. Thanks to Sflair for the original video and for sharing it with us on YouTube:

A musician who worked and recorded with Miss Lea several times is the fine drummer Hal Smith, who had this to say, “She had a lovely voice, terrific intonation, perfect diction and her voice aged very well. I had heard that she adopted the last name of “Lea” as a tribute to Lee Wiley. If that’s true, she deserved to invoke Ms. Wiley’s name. At the recording session she was well-prepared with a list of songs and keys, easy-to-read charts and ideas for routines. In that respect, and in her pleasant demeanor, she reminded me of another great vocalist — with the last name of Kilgore.”

Saxophonist, pianist, and director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, Loren Schoenberg, also worked with and learned from Barbara: “Barbara Lea passed away this week and the world has lost an exemplary interpreter of 20th century popular music and I’ve lost a dear friend and mentor.

I was driving Benny Carter down Seventh Avenue to a rehearsal years ago and Louis Armstrong came over the radio playing “Ain’t Misbehavin’” . Benny’s response was “Listen to that – no bullshit!” And in the generous sense in which Benny meant it, one can transpose the same comment to Barbara’s music, though I’m sure she wouldn’t be happy with that language.

She was above all an intelligent and classy lady, with a gift for discovering the melodic and lyrical essence of a song. We started working together in the late 70’s and continued up to the point her illness made it impossible several years ago. If I heard her sing one tune, I heard her sing several hundred, because I was first and foremost a fan, and went to as many of her gigs as I could, many times with my parents. The Mr. Tram ensemble we had with Dick Sudhalter and Daryl Sherman was nothing less than a joy. You should have heard the conversations; they were as good as the music! Barbara was incapable of coasting when she sang. No wonder so many composers, starting with Alec Wilder, were so crazy about her. What a variety of timbres she had, and a variety of ways of phrasing to match the words. Scatting wasn’t for her, and she was forthright about her opinions, and blessedly empathetic with others who didn’t necessarily agree with her. There’s much more to be said about her, but for the essence, just listen. It’s ALL there.”

We’ll miss Barbara Lea.

(Thanks to David J. Weiner, Hal Smith, and Loren Schoenberg for their help).



  1. Jim Denham said,

    IMHO the best ever recorded version of Hoagy’s ‘Baltimore Oriel’ – Barbara with the the ill-fated trumpeter Johnny Windhursts’s Quartet:

  2. Fan said,

    Oriole (note “oriel”), Jim (… from an old fan of the baseball team).

  3. Fan said,

    And “not”, not “note” (above)… ugh!

  4. Jim Denham said,

    I stand corrected. You’re not the first to note that spelling isn’t my strong suit. But it’s a great song, beautifully performed, eh?

  5. Fan said,

    The best, Jim. Thanks for the link. I had sort of forgotten what a marvellous voice she had.

  6. Pinkie said,

    My once a year recommendation of this site.

    Lovely song.

    (Shame about the saxophonist at the start.)

  7. Jeanie Wilson said,

    Death date is incorrect for Ms. Lea. She died on December 26, 2011. I know because I was with her. Please change that detail — it is now already wrong on Wikipedia too. Thanks.

  8. Jim Denham said,

    Dear Jeanie,

    Whilst it’s an honour to have you (Barbara’s good friend and carer) commenting here, I must admit to being somewhat mystified as to your point about the “incorrect” date. The post (cross-posted from Michael Steinman’s ‘Jazz Lives’ blog without any changes), gives the date of Barbera’s death as Monday December 26, quoting a communication from yourself.

    Were you looking at the date of the posting here (and at Jazz Lives), December 28th?

    Anyway, thanks for being a good friend to the wonderful Barbara and being with her at the end.

  9. Jeanie Wilson said,

    I posted because Wikipedia linked your blog as the obit page…. not sure why exactly. And the date of your first post was the 28th so that must be where they got the date. Sorry to have bothered you, Jim. But the date has now been fixed. Thanks for your posts about dear Barbara….much appreciated.

  10. Jim Denham said,

    Yes, that must have been the explanation. Thank you Jeannie and best wishes. Barbara’s wonderful music lives on.

    PS: I’ve just been reading your sleeve-notes to the 2006 Audiophile CD “Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans” (one of Barbara’s last, where her voice sounds mature, wise and warm) and they end with this exhortation:

    “Enough talk from me. Now it’s time to revel in the indestructible and unique spirit of The Big Easy with the magic of Barbara Lea & the Bob Havens Jazz Band in New Orleans — pop the CD into your player and let the celebration begin!”

    I’m about to do just that…

    • Jeanie Wilson said,

      That’s wonderful, Jim. Hope you enjoyed the music… it was indeed Barbara’s last CD (though one song on “Black Butterfly” was recorded after that) New Orleans was just starting to recover from hurricane Katrina; in fact, the recording date was delayed about 6 months because of the destruction.

  11. Rodney Fisk said,

    Did you know that Barbara used to sing under the name of “Midge Barber” and that “Lea” was merely a shortening of her birth name “Leacock”? I know because her brother was married to my sister.

  12. Jeanie Wilson said,

    Barbara made only one recording under the name Midge Barber. You’re Betsy’s brother? And yes, Lea is shortened from Leacock though her true birthname was LeCocq — her father changed it.

  13. Rodney Fisk said,

    Of course, you’re right. I now remember Martin (her father) mentioning that he used to be “Marion LeCocq”, and yes, I’m Betsy’s kid brother.

    So, what was the song she recorded under “Midge Barber”?

    Answer: “(As I snapped my) Orange Suspenders”!

  14. Kevin Roberts said,

    I plan to broadcast 2 hours of Barbara Lea on Thursday Jan 5 from 8-10 PM eastern time on WRPI-FM 91.5 (Troy, NY, next to Albany). If the webstream is working you can get there at

    The station has a strong signal (10,000 watts) but we have had occasional transmitter problems, so if there is a problem, I hope to reschedule.

    I will probably focus this program on the early Riverside and Prestige recordings and the earlier period of Audiophile recordings (late 1970’s to early 80’s). I have the later recordings, but I just broadcast a special on Barbara’s later period in the past year and prefer to play the earleir period for this show. Unfortunately, I did not record that show (it can be difficult to
    run everything).

  15. Betsy Leacock said,

    This is to chear up a misunderstanding on how Barbara got her name. She did not take the name Lea as a tribute to Lee Wiley. She was Barbara Leacock, then changed her name to Barbara Lea when she became a professional singer and actress. She was born Barbara LeCocq. Her father was born Marion Lecocq but changed his name to Martin Leacock when running for public office in the thirties. He was Assistant Attorney General in Michigan for many years. Barbara also took the name Midge Barber when recordning songs she disliked so much that it embarrased her to us her real name. Barbara was my sister-in-law and dear friend whom I miss very much.

  16. Jim Denham said,

    Thanks for clearing that up, Betsy. I suspected that the account you’ve given was the case, rather than the “tribute to Lee Wiley” explanation.

    Nevertheless, given the friendship between the two singers and the similarity in their styles (though Barbara had her own distinctive style and was never a Lee Wiley copyist), it’s not surprising that the “Wiley” has some currency.

    It’s so good to hear from people like you, Rodney and Jeanie, who actually knew Barbara and can comment with authority on the facts of her life and career.

  17. betsy leacock said,

    Thanks Rodney for the reminder that Barbara once went by the name Midge Barber. I’d completely forgotten until I remembered when she told me she used that name when she had to record a song so awful that she was embarrassed to use her own name! Betsy Fisk Leacock

  18. Jim Denham said,


    by jazzlives

    We miss Barbara Lea, who died at the end of 2011.

    Her dear friend Jeanie Wilson has planned a memorial service for Barbara — full of deeply felt music and tart stories in honor of “The High Priestess of Popular Song.”

    It will take place on Monday, April 16, 2012, at 7:00 PM, at St. Peter’s Church (54th St. & Lexington Ave., New York City), with Barbara’s good friend, singer Daryl Sherman, as host. The performers and speakers will include Bob Dorough, Steve Ross, Marlene VerPlanck, Ronny Whyte, Melissa Hamilton, Jack Kleinsinger, George Wein, Joyce Breach, Roger Schore, Jan Wallman, Karen Oberlin, Lewis Chambers, Sue Matsuki, Tedd Firth, Harry Allen, Annie Dinerman, Dick Miller, The Speakeasy Jazz Babies, James Chirillo, Boots Maleson, David Hajdu, and others.

    W.B. Yeats writes “Say that my glory was I had such friends.” I hope to see you at the memorial service — to let Barbara know just how much she is loved, missed, remembered. And although memorial services remind us that the object of our affections is no longer with us, we go out thinking of that person with something deeper than funereal gloom.

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