After a long search, I’ve just obtained a deleted CD by my favourite singer, the now nearly forgotten Lee Wiley. It originally appeared in the mid fifties as a 10″ album called Lee Wiley Sings Rogers and Hart and the CD includes an added bonus: the original sleeve notes by George Frazier (no, not the boxer, but one of the finest jazz writers ever). As one of our missions is to bring you great writing from perhaps unexpected sources, I thought I’d reproduce the notes here. The Youtube clip, by the way, is of Lee singing Rogers and Hart’s Glad To Be Unhappy, but from an earlier (1940) recording, with Max Kaminsky (trumpet), Joe Bushkin (piano) and Bud Freeman (tenor sax) in the band:
George Frazier wrote:
Lee Wiley is one of the best vocalists who ever lived, with a magical empathy for fine old show tunes and good jazz. Indeed, I know of no one who sings certain songs quite so meaningfully, so wistfully. She is, however, an artistic snob and, consequently, simply awful when (as is blessedly rare) somebody persuades her to experiment with mediocre material. When she doesn’t get a lyric’s message, you might as well call the game because of wet grounds. But given a number worthy of her endowments — well, she is miraculous, as, in fact, she is here.
This is a portfolio of songs by Rogers and Hart — not Rogers and that other fellow (who would be Oscar Hammerstein II, who, no disrespect intended, no Larry Hart, he). These are haunting songs — songs that have withstood the ravaging headlong rush of the years, the fickleness of public taste, and the debasement of the lyric to the nadir where we are subjected to, forgive the expression, Be My Life’s Companion. But whatta hell, whatta hell. The gratifying thing is that Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart (who, although dead and buried these many years, is more artistically alive than the no-talent author of Be My Life’s Companion) turned out some lovely, lovely stuff and that Lee Wiley has a superb affinity for it. To my mind, indeed, she is the definitive interpreter of Rogers and Hart.
I do not in the least mind admitting that it gets me livid when most girl singers make it big, for it is my dour conviction that, by and large, they have plenty of nothing. Lee Wiley, however, is an artist. About the vast art of Miss Wiley there is a sophistication that is both eloquent and enduring and utterly uncontrived. Technically, she may leave something to be desired, but artistically she’s simply magnificent, projecting emotion with dignity and warmth, expressing nuances with exquisite delicacy, and always making you share her bliss or heartbreak. She came to New York from Ft. Gibson, Oklahoma, and before long all the right people were bewitched by her incomparable magic. There is no room here to catalogue all the individuals — that is, the prominent ones — who are Wiley devotees, but right offhand I can think of Bing Crosby, Dorothy Kilgallen, Ted Straeter, Victor Young, Louis Armstrong, and Marlene Dietrich. It is my feeling that they, along with a great many other people, will be grateful for this anthology. To my way of thinking, no better Rogers and Hart collection is available. Since de gustibus and so forth, I should probably mention at this point that I rather wish Miss Wiley had substituted, say, The Lady Is A Tramp or the rarely-heard Imagine for Give It Back To The Indians, but this is carping and, in any event, you cannot really fault Indians. As for my enthusiasms, the rendition of Glad To Be Unhappy is marvellous — a great love song interpreted in all its dark splendour. It is all the love affairs ended, all the marriages put asunder, from the beginning of years. It is Fitzgerald’s rich boy walking into the Plaza that stifling Saturday afternoon and suddenly coming upon his girl of once upon a vanished time, married now and big with imminent child. It is an ineffably haunting song, robust yet gentle, and this is its finest reading. It explains, I think, why Miss Wiley is an unqualified enthusiasm with such not-easily-impressed critics as, for instance, Roger Whitaker of the New Yorker, George Avakian of Columbia Records, and Jack O’Brien of the New York Journal-American.
And here, along with Glad To Be Unhappy, are such other small (and maybe not so small) miracles as My Heart Stood Still, Funny Valentine, It Never Entered My Mind and Mountain Greenery, all of them redolent of the suspenseful moments when the house lights lowered and the curtain went up on another show by Rogers and Hart. These are literate tunes, civilised tunes. Where, if you will, is there a more nearly perfect lyric than in It Never Entered My Mind? To me, it seems the greatest lyric ever written, but until I heard Miss Wiley do it, I never realized that it is the greatest by a prodigious margin.
Right about this point, I suppose, there should be the department of how-about-a-great-big-hand-for-the-boys-in-the-band. As it happens, this is a fine little ensemble, providing an accompaniment that is cohesive, rhythmic and gratifyingly unobtrusive. Its members are all, as Professor Kitteridge used to say of Sam Johnson, good men and four-squares. I would, however, like to put in an extra word or two about the stylish young trumpet player. His name is Ruby Braff and, to my ears, he sounds rather in apostolic succession to the late Bunny Berigan, who, coincidentally enough, accompanied Miss Wiley when she recorded a Gershwin anthology a decade or so ago.
Indeed, if I have any objection to this portfolio, it is that it will doubtless assail me with bittersweet memories — with the stabbing remembrance of the tall, breathtakingly lovely Wellesley girl with whom I was so desperately in love in the long-departed November when the band at the Copley Plaza in Boston used to play My Heart Stood Still as couples tea-danced after football games on crisp Saturday afternoons, with reawakened desire for the succession of exquisite girls with whom I spent many a crepuscular hour listening to cocktail pianists give muted voice to Funny Valentine, of the first time I saw Connecticut Yankee, of — Yes, of the first years of my marriage and listening to Lee Wiley late at night. My wife, who knew more about show tunes than any woman has a right to know, had a special affection for You Took Advantage Of Me and she always sang it when her spirits were high. Afterwards, when she had long ceased to sing it, when a judge had severed that which no man is supposed to put asunder, I lived for more than a year with a girl who I had hoped would make me forget. She was not witty or talented or, for that matter, particularly pretty. But she was very, very sweet and she tried very, very hard, even pretending to appreciate the Wiley records that I used to play over and over again as I clutched at the past and, for a little while indeed, it would actually seem to be kind of wonderful, with the mournful, wailing tugs in the river below and in the distance the Fifty-ninth Street Bridge stretched like a giant necklace as we sat there listening to the songs of heartbreak. There were even moments when I rather fancied myself falling in love again. But always such moments fled, because when Miss Wiley sings, there is nothing affected. So I would sit there and hurt more and more with the remembrance of other, never to be recaptured nights in the same room. Lee Wiley can do that to you — damn her! But damn her gently, because she is, after all, the best we have — the very best.
NB: “She drank like a fish, cussed like a sailor, could treat musicians abusively, and had no qualms about stealing married men – including the star trumpeter and bandleader Bunny Berigan, with whom she recorded. ‘They had a pretty torrid affair,’ says Dan Morgenstern, the celebrated jazz historian. ‘Bunny’s wife hated her.’ But Wiley got away with a lot, for she was a dish, with smoldering sex appeal and dark hair that tumbled past her shoulders.”: from a rather more critical take on Ms Wiley, here.