April 10, 1929 - December 26, 2011
New York singer and actress, Barbara Lea, passed away peacefully in Raleigh on December 26, 2011, surrounded by her dear friends, Jeanie and Bill Wilson and Bob "Junk" Ussery. Barbara fought bravely in her long battle with Alzheimer's and continued to record and make personal appearances until she was no longer able to do so.
A 1951 graduate of Wellesley College, Ms. Lea majored in music theory and in 2009, received their highest honor, the Alumnae Achievement Award for excellence in her field. She studied acting, received a Masters degree in drama from Cal-State Northridge and worked as an actress in everything from Shakespeare to Sondheim. Singing was her life's passion; Barbara was 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 New York and Boston to recording studios and 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 worked with many major musicians including Marian McPartland, Vic Dickenson, George Wein, and Bobby Hackett. Among her influences were Lena Horne, Dinah Shore, Billie Holiday, Lee Wiley and Mabel Mercer along with Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden, Bunny Berrigan and Sy Oliver. 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.
The 1980's found her working alongside Benny Goodman as well as with cornetist Dick Sudhalter, vocalist-pianist Daryl Sherman, and tenor saxophonist-pianist Loren Schoenberg in the group Mr. Tram Associates, an association that continued well into the 1990's. In more recent years, she sang with the big bands of Bob January and Loren Schoenberg and headlined at Jan Wallman's supper club in Manhattan. She also was in charge of the long running series Midday Jazz at St. Peter's church in Manhattan. Her last CD was recorded and released in 2006 "Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans." A memorial service will be held in New York City, to be announced at a later date.
Published in The News & Observer on Dec. 30, 2011.