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Barbara Lea, Cabaret Singer, Dies

Published: 2012-01-02
Barbara Lea Barbara Lea, a jazz-influenced cabaret singer known for an intense fealty to words and music that resulted in interpretations of masterly subtlety, died last Monday in Raleigh, N.C. She was 82. Perhaps best known as an interpreter of songs that distilled the ethos of rural America.

Ms. Lea, who began her career in the mid-1950s and recorded until a few years ago, had a supple voice whose gentle huskiness recalled the sound of a viola.

Though she was somewhat less well known than contemporaries like Barbara Cook and Julie Wilson, she was esteemed by lovers of American popular song for her pinpoint diction, sensitive musical phrasing (she had a degree in music theory from Wellesley) and nuanced attention to lyrics as a form of poetic speech.

Ms. Lea was perhaps best known as an interpreter of songs that distilled the ethos of rural America—by well-known composers like Hoagy Carmichael ("Baltimore Oriole") and less well-known ones like Willard Robison, the Missouri-born composer of haunting, often melancholy numbers like “Deep Elm (You Tell 'Em I'm Blue)" and “ 'Round My Old Deserted Farm."

Throughout her career she was concerned with contemplative, deliberately understated interpretation: what interested her was the exquisite confluence of text, timbre, tonality and timing encapsulated in the best popular songs.

Her job, as she saw it, was to embody the intent of composer and lyricist through careful, simultaneous attention to all these things. (Her New York apartment bulged with sheet music she had amassed and studied during a half-century.)

In a telephone interview on Friday, Doug Ramsey, a jazz writer and critic, said of Ms. Lea: “I listened to a couple of things by her this morning, and I thought, there's something indefinable about the ability to stick strictly to the tune as written, do it in tune, and yet offer an interpretation that's quite different from what someone else might have done. I guess that's called artistry."


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