American actress and jazz singer Anne LeCoq, best known as Barbara Lea, was born on April 10,1929 in Detroit, Michigan. Lea was born into a musical family; her musical heritage is traceable to a great uncle, Alexandre Charles LeCoq — an important nineteenth-century composer of French light opera.
She grew up in a Detroit suburb and attended the girls-only Kingswood School (which merged in 1984 with the Cranbrook School to become the Cranbrook Kingswood School). Her family moved to the suburb of Melvindale in 1932. Times were bleak in the 1930s and she had her first job at the age of 7 delivering newspapers. She also took piano and tap dancing lessons. She went to public schools in Melvindale and in Detroit when the family moved back in 1940, and then later attended high school at Kingswood School Cranbrook.
Barbara's whole family was musical and there were always pianos and ukuleles in the house, which everyone took turns playing. Her father had been a clarinetist; her brother played trumpet and harmonica. The family entertainment was gathering around the piano and singing while her mother played. By the age of 6 or 7, she had decided on a career as a singer.
When she was 16, her family bought a summer cottage in Belle River, Ontario. A dance band played outdoors every Friday and Saturday night and, trembling with stage fright, Barbara sat in with them for the last few weeks of the summer. The next winter the band got a Saturday night gig at a nightclub in Windsor, Ontario, and asked her to join them as their vocalist. She was delighted to be paid $5 a night.
At Wellesley College, Barbara majored in Music Theory, her sights set firmly on singing but with no idea how this might happen. Fortunately for her, a friend had a date whose roommate, Bill Dunham, played piano in a Harvard dixieland band called the Crimson Stompers. She became their vocalist. She also had the pleasure of working with Vic Dickenson, Marian McPartland, Edmond Hall, Frankie Newton, Johnny Windhurst and George Wein. After college, Barbara remained in Boston for a year, singing with the same sort of society bands she had worked with in Detroit. She was very popular for her musicianship; she knew and sang every tune they played, saying simply “Put it in E flat” or “Put it in G”. Because of this ability, she was paid $10 a night, rather than the standard $5.
In 1952, Barbara moved to New York armed with a demo tape and an introduction to a very good independent agent. A family friend, Graham Prince, who was a musician and arranger, wrote a few arrangements for her and got her a gig at a club -- she describes it as a dive -- in Union City, NJ. After several weeks, exhausted and discouraged, she left the club and New York, hot-footing it back to Boston and immediately began working in clubs and finally got steady work seven nights a week in various cocktail lounges, where there would be a trio working behind the bar. She tried twice to move back to New York, but the places where she found work were all “joints”, and she returned to Boston. One advantage to Boston was that she found a little second-hand bookstore behind Symphony Hall which had a couple of 3-foot-high stacks of sheet music selling for a nickel each; she combed these looking for show tunes. It was a wonderful time for adding to her already considerable repertoire.
Finally Barbara took a trip to New York to make her first recording for Graham Prince's Cadillac label. She chose an all-star band from the Eddie Condon crowd: Pee Wee Irwin on trumpet, Cutty Cutshall on trombone, Eddie Barefield on clarinet, and George Wettling on drums. Prince had her record a “commercial” song, I'll Bet You a Kiss, but for the other side of the 78/45 she chose Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home from her favorite Broadway show, St. Louis Woman. This song came to the attention of jazz critics and was listed among notable recor dings in DownBeat.
Things began to move quickly: she got an extended engagement at Childs' Paramount restaurant, and photographer Robert Parent took her disc to Orrin Keepnews and Bill Grauer at Riverside Records. She made an LP for Riverside which earned 4-star reviews and was listed in the New York Times as one of the nine best popular vocal albums of 1955, in the company of Bing Crosby, Noel Coward, Sammy Davis, Jr. and the Oklahoma! sound track.
On the strength of that recording, she won the DownBeat International Critics' Poll as Best New Singer of 1956. She married Robert Mantler, its producer, who became her manager, and booked her into clubs from New York to Atlanta, including nine weeks at the legendary Village Vanguard.
Barbara moved to Prestige, where she made two 12-inch LPs, both very well received. The marriage proved to be a disaster and broke up within two years. With no manager, she was insecure about booking herself, and apart from a long tour with such major musicians as Marian McPartland, Teddy Charles, Mose Allison, and Zoot Sims, her singing career went into a long stall. These events coincided with the sea-change in the music industry as rock and roll took over.
However, there was an unexpected turn of events: she had begun studying acting in order to improve her stage presence and overcome her stage fright. Now Barbara fell smack in love with the legitimate theatre. She began working in summer stock and Off-Broadway, doing everything from glamorous femmes fatales to hillbilly grannies, from Sondheim to Shakespeare.
She also made two movies. Barbara moved to Los Angeles in 1966 as a bride and returned to the East in 1970, also as a bride. In between, she did several commercials and several plays and then got an M.A. in Drama from San Fernando Valley State College (now Cal. State/Northridge). Back in New York, she taught acting and modern drama at Hofstra University and speech at the American Academy of Dramatic Art.
Alec Wilder invited her to do two episodes of a series he was preparing for National Public Radio -- the Peabody Award-winning American Popular Song with Alec Wilder and Friends. Her weekend recording this series was attended by Whitney Balliett, jazz critic of The New Yorker, who wrote of the event in two lengthy articles.
The two episodes of the radio series were released on LPs (later CDs) by Audiophile, and she began appearing in major nightclubs, including several appearances at Michael's Pub and the Rainbow Room. In addition, there have been concert appearances at Carnegie Hall and Town Hall in New York, and at the Newport, Kool, and JVC jazz festivals, and jazz parties in Atlanta, Manassas, and western Pennsylvania.
On television's Today Show, Barbara was the singer chosen for George Gershwin's 90th birthday celebration. Concurrently, since you asked, Barbara has spent over 40 years in spiritual healing studies and is an ordained minister in the church of Actualism.
And finally, she has become, belatedly but joyfully, a big band vocalist for over 20 years with Loren Schoenberg, with whom she has made several recordings.
Barbara Lea sings "Whisper to One"
Reference -Adapted from Barbara Lea’s personal website