I’ve been a bit obsessed with Lee Wiley since the time I wrote most of this article, back in 1994. Around then, I’d fallen in love with her songbook albums – notably the Rodgers & Hart one, and such later recordings as Oh! Look at Me Now and R & H’s My Romance – surely the definitive version?
Whenever I revisit her recordings, I find new delights and have come to realise that not only was she one of the best interpreters of a lyric, but she was also a singer who expressed a distinctly female point of view through her song choices and her delivery of them – just listen to such songs as Any Time, Any Day, Anywhere (which she co-wrote), If I Love Again, A Woman’s Intuition, Who Can I Turn To Now and Can’t Get Out of This Mood. I’ll bet her recordings of these songs speak more to us women than they do to men..
Even among jazz fans, the name Lee Wiley is rarely heard. One of the most influential singers of her time, she remains – to many people – little more than a name. Anyone who has heard her recordings, however, is unlikely to forget them: her voice is one which raises the spirits and exudes sheer class. She could count among her admirers the likes of Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong and Marlene Dietrich; the singers she influenced include Peggy Lee, and she regularly inspired critics to ecstatic, and near poetic, musings on her interpretations of the popular songs of the day.
A TV drama starring Piper Laurie and Claude Rains (and directed by Sam Peckinpah) based loosely on her life was made in 1963. It was entitled Something About Lee Wiley – a title which hints at the elusive quality of the Wiley voice.
You could describe it – as others have – as warm, sensual, fragile, husky, pure
and unpretentious. But there’s still something else; something that’s difficult to pin down. It could be the way she had of implying a note amid her breathiness, or of leaving a wisp of a note hanging in the air, lingering in the mind of her listener. Whatever it was she did, it was unique – and it enhanced every tune she caressed with her velvety vocals.
Lee Wiley was born on October 9, 1908 or 1910 (she claimed at one point that 1915 was the year of her birth) in Fort Gibson, Oklahoma – a town she described with characteristic irony as “about as small as a town can get”. Legend has it that she was of Cherokee Indian, Scottish and English ancestry, and musicians later nicknamed her Pocahontas or The Indian Princess. She certainly comes across as having been as sophisticated and elegant in appearance as her tasteful vocal style and regal nickname suggest.
Wiley was listening to the blues from an early age, and longed to be a singer. “I had a boyfriend who would skip school with me and we would go over to the local store and play records .. they called them ‘race records’ and they only sold them in a certain part of town -the coloured part,” she told one interviewer. Her favourite black singer was Ethel Waters. “I loved to hear her and I adapted her style and softened it to make it more ladylike.”
In her mid teens, Wiley left Oklahoma to sing with Leo Reisman’s band in New York. Working with him and the popular Paul Whiteman outfit on radio, she quickly graduated to her own show – The Pond’s Cold Cream Hour Starring Lee Wiley. Along the way, she suffered a couple of setbacks: suspected tuberculosis, which forced her to take a year off work, and later temporary blindness and disfigurement, the result of a fall from a horse – just as she was about to do a screen test in Hollywood.
When Wiley emerged from that catastrophe, she did so as a fledgling jazz singer. Whereas previously she had been singing with comercial bands for the mass audience of radio, it was the jazz fraternity which now took her under its wing, and provided the perfect musical settings for her intimate and swinging vocal style.
In 1939, backed by the likes of Max Kaminsky (trumpet), Fats Waller (piano and organ) and Bud Freeman (tenor sax), Wiley recorded what has become a classic: a collection of George and Ira Gershwin numbers – many of them (though it’s hard to believe now) rescued from obscurity. Not only did Wiley set a trend by recording the first songbook album, she also scored a winner by transforming songs which were familiar only as showtunes into sensitive and dramatic jazz standards.
The album was recorded for Liberty, a high-class music shop with an elite clientele, and they (not to mention the messrs Gershwin) were so delighted with it that it was quickly succeeded by a Cole Porter equivalent. Porter was so taken with it that he was prompted to write: “I can’t tell you how much I like the way she sings these songs. The combination of voice and musical accompaniment is excellent. Please give my congratulations to Lee Wiley.”
Songbook albums of Rodgers & Hart and Harold Arlen followed soon afterwards, and – with her respect for the verse and the meaning of the lyrics – hers have become the definitive versions of many of the songs she recorded. So much so that few have touched such gems as A Ship Without a Sail or Here In My Arms since.
Wiley was, as her friends have noted, a complex person. One defining characteristic, evident in her music, is her honesty and sense of conviction. She was also a free spirit, and seems to have been able to blend into any social circle.
Her friend Larry Carr said: “She loved the free-wheeling, barrel-house atmosphere of jazz clubs and musicians but there was also another, equally strong, side of her that appreciated the well-bred, genteel and chic side of society”. Just as Katharine Hepburn once said of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers that he lent her class and she lent him sex appeal, the same applies to Wiley and jazz. She brought sophistication to the music, and it brought out her sexy side. It was the perfect relationship.
From 1943 until 1946, Wiley was married to the pianist Jess Stacy, and sang with his short-lived big band and Eddie Condon’s group. By the late 1940s, she was working on the nightclub circuit and beginning her slide into obscurity. However, her sumptuous 1950 Columbia album, A Night in Manhattan, won acclaim and led to more recordings in the mid-1950s – including another two classics, the sublime West of the Moon (with Ralph Burns arrangements) and A Touch of the Blues (with Billy Butterfield and His Orchestra, and arrangements by Bill Finegan and Al Cohn). Thereafter, she only made the occasional appearance on television and radio.
The TV film Something About Lee Wiley caused a resurgence of interest in her music but she didn’t record again until 1971. The superb Back Home Again – which teamed her with Dick Hyman – proved to be her last album. She died in December 1975 after a long battle against cancer.
The tragedy of Lee Wiley is that her legacy of recordings is pretty slight, and there is no film footage of her singing. She was, by all accounts, too happy-go-lucky to be ambitious and too dismissive of commercial work – and this could be why, during her lifetime at least, she wasn’t as well appreciated as she should have been. Except by those who heard her: at her last public appearance, at the 1972 Newport Jazz Festival, audiences went wild for her – an upbeat note on which to end her career.
Here are some of my favourite Lee Wiley recordings that are available on YouTube: