DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of tvworthwatching.com, sitting in for Terry Gross. Barbara Lea was a singer known for her straightforward interpretations, precise diction and respect for the intentions of each song's composer and lyricist. Her repertoire was the Great American Songbook.
She died December 26th at the age of 82 of complications from Alzheimer's disease. Lea got her start singing in clubs in the 1950s. Her first album, "A Woman in Love," released in 1955, was named one of the finest recordings of that year. It included this song, "Thinking of You" by Burt Kalmar and Harry Ruby.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THINKING OF YOU")
BARBARA LEA: (Singing) Why is it I spend the day, wake up and end the day, thinking of you? And why does it do this to me? Is it such a bliss to be thinking of you? When I go to sleep at night, it seems you just tiptoe into all my dreams. So I...
BIANCULLI: Barbara Lea recorded in 1955. When her singing career faltered, she turned to acting, went on to receive a master's degree in drama and later taught acting and speech. In 1976, her singing career was revived with a performance on songwriter Alec Wilder's NPR radio program "American Popular Song with Alec Wilder and Friends."
Barbara Lea had an encyclopedic knowledge of American music and devoted albums and nightclub performances to the works of great American songwriters. In 1991, she helped us celebrate the centenary of Cole Porter's birth by performing his songs in our studio. At the piano was Tony Tamborello. Here's Barbara Lea singing "You're a Bad Influence on Me."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU'RE A BAD INFLUENCE ON ME")
LEA: (Singing) Since first you crossed my horizon with your load of love charms, I spend my whole time devising means to stay in your arms. There must be some tricky treatment that would cool my brain, for to me it's so plain, and you'll admit the fact that I'm practically sane.
(Singing) You're a bad influence on me. Sorry, but you're a bad influence I must say. For I get in such a dither when you use your famous come hither that all thought of shame and mither(ph) seems to wither away. The thing your eyes do to me is such folly that I feel sure your middle name must be Svengali.
(Singing) You throw me right off of my stride. Still I beg of you stay by my side and be a bad influence on me. When you appear, my dear, I want to start shooting 'cause I'm sure you used to say black mass with Rasputin. I wish you'd cease singing my wings, but before you do, take off your things and be a bad influence on me.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
That was great. It's a wonderful lyric. It must be really nice to sing songs that you can sing with conviction because the lyric's so well-written you don't have to be embarrassed by any lines.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
LEA: Yes, yes, yes. Sometimes you get a request for a song that isn't well-written, and then it's really a test, it's really a challenge to think what am I going to do, this is such a nice person I want to do this song for this person, what can I do to it to make this lyric come alive. Often you find you just have to go counter to the intent of a song.
Sometimes it'll be so ridiculously romantic that you have to take it very casually, or sometimes it's a kind of casual, hardboiled song that you have to bring romance to it.
GROSS: But really I want to find out a little bit about you.
LEA: Oh, all right.
GROSS: Now, you started recording back in 1955.
LEA: Yes, yes.
GROSS: What were you like then? How was your voice different? What were you singing?
LEA: My voice was very much the same except that for the last five years or so, I've been solvent, so I've been able to take voice lessons.
GROSS: You're taking voice lessons now?
LEA: Now, I've just started, and it's wonderful, and it hasn't changed my voice at all except it's - my voice, it's easier. Everything flows more easily now. It's opened up the range. I've got a little more range on top and a little more on the bottom. Basically I've had the same range since I was a tiny child.
GROSS: When we asked you to do the concert, we asked you to do some songs that we'd all know and a couple songs that would be discoveries for us, and I think the song you're about to do is something that's going to be a discovery for us.
LEA: Yes, yes, I hope so. I've never heard anyone else do it. I just found a piece of sheet music in Lincoln Center Library. It was sung by the mother of the debutante in "50 Million Frenchmen."
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
LEA: What is that, my note? Give me a chord. Don't give me a note.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE QUEEN OF TERRE HAUTE")
LEA: (Singing) My mother and father once went to a lot of bother to make me the happiest of girls. To further my station, they gave me an education, not to mention a string of pearls. But in spite of my backing, I still feel there's something lacking and that fate has rather let me down, for instead of being famous, I'm an unknown ignoramus from a small, Middle-western town.
(Singing) Why couldn't I have been Salome or Mary Pickford or Joan of Arc? If I were Elinor Glyn or even Anne Boleyn, the future wouldn't look half so dark. Why couldn't I be Whistler's mother or any other woman of note? Why did the gods decree that I should only be the queen of Terre Haute?
GROSS: That's great. So you found that on sheet music?
GROSS: And you've never heard it performed?
GROSS: You think it's recorded anywhere?
LEA: I don't know. I don't know. I know it's from the '20s.
GROSS: So this is the kind of thing you do a lot, just go searching for sheet music of obscure songs?
LEA: Oh yes, it's my favorite pastime.
GROSS: And we'll contrast that with a very well-known song that you're about to sing for us.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEGIN THE BEGUINE")
LEA: (Singing) When they begin the beguine, it brings back the sound of music so tender. It brings back a night of tropical splendor. It brings back a memory evergreen. I'm with you once more under the stars and down by the shore, an orchestra's playing. And even the palms seem to be swaying when they begin the beguine.
(Singing) To live it again is past all except when that tune clutches my heart. And there we are swearing to love forever and promising never, never to part. What moments divine, what rapture serene 'til clouds came along to disperse the joys we had tasted. And now when I hear people curse the chance that was wasted, I know but too well what they mean.
(Singing) So don't let them begin the beguine, let the love that was once a fire remain an ember. Let it sleep like the dead desire I only remember when they begin the beguine.
(Singing) Oh yes let them begin the beguine, make them play 'til the stars that were there before return above you, 'til you whisper to me once more darling I love you. And we suddenly know what heaven we're in when they begin the beguine
GROSS: That's beautiful. I think that's the saddest and most felt version of that I've ever heard. It's usually much more kind of up-tempo and danceable.
LEA: Yeah, yeah.
GROSS: Tell me about thinking through the song and deciding to do it that way.
LEA: Well, all I can tell you is that you have to know the story before you can tell the story. People are so interested in selling their sadness or selling their joy or whatever it is, but they don't ever bother to feel that, and I just - you know, I was an actress for many years, and I just, I know what that song's about from my life.
If I didn't know what it was about from my life, I'd know what it was about from my imagination. And I tell the story, that's all. And I love it. I love that. I think it's possibly the greatest song ever written. I know it's never been done this way, and I know if they try, they won't be able. So this song is mine. "New York, New York" is Liza Minelli's, this one is mine.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BIANCULLI: Barbara Lea, recorded in 1991. She died December 26th at the age of 82. Coming up, a review of the new film "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close." This is FRESH AIR.