Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians
Wiley, Lee (Lee Willey)
Lee Wiley’s move from girl band singer to nightclub chanteuse brought her into her own sound, which incorporates stylistic elements of those whose voices she loved, including Ethel Waters, Mildred Bailey, and Billie Holiday. Attentive listeners can hear how her approach opened doors for others who followed, including Mabel Mercer, Julie Wilson, and Madeleine Peyroux.
The timbre of Wiley's singing voice is invitingly intimate, slightly hoarse, and even a bit nasal. Her phrasing is easygoing and conversational, often slightly behind the beat. When the melody gives her a choice between a high note and a low one, she takes the low. No need for her to strain or show off her range with pyrotechnics, because understatement is the key to her charm.
Lee Willey - she dropped the second “l” early in her career - was born in Fort Gibson, Oklahoma on October 9, 1908, and not in 1915, as she led most people to believe during in her lifetime. Like other performers at that time, she lied or let others believe a lie about her age, so that her earliest recordings seemed to have been made by a teenage phenomenon with a remarkably mature voice.
Wiley was among the first white female band singers, along with Connee Boswell and Mildred Bailey, to move towards the freer and jazz-influenced sound she learned from listening to African-American vocalists like Ethel Waters. In turn, Wiley’s smoky contralto influenced later singers such as Peggy Lee and Barbara Lea, and can be heard today among younger singers like Peyroux.
Wiley told author Richard Lamparski that as a young girl in Oklahoma, she sat and dreamed of becoming a singing star. “We would go over to the local store and play records...they called them ‘race records,’ and they were sold only in a certain part of town, the colored part," she told him. "Bessie Smith and Clara Smith, but especially Ethel Waters.”
She also told Lamparski that she remembered listening to Mildred Bailey on WPW radio every day around dinnertime. “It was so wonderful," she said, "I couldn’t wait for her to come on.” A widely circulated rumor involved the claim that Wiley was part Native American. Since this may have added to her exotic allure as a performer, it cannot be ruled out that the rumor originated from Wiley herself - but it seems to be untrue. It was however true of Bailey, one of her early idols, who was part Coeur d’Alene Indian.
Wiley's early years as a performer are not well documented, but she probably moved to New York from Oklahoma to New York by way of St. Louis around 1930, where she landed a job singing with Leo Reisman’s society orchestra at the Central Park Casino. Their first hit together on a record was the tune, “Time on My Hands,” by Harold Adamson, Mack Gordon, and Vincent Youmans in 1931.
The gig with Reisman earned Wiley a number of singing engagements and radio broadcasts with bandleaders such as Paul Whiteman, who also gave Mildred Bailey her first big break. In 1932 she met arranger and composer Victor Young, with whom she was both professionally and romantically linked. With Young she broadcast radio shows, made records, and collaborated on such songs as “Any Time, Any Day, Anywhere,” which was recorded on her Night in Manhattan album with trumpeter Bobby Hackett's band, as well as Joe Bushkin and his Swinging Strings.
Wiley is credited as the first singer to assemble and record a series of composer songbook albums, a practice other singers soon followed, perhaps most notably Ella Fitzgerald, a practice which ultimately culminated in emergence of the broader concept of the "American Songbook."
The first of Wiley’s songbook albums was recorded in 1939, a series of 78 rpm sides, released asLee Wiley Sings the Songs of George & Ira Gershwin & Cole Porter. Other composers and lyricists featured in her later songbooks were Vincent Youmans, Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen, Richard Rodgers, and Larry Hart.
Wiley's recordings featured fine instrumentalists, including trumpet player Max Kaminsky, saxophonist Bud Freeman, and clarinetist Pee Wee Russell. Another frequent collaborator was guitarist and banjoist Eddie Condon, who led bands in the New Orleans style. With Condon she was a guest on a series of benefit concerts during World War II at New York’s Town Hall and Ritz Theater, and later appeared on his 1949 television series, “Eddie Condon's Floor Show.”
In the mid-1940s, Wiley was married briefly to pianist Jess Stacy, who had played with Condon and Freeman, as well as Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey. Stacy formed his own big band with Lee Wiley as the featured singer, but the band was not a commercial success.
Wiley continued to perform into the 1950s, and appeared with Bobby Hackett’s band at the first Newport Jazz Festival in 1954. Her 1956 album West of the Moon with Ralph Burns and his orchestra is widely considered an artistic triumph, with memorable renditions of songs which include Irving Berlin’s little-known “You’re a Sweetheart.”
In the 1960s, Wiley seems to have retired from the public eye, with the exception of a television movie called Something About Lee Wiley , which aired on the Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theater show. This dramatization of her life was directed by a young Sydney Pollack, with actress Piper Laurie playing Wiley. Its soundtrack of Wiley’s hits piqued the public's interest and eventually helped bring her back to performing in the early 1970s.
Wiley’s last major performance was with Bobby Hackett’s quintet at Carnegie Hill as part of George Wein's Newport Jazz Festival New York in 1972. The other members of Hackett's all-star band were pianist Teddy Wilson, guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, bassist George Duvivier, and drummer Don Lamond.
Although Wiley’s recorded output was relatively modest – she recorded the equivalent of 10 LPs over her lifetime - but her work continues to spark interest amongst critics and active listeners. Wiley executed compelling renditions of melancholy ballads like Rodgers and Hart’s “It Never Entered My Mind,” and she was equally at home with saucier numbers like “Find Me a Primitive Man,” which reveal a relaxed sexuality that is very appealing and subtle, with no need for vocal winking or nodding.
Wiley’s music continues to attract listeners from all over the world. A Japanese actress, Nobuko Miyamoto, the widow of Juzo Itami, who directed the film Tampopo, felt drawn to Wiley’s music after she heard Wiley’s recording of “As Time Goes By,” perhaps from the album West of the Moon, which was released in Japan by BMG. Entranced, Miyamoto set out to make a documentary film about Wiley and followed the singer's trail to Manhattan, where she collected rare footage and artifacts from the singer's career interviewed people who had either known her or were influenced by her, like singer Barbara Lea. The resulting film, My Lee Wiley, won a Japanese award for best documentary of 2002.
I Like A Guy Who Takes His Time, with The Dorsey Brothers (1933)
Night in Manhattan/Sings Vincent Youmans/Sings Irving Berlin (originally three albums, now available in one CD package from CBS-Sony)
Lee Wiley Sings the Songs of George & Ira Gershwin and Cole Porter (1939)
Lee Wiley Sings the Songs of Rodgers and Hart and Harold Arlen (1940)
Follow Your Heart (Jasmine Records anthology which features recordings from 1933 to 1954)
West of the Moon (1956)
Back Home Again (1971)
Lee Wiley at Carnegie Hall (1972)
Contributor: Sue Russell