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Barbara Lea, 82, cabaret singer known for jazz stylings

Barbara Lea performed at Jan Wallman’s club in New York. jim estrin/new york times/file 1988

NEW YORK — Barbara Lea, a jazz-influenced cabaret singer known for an intense fealty to words and music that resulted in interpretations of masterly subtlety, died Dec. 26 in Raleigh, N.C. She was 82.

The cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease.

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

Though she was somewhat less well known than contemporaries such as 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 College), 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 such as Hoagy Carmichael (“Baltimore Oriole’’) and less well-known ones such as 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 emphasized 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 attention to all these things.

Ms. Lea’s recordings, many of which have been rereleased on CD, include “A Woman in Love,’’ “Deep in a Dream: Barbara Lea Sings Jimmy Van Heusen,’’ and “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?’’

In midcareer, to combat lifelong stage fright, Ms. Lea studied acting. This led to a second vocation as an actress in summer stock and regional theater.

Barbara Ann LeCocq was born in Detroit. Her greatest influence was Lee Wiley, a singer of the 1930s and afterward known for bringing a jazz sensibility to American popular song.


As a student at Wellesley, Ms. Lea sang with the Crimson Stompers, a Harvard Dixieland band. After receiving her bachelor’s degree in 1951, she performed at clubs in Boston before moving to New York.

If Ms. Lea’s style was too low-key for some critics’ taste, then that, by her own account, was absolutely fine.

She deplored singers who “sold’’ songs in performance, as she made plain in a 1978 interview with The New Yorker:

“There are many singers who use music,’’ Ms. Lea said. “I resent that. Music is sacred. The song has to control the performance. Doing anything else - employing this or that trick - to make the audience applaud is an outrage. Then you are making them applaud you.’’