Although you seldom hear Lee Wiley’s name mentioned now, she was one of the best of the early jazz singers, with a very distinctive voice and style. She was also a pioneer in the practice of recording ‘songbook’ albums built around a single composer, and even though it’s been well over three decades since her death she is still appreciated by knowledgeable music lovers.
Oklahoma-born (and reportedly part Cherokee), Lee Wiley first began to perform professionally during the early jazz age — the late 1920s — spending some time with Leo Reisman’s orchestra in New York. She was inspired by stars like Ethel Waters and Mildred Bailey, who sang the kind of music that would be called R&B in later years but was known as ‘race’ music at that time.
In the early 1930s, after some radio appearances and successful records on songs like “Time On My Hands,” her career was sidetracked for a while for health reasons, but later in the decade she bounced back. It was during this period that she began to specialize in songbook albums, and it proved to be a hit with fans and musical pros too. She became a popular part of the success of several different bands, including those led by Eddie Condon, Pee Wee Russell, and Jess Stacy — with whom she also shared a brief and stormy marriage.
In the post-war years other singers seem to catch the public’s attention, but by the 1950s Lee Wiley was again selling a lot of records with a series of solid, well-received albums. However, within a few years she’d pretty much retired from music although she did issue one more album in 1971, just a few years before her death at age 67.
(Later – video was removed at source.)
2 thoughts on “Appreciating Lee Wiley”
She didn’t sound like most of the ‘girl’ singers, and that isn’t a bad thing.
Good point. Thanks for commenting.