Ever since she recorded her first album in 1955, Barbara Lea has been compared to the late Lee Wiley, whose career passed its peak around 1950. Wednesday in the Oak Room at Perino’s, she left no doubt that her gift for understatement, her ability to invest a song with a subliminal jazz flavor while avoiding the trap of bending it out of shape, led to the comparison. Even more reminiscent of Wiley is Lea’s hauntingly poignant vibrato.

A trim woman with short red hair and an often hidden reserve of strength, she is the quintessential East Side New York cabaret singer who draws, as Wiley did, on the songs of Willard Robison, Hoagy Carmichael, Irving Berlin and their contemporaries.

She can sing “I Got Rhythm” as if she were unaware that it is not supposed to be a ballad; nor is it customary to whistle, as she did, an ad-lib solo in the second chorus. Her investigation of lost times (“Harlem on My Mind”) and obscure songs by famous writers (Ellington’s “Brown Betty”) is tempered by the occasional latter-day work such as Dave Frishberg’s “Dear Bix.” Next, she observed, “Since we are not in Vegas, I guess we can do another Frishberg tune,” and moved on to “You Are There.”


“She Didn’t Say Yes” (Kern and Harbach, 1931) is packed with naughty lyrics, some of which Lea momentarily forgot. As for “Begin the Beguine,” one is tempted to point to the line that goes “No, don’t let them begin the beguine” and second that motion. A song called “Without Rhyme Or Reason” lived up to its title.

These, however, were minor flaws in Lea’s subtly shaded, superbly polished, intelligently phrased investigation of a long gone time, when song writers dared to use such a term as ad libitum (and rhymed it with “equilibrium”).

It has taken 31 years for Lea to land her first Los Angeles nightclub engagement. Happily this is no fly-by-night job; she will be around Thursdays through Saturdays until Nov. 7. This Saturday, and again Oct. 31, her capable pianist, Tom Garvin, will be replaced by the eminent Jimmy Rowles.