(This is the second installment in the ongoing Rodgers and Hart celebration here at swingandbeyond.com.)
The story: Lee Wiley, born October 9, 1908 in Fort Gibson, Oklahoma, and died December 11, 1975 in New York City, was a pioneering American jazz singer. After short period of study in Tulsa, Oklahoma she went to New York City to begin a career as a singer, working early on with Leo Reisman‘s band at the Central Park Casino in Manhattan. Her singing style was initially influenced by Mildred Bailey and Ethel Waters. Her first hit with Reisman was the Vincent Youmans-Harold Adamson-Mack Gordon song “Time on My Hands” in 1931. In 1933 she left Reisman’s band, and a bit later in a one-off with the Casa Loma Orchestra, she recorded (on February 23, 1934) “A Hundred Years from Today.” She also recorded with the Dorsey Brothers and Johnny Green on an ad hoc basis..
She worked closely with the composer Victor Young in the early 1930s. She also had a romantic liaison with him. With Young’s assistance, she composed various songs such as “Got The South In My Soul” (recorded by Wiley with Leo Reisman on June 15, 1932), and “Anytime, Anyday, Anywhere,” which became a rhythm and blues hit in the 1950s. The Wiley-Young relationship also involved Young, who was a very well-trained musician, urging Wiley to study singing seriously, which she did. Her earliest recordings reflect this rather formal approach to singing, yet there is still an unmistakable undercurrent of sensuousness, which would always be a hallmark of Wiley’s style. Young also cultivated her in many other ways, with an eye, perhaps, to getting her into Hollywood movies.
Although I have read in a number of places that Lee Wiley was featured in some fashion with Paul Whiteman’s orchestra in the 1930s (a picture of them together does exist), I have seen no evidence of any such association in the definitive Whiteman biography written by Don Rayno.
Wiley followed Young to Hollywood in 1935 when he went there to work in a number of high-profile musical situations, which led ultimately to his association with Bing Crosby at Paramount Pictures. This in turn led to a fruitful career for Young as a composer for Hollywood films which extended over the next two decades. When Young arrived in Hollywood in 1935 however, his Polish-emigre’ fiancee’ Rita was already there, waiting for him. They soon married, and the Young-Wiley romance was over.
In the summer of 1935, Lee Wiley was frequently in the audience at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles when Benny Goodman’s band was playing there in August and September. It was at this time that she began a relationship with jazz trumpeter Bunny Berigan, with whom she had worked in radio in New York. (Berigan was working temporarily with the Goodman band that summer.)
Wiley may have had a bout of tuberculosis in late 1935 early 1936, because she spent some months then recuperating in Arizona. She also was reportedly injured in a horse-riding accident, which may have happened in the late 1930s. These health-related challenges interrupted her career at a critical juncture.
By early 1936, she was back in Manhattan, and she commenced what would be a torrid affair with Berigan which would continue, intermittently, until 1940, when Berigan broke off the relationship. Many who were around Berigan and Wiley in the late 1930s have speculated that the inspiration for Berigan’s great Victor recording performance of his theme song “I Can’t Get Started” came from his relationship with Wiley. As a result of Berigan’s recommendation in 1936, Wiley was able to work on the famous CBS network radio show The Saturday Night Swing Club. Wiley learned a lot about jazz from Berigan, and this influence is apparent in her singing starting in the late 1930s. He in turn, learned more about the best in American Popular Song from her.
Although Wiley made a couple of rather odd recordings in February 1937 (vocals inserted into lengthy concert-style arrangements played by a large orchestra led by Victor Young [who was briefly in New York then]), she really did not begin making commercial recordings under her own name until November 1939, when she recorded a set of eight Gershwin songs supported by groups of jazz musicians for the boutique Liberty Music Shop record label. These recordings were released on four 10-inch 78 rpm disks in an album. That set sold well, and was followed by a set featuring the music of Cole Porter (1940). On this she is again accompanied by a small jazz group which on this occasion also included Berigan. Later Wiley collections included music by Richard Rodgers & Lorenz Hart (1940 and 1954), Harold Arlen (1943), and 10″ LPs dedicated to the music of Vincent Youmans, and Irving Berlin (1951). The jazz musicians on these recordings included, in addition to Berigan, Bud Freeman, Max Kaminsky, Fats Waller, Billy Butterfield, Bobby Hackett, Eddie Condon, Joe Bushkin, and Jess Stacy. These influential albums launched the “concept” or “songbook” album idea (often featuring lesser-known songs), which was later widely imitated by other singers.(**)
Wiley nevertheless, did not make many commercial recordings before World War II. She was however, an active performer on radio and at various venues in Manhattan, often working with bands led by jazz guitarist/impresario Eddie Condon. This activity continued through the years of World War II. She was featured for a time in Jess Stacy’s band in the mid-1940s, but that band did not last very long. She returned to performing in Manhattan, again often with Condon, in the immediate post-war years.
Wiley’s career made a large leap forward after the release of the Columbia album Night in Manhattan in 1951, which includes some of the best singing of her career. In 1954, she opened the first Newport Jazz Festival, accompanied by Bobby Hackett. Later in the decade she recorded West of the Moon (1956, with arrangements by Ralph Burns), and A Touch of the Blues (1957), with arrangements by Bill Finegan and Al Cohn, backed by trumpeter Billy Butterfield and a group of top-notch New York studio musicians.
Wiley retired from singing in the early 1960s. A 1963 television film, Something About Lee Wiley, which told her life story, starred Piper Laurie as Wiley. The film stimulated interest in her and she resumed her career, making her last public appearance at a 1972 concert in Carnegie Hall as part of the Newport-New York Jazz Festival, where her performance was enthusiastically received, after a rocky start. Jazz historian Dan Morgenstern recalled that on the first tune Wiley began singing in a different key than her accompanist, pianist Teddy Wilson. She then proceeded to glare at Wilson, a most fastidious musician having enormous talent and experience, onstage before the audience. (Teddy, who was a man of great serenity, was very perturbed about this. I must conclude therefore that Ms. Wiley was the one in the wrong key.) I have in my library recordings of in-studio conversations between Wiley and the musicians who worked with her on the April 1940 Liberty/Cole Porter recording set referred to above. She did exactly the same thing on that occasion, with the wonderful pianist Joe Bushkin (who would work with her again on many occasions), being the object of her criticism. (Bunny Berigan, who was also on that session, settled the dispute by gently but firmly telling Wiley that Bushkin did not make a mistake.) Wiley’s reputation for being a temperamental and at times unreasonable diva persisted throughout her career, and was reinforced by these and other similar incidents.
Wiley married the very talented jazz pianist Jess Stacy, a mild-mannered man, in 1943. The couple was described by their friend saxophonist/arranged Deane Kincaide as being as “compatible as two cats, tails tied together, hanging over a clothesline.” Wiley had an explosive temper. Once, when arguing with Stacy, she slammed a door on one of her fingers, severely damaging it. The damaged part had to be amputated. They divorced in 1949, with Stacy being the plaintiff in the divorce action. Wiley’s response to Stacy’s desire to get a divorce was: “What will Bing Crosby be thinking of you divorcing me?” while Stacy said of Wiley, “They did not burn the last witch at Salem.” Wiley later attempted to reconcile with Stacy, but that never happened.
Wiley married a retired business man, Nat Tischenkel, in 1966. She died on December 11, 1975 in New York City after being diagnosed with colon cancer earlier that year. She was 67 years old.
Like another pioneering jazz singer, Mildred Bailey, Wiley had a strain of native American blood. In the liner notes for the Columbia album Night in Manhattan, it is stated that she was “…a direct descendant of a princess of the aristocratic Cherokee Indian tribe. Her great-grandfather, an English missionary, settled in the southwest after marrying one of his genuinely American parishioners.” (This assertion has been disputed.) Both Wiley and Bailey played important roles in developing the art of singing jazz and interpreting the best of American Popular Song. They also worked in a male-dominated, testosterone-driven profession at a time, long before womens’ rights were taken seriously, and had to deal with myriad challenges related to that situation simply to have careers. This may explain in part why Wiley sometimes behaved as she did. Both Lee Wiley and Mildred Bailey deserve to be the subjects of full-scale, scholarly biographies.
Composed by Richard Rodgers (music) and Lorenz Hart (lyric).
Recorded December 14, 1950 by Lee Wiley and Her Swinging Strings for Columbia in New York.
Lee Wiley, vocal, backed by a small jazz group including Bobby Hackett on cornet, Joe Bushkin on piano, and a small string section.
The music: The wonderful Rodgers and Hart song “Manhattan,” was written originally for an unproduced musical comedy called Winkle Town. It was introduced in 1925 for the Broadway revue Garrick Gaieties. It was their first hit, and it very much shows that Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart were in the process of becoming Rodgers and Hart when it was written. The very talented composer Alec Wilder, in his monumental book American Popular Song…The Great Innovators 1900-1950 (1972), Oxford University Press at page 167, provides some basic insights: “Since there are four sets of lyrics in the printed copy, it is safe to suggest that this song had more lyrical value to the show (Garrick Gaieties) than musical, or at least it was intended to have.But it is my conviction that, assuming the lyric to have been written first, Hart must have been considerably startled by the charm of a melody which probably was intended to be no more than a clothes horse for the lyric.”
This recording is taken from the collection of classic 1950 Lee Wiley performances recorded by Columbia Records and issued as Night in Manhattan, where Ms. Wiley gets inspiring support from cornetist Bobby Hackett and pianist Joe Bushkin. The “Swinging Strings,” at least on this recording, are rather redundant.
Joe Bushkin, who does a fine job both as Wiley’s accompanist and as a soloist here, met Lee Wiley while he was a member of Bunny Berigan’s big band in 1938-1939. He first recorded with her in early 1939, while she was in a studio with Berigan.(*) Cornetist Bobby Hackett, began working with Wiley at the end of the 1930s, making records. On this recording, all three protagonists are in top form.
One interesting sidelight is that Ms. Wiley sings in this 1950 recording about the then-current Rodgers and Hammerstein Broadway musical hit South Pacific. Clearly, the original lyric for “Manhattan,” which was written by Lorenz Hart in or before 1925, made no reference to South Pacific because South Pacific did not debut until 1949. Since Lorenz Hart died in 1943, he didn’t make the revision. Presumably Richard Rodgers had Hart’s successor, Oscar Hammerstein, II, write these new lines to promote their latest Broadway success. Ah, the business of Broadway.
This recording was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.
(*) I will be posting this unique recording made in a studio on March 16, 1939 in which Wiley, accompanied only by Joe Bushkin on piano, sings a beautiful love song to Bunny Berigan, who was also in the same studio recording a number of jazz solos that were later transcribed for an educational manual which was used by aspiring trumpeters for many years. This recording is preserved in the Berigan archive at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It has never been heard publicly.
(**) In late 1938, Bunny Berigan recorded a suite of six compositions either composed by or associated with early jazz cornet titan Bix Beiderbecke. This venture, which was produced by Victor, may well have been the first “concept” album. Lee Wiley was well aware of this Berigan project even in its planning stages.