Born: October 9, 1915 | Died: December 11, 1975 Primary Instrument: Vocalist
Sensual and dignified, sophisticated and warm, Lee Wiley has inspired outbursts of sheer poetry from many a captivated listener. Her sound induces a marvelous, ticklish sensation, akin to running your hand over a piece of fine Harris tweed, marveled producer Dave Garroway. She blows smoke rings, each note a puff that melts into wisps of vibrato, conceptualized author Will Friedwald. Her voice and style have long since made me extremely eager to go to bed with her, disclosed critic James Frazier. Not content with this daring confession, he also bluntly labeled her one bitch of a singer.
Protested singer and Wiley scholar Barbara Lea: She had more fire, more rhythm, more roughness, more silkiness, more deep personal warmth, than the job description of Pop Singer called for. Asked writer Richard Hadlock, in an open letter to Wiley, Lee, have you ever wondered why so many… from road-tough musicians to jaded pub-crawlers, act like kids on Christmas when they hear you sing? (Wiley did wonder.) The eulogies could go on for pages, but the point is clear enough: Lee Wiley is a singer with a certain mystique.
The Wiley mystique was generated by both personal and professional circumstances, and further fed by some willful biographical manipulation by her musical associates, her record labels, and the artist herself. Nicknamed Pocahontas and characterized as regal by her friends, Wiley descended from the princess of a Cherokee tribe and from an English missionary who married an American parishioner... according to publicity material. Her birth date remains uncertain - initially given as 1915, then moved back to 1910, still more recently to 1908 - and revisionism has taken over the more sensational aspects of her biography (running away from home in the late 1920s, temporary blindness after a fall from a horse in the early 1930s, a near encounter with tuberculosis in the mid-1930s, etc,).
Her looks most certainly contributed to the Wiley allure. Her brother Ted once reported that everybody wanted to marry the tall, strikingly attractive Oklahoman with corn-colored hair and olive skin. (Everybody included the eight-times-married bandleader Artie Shaw, whose offer was declined by the twice-married singer.) One motivation for her long retirement (from about the age of 50 until the years preceding her death from cancer, in 1975) was the apparently high price that Wiley placed on physical attractiveness. It was her contention in 1971 that singing includes a number of things ... aside from the voice ... these girls who are trying to get up on the bandstand at forty years old ... doesn't make any sense to me.
An enigmatic personality likewise fueled the fascination. Various oral and written accounts paradoxically depict her as difficult and easy to work with; proud and/or bitter about the treatment received from the music business; heavily addicted to alcohol but outspokenly intolerant of other musicians' addictions; foul-mouthed, even unkind to other singers yet fiercely loyal to those within her own circle; hesitant while speaking though assured when singing. Friends and colleagues further portray her as a woman with a strong sense of integrity and a fierce sense of independence, traits that caused her to give up on various golden opportunities to further her career. The best documented of such opportunities happened in 1935 when she departed from a feature role in the top-rated Kraft radio show because its producers refused to give billing to composer Victor Young, who was then personal and musical partner.
Wiley's relatively small discography further contributes to her mythic status. Over a four-decade career, she recorded less than ten albums and about 40 singles; live and radio broadcasts make up for the remainder of her material in circulation. Thus her mystique stems not only from her biography and her persona, her looks and her sound, but also from a sort of bittersweet adoration accorded to great but under-recorded artists.