This story was published in Radio Recall, the journal of the Metropolitan Washington Old-Time Radio Club, published six times per year.
Click here to return to the index of selected articles.
SINGING TO HER OWN BEAT: LEE WILEY
by Cort Vitty © 2015
(From Radio Recall, August, 2015)
Music tastes were changing in the early 1930s and radio was quick to adapt. The microphone was kind to the throaty blues-style singer and audiences clamored for more. Among the top echelon of female singers favoring this trend was a somewhat temperamental young artist named Lee Wiley. A tall, slender, striking woman with dark hair and eyes. Lee's natural speaking voice had a deep, husky quality, while her alto singing style emitted a strong sense of feeling and emotion.
The singer started life on October 9, 1908 as Minnie (named after her paternal grandmother) Willey, in Fort Gibson Oklahoma. Her parents, Charles and Jananna Willey were part Cherokee, along with English and Scottish extraction. Their first child was son Floyd, followed by daughter Minnie, second daughter Pearl and youngest son Theodore.
Lee once described Fort Gibson as "about as small as a town can get." While a student at Muskogee High School, Lee recalled: "I used to sit in the back of the class of course and dream about being a singer." Her early musical influences included Ethel Waters, Bessie Smith and Mildred Bailey. Against her mother's wishes, Lee would sneak over to the black section of town and listen to records featuring these artists. Although untrained, Lee's natural singing ability ultimately led to her radio debut on station KVOO in Tulsa, Oklahoma (Coincidentally, the same station where Gene Autry made his debut in 1928.)
She left home as a teenager, bound for St. Louis in her quest to sing. Her mom arranged an audition in Chicago, which led to a meeting with influential composer Victor Young. What started as a professional relationship soon developed into a personal one between the young singer and the married musician. Lee next accompanied Young to New York where an introduction to orchestra leader Leo Reisman led to a singing slot on his early radio program. Eager to learn more about her craft, Lee started to frequent jazz clubs after evening radio broadcasts to study techniques utilized by other performers. The late hours eventually led to excessive alcohol consumption.
Just as her career was seemingly getting started - a sudden accident almost brought it to a halt. An expert horsewoman since childhood, Lee rode for relaxation. Harriet Menken described how. "Lee rides sometimes to try to see if she can't piece together the mad, complicated, haphazard puzzle of her existence. But perhaps the very fact that she never can do it makes Lee Wiley's voice richer and more colorful and her careless airwaves."
Out for a therapeutic ride, Lee was thrown, head first by her mount, resulting in an injury that left her partially blind. Specialists attributed the affliction to a swollen optic nerve and months would pass before her sight returned. While recovering, Lee devoted the long, dark hours to composing music, tinged with the echo of tragedy.
The Lee Wiley Show debuted on NBC in 1932, with the network billing her as "an unusual torch singer of deep blues." Still an untrained singer, author James Gavin described how fellow artist James Melton approached Lee in the studio remarking: "You know, you have a good voice, but you've got to go and learn to sing." Wiley recalled the constructive conversation and commented: "So I started studying. I was going to Carnegie Hall every day." Gavin added: "She learned to breathe properly and still retain her completely natural sound of a boozy southern belle." A Radio Mirror story added: "Wiley is sure of herself, knows what she wants and intends to get it, in her own way."
Lee garnered a spot on Ponds Vanity Fair in 1933, with Victor Young serving as her arranger. The Ponds program also included short dramatic sketches, plus a series of brief commentaries delivered by first-lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Ratings climbed thanks to the popularity of Lee and her seductive style - enhanced by Young's skillful arrangements. Rumor circulated that Young was in the process of seeking a Mexican divorce, with plans to ultimately settle down with Willey; however the breakup of his marriage never materialized. Ponds coerced Wiley into singing more on each program, but the repertoire of music was not suited to her style. Ratings fell and Ponds chose not to renew her contract.
Paul Whiteman, host of The Kraft Music Hall learned in 1934 that Wiley was available and ' jumped at the opportunity to secure the singer for his highly successful program. Whiteman felt Ponds overused Wiley with unsuitable material. His plan was for Lee to perform only songs tailored to her sultry style. Victor Young was brought back to conduct arrangements, but did not receive billing for his efforts. Whiteman's overall strategy worked. Lee's popularity soared, propelling her to second place (behind only Kate Smith) among female singers.
William Stuart asked Lee to describe her rather successful style for Radio & Screen Weekly. She pointed out: "I think it started with the drums. My ancestors were Indians and their tom-toms can break your heart. In a funeral dance, they can make you cry, but in a war dance they can make you mad. And at a festival, they can make you laugh and sing."
Lee continued: "It is not the drums themselves that do it. It is what makes them roar with anger or sob with sorrow. It's something inside, a spirit that prompts the patting, beating fingers of the drummer." Wiley added: "I don't sing gutbucket. I don't sing jazz -- I just sing. The only vocal trick I've ever done is putting in the vibrato and taking it out. I don't believe in vocal gimmickry and I have never had the commercial instincts to concentrate on visual mannerisms."
When contract renewal time arrived in 1935 Lee sought a salary increase, plus billing on the ' show for Young as her arranger. Kraft flat-out refused the consideration, claiming Whiteman was the star and only he and his orchestra would be credited. Not getting the answer she wanted, Wiley abruptly decided to walk - and subsequently both she and Young were gone from the program. It was a rash move exemplifying how Wiley's impetuous emotion could lead to poor career decisions. Lee would never again reach such a high status as a radio performer.
After leaving the air, she traveled to Arizona for a period of recuperation. Some sources indicated the rest was needed to recover from a nervous breakdown; others listed tuberculosis as the cause. Young went to Hollywood, ultimately becoming a well-known film composer.
In 1936, Lee returned to radio via Harry Richman's Florida Treats on CBS, as a continuing guest. The George Jessel Show followed in 1937, along with somewhat regular guest appearances on Saturday Night Swing Club, hosted by Bunny Berigan. Lee first met Berigan in 1933 and with Victor Young in Hollywood, a relationship developed between Wiley and Berigan. Their affair would continue until 1942, when Bunny died of cirrhosis of the liver at age thirty-three.
"Fascinating and turbulent," was how Harriet Menken described Lee after an interview. She noted the restless singer's preference for swanky tailored clothes - mostly brown - and the curious fact that she never wore jewelry. Menken also pointed out that despite her earlier riding accident, Lee continued her regimen as a New Yorker, becoming "one of the most picturesque figures in Central Park." "Riding with a sure seat, erect as a trooper. The horses at the riding academy know her on sight; she chooses a different one each day." Fellow Oklahoma native Will Rogers provided Lee with instructions on how to handle a lariat while riding; she enjoyed practicing by roping trees and fence posts.
In the late 1930s/early 1940s, Lee recorded a series of show tunes on the Liberty, Rabson and Schirmer labels. Lee recorded complete albums covering the music of Cole Porter, Rogers and Hart, George Gershwin and Harold Arlen. Consummate jazz-promoter Eddie Condon regularly utilized her vocals during his concert series, broadcast from New York and transcribed for overseas distribution to military personnel during WW II.
Lee married jazz pianist Jess Stacy on June 7, 1943. Stacy was part of the Benny Goodman Orchestra and Lee would later tour as featured singer with Stacy's own band. Wiley detested the rigors of the road, which added to the couple's bickering; the marriage was history by the end of the decade. Her 1950s album "West of the Moon" is considered one of the finest vocal jazz compilations ever produced. Lee performed at the first ever Newport Jazz Festival in 1954. During this period of her career mom Jananna moved from Oklahoma to New York, to share an apartment with her daughter.
On October 11, 1963, "Something About Lee Wiley" was televised on NBC, as an episode of Bob Hope Presents Chrysler Theatre. The one hour story featured actress Piper Laurie in the title role. New York Daily News critic Ben Gross reviewed the somewhat fictionalized life-story, which was dramatized for television: "For popular consumption, the drama painted a romanticized picture and at times was weakened by its episodic quality. It held one's interest because of its human touches and the graphic portrayals of the leading actors."
In 1968, Lee was a guest of Joe Franklin on his popular WOR radio show in New York. Lee recalled how: "People are calling up all the time and asking me if I want to work." By this time, she was married to businessman Nat Tischenkel (since 1966) and content in retirement. Her last public performance was the Newport Jazz Festival at Carnegie Hall in July 1972.
Jazz critic Nat Hentoff described Lee in a 1986 Wall Street Journal article as: "A lady of exceptional refinement. Not a snob by any means, but at first rather distant. Lee Wiley was what came to be called laid-back in a later time. She was singing Cole Porter songs as if he had written them for her. Yet her way with those songs, and everything else she tried, was unlike that of any jazz singer before or since."
A personal quote, made by Lee pretty much summarized her philosophy of life, living and singing: "I always sang the way I wanted to sing," she remarked. "If I didn't like something, I just wouldn't do it. Instead, I'd take a plane to California and sit in the sun."
The blues-singer died at age 67 of colon cancer at Sloan-Kettering Memorial Hospital in New York, on December 12, 1975. Her husband Nat Tischenkel, sister Pearl and brother Ted survived her. Lee Wiley is interred at Citizens Cemetery in Muskogee City Oklahoma.
Doris Ashe. Radio Mirror, September 1934.
Remy Brunel. Washington Post, July 12, 1936.
Ben Gross. New York Daily News, October 20, 1963.
Mel Heimer, Tyrone Daily Herald, October 30, 1954.
Roy Hemming/David Hajdu, Great Singers of Classic Pop. 1991.
Nat Hentotf. Wall Street Journal, April 2, 1986.
Harriet Menken. San Antonio Light, November 1, 1936.
William L. Stuart. Oakland Tribune Radio & Screen Weekly, September 13, 1936.
John S. Wilson. New York Times, December 12, 1975.