Lee Wiley was born in Fort Gibson, Oklahoma in 1908. Her early career was spent singing with Leo Reisman’s orchestra, eventually moving up to Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra and then on to radio orchestras fronted by Victor Young and Johnny Green. Lee wasn’t known for having a big voice, but rather for having an exceptional sensitivity when it came to interpreting the lyrics. Here’s an early example, with her version of Cole Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” Stay with it—she doesn’t come in until halfway through the song.
Lee’s big break came in 1939, when prestigious New York label Liberty Records tapped her to devote an entire album (an album at this time meaning a portfolio of 78s) to the songs of the Gershwin Brothers. It was the very first time an artist had devoted a whole album to the work of one songwriter or songwriting team, and it was a hit. Lee would later give the same in-depth treatment to the work of Rodgers and Hart and Irving Berlin. Here’s “I’ve Got a Crush On You,” featuring Fats Waller on piano.
In 1944, Lee was asked to perform at one of Eddie Condon’s radio broadcasts from New York’s Town Hall. Here’s her interpretation of Condon’s “Wherever There’s Love,” complete with a rarely heard extra verse.
The late 40’s were a bit lean for Ms. Wiley, but things picked up again in 1951 with the release of her LP Night in Manhattan. Here’s “Manhattan,” featuring Cy Walter (a.k.a “The Art Tatum of Park Avenue,” aka “Art Tatum If He Thought the Song Was More Important Than Showing Off His Chops”) on piano.
Which brings us to the 45 in question. This is another of those odd long-playing microgroove 45s—still only seven inches wide, but capable of playing two full songs per side. It was common, in the 1950’s, to use this format to sell albums in thirds or, occasionally fourths. West of the Moon is the album from which these songs came, and as you can tell from the photo at the top, it was the third (and final) volume. 12 songs = 1 LP = 3 microgroove 45s.
On these songs, Lee is backed by Ralph Burns and his Orchestra. The sound is lush and full, as was so often the case when standards were recorded in the 1950’s. Here she is paying homage to former accompanist Fats Waller with his song “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now.”
And here she is taking on “As Time Goes By.”
Dave Garroway said of Lee Wiley, “On everything she does there is a marvelous texture to her voice, something like running your hand over a piece of fine Harris tweed—and they both tickle.” That is as apt a description as one could find, I think.