1923-1935: Early Years
Part Cherokee, she was an impulsive young woman and a talented singer with a disdain for the status quo and the ways of big business. Wiley began her radio career at KVOO in Tulsa, Oklahoma. At age 15, having been inspired by the recordings of Ethel Waters, Wiley ran away from home and went to St. Louis and then then to Chicago in search of fame. A gig at a small Chicago nightclub found her sharing the stage with Victor Young, a young bandleader and composer who took Wiley under his wing and with whom Wiley, in turn, would fall in love. The pair eventually moved to New York City, where the demand for female vocalists was at a high point. Wiley found little difficulty in locating a job, even making several recordings with Leo Reisman's band. Her singing career was interrupted in 1931 when a fall from her horse temporarily blinded her. However, her sight was restored within a year, and she was soon appearing frequently on New York's nightclub stages.
In addition to her club work, she sang on the Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt program on NBC in 1932. In 1933, Wiley was also hired to sing on radio's "Pond's Cold Cream Hour", and was soon approached by NBC radio to sign on as featured singer on the top-rated "Kraft Music Hall" radio show, which she accepted. By 1934, Wiley ranked just below Kate Smith and Bing Crosby in national exposure to radio audiences, but the accompanying fame began to take a toll. Leading an active night life, she began to drink heavily and gave up many of the local jobs that had fueled her success in New York City. Then, after two years on the "Music Hall" program, Wiley became frustrated that Young, who conducted the top-billed Paul Whiteman Orchestra during Wiley's performances, was not allowed on-air credit for his work. When she threatened not to renew her contract with NBC unless Young received public acknowledgment, the radio giant balked, and both she and Young were left without a job. Shortly thereafter, Wiley was diagnosed with tuberculosis and was forced to retire to Arizona to recover.
1936-1965: Radio & Albums
Upon Wiley's return to New York City in 1936, she performed regularly with Bunny Berigan on "Saturday Night Swing Club." From June 10, 1936, until September 2, 1936, she had her own show, Lee Wiley, on CBS. Leaving "Saturday Night Swing Club" in 1937, she spent the remainder of her career singing in nightclubs, guesting on local radio shows, and making recordings, expanding her predominantly swing-music repertoire to include jazz.
In 1939, Wiley recorded eight Gershwin songs on 78s with a small group for Liberty Music Shop Records. The set sold well and was followed by 78s dedicated to the music of Cole Porter in 1940, Richard Rodgers & Lorenz Hart in both 1940 and 1954, Harold Arlen in 1943, and 10" LPs dedicated to the music of Vincent Youmans and Irving Berlin in 1951. These influential albums launched the concept of a "songbook" (often featuring lesser-known songs), which was later widely imitated by other singers.
Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, she was considered by many to be one of the most talented and underappreciated vocalists in the United States. Her singing style, which incorporated her naturally sultry alto voice with its Oklahoma accent, reflected her disdain for vocal gimmickry — flashy endings, excessive vibrato, and other flourishes — in favor of a simple rendition. A chic, attractive woman, she rubbed shoulders with everyone in the New York music world of her era, from the smartly decked-out club owners to the bohemians who frequented the city's lower-class bars. Working with such sidemen as Eddie Condon, Fats Waller, Pee Wee Russell, and Bud Freeman, she made a groundbreaking series of recordings that were the first to spotlight the works of individual composers like George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, and Harold Arlen. Wiley's approach, which was orchestrated by a record buff named John DeVries as a way to promote her rich voice, would be mirrored by Ella Fitzgerald and others in later years.
During World War II, Wiley performed with Eddie Condon and his band in weekly concerts that were aired for U.S. troops fighting overseas. At war's end, the 29-year-old vocalist married jazz pianist and bandleader Jess Stacy, and toured with his group around the country as lead singer. However, months on the road did not agree with Wiley, who enjoyed the fast paced life of the city.
Wiley's career made a resurgence in 1951 with the much admired ten-inch album Night in Manhattan. In 1954, she opened the first Newport Jazz Festival, accompanied by Bobby Hackett. Later in the decade she recorded, West of the Moon in 1957 and A Touch of the Blues in 1958. She released her final album before retirement in 1964, The One and Only
1966-1975: Retirement and Death
She returned to her career in New York, finally remarrying a retired businessman in 1966, shortly before her retirement from the stage. Playing by her own rules, despite the repercussions of her refusal to bend to the wishes of others, Wiley remained true to her musical dictum "keep it simple." She made her last public appearance at a 1972 concert in Carnegie Hall as part of the New York Jazz Festival, where she was enthusiastically received. Wiley died on December 11, 1975, aged 67, in New York City after being diagnosed with colon cancer earlier that year.
- You've Got Me Crying Again (1933)
- Hands Across the Table / I'll Follow My Secret Heart (1934)
- Careless Love / Motherless Child (1934)
- Down to Steamboat Tennessee / Sugar (1940)
- Woman Alone with the Blues / Sugar (1947)
- Memories / But Not for Me (1947)
- George Gershwin Album (1939)
- Rodgers and Hart Album (1940)
- Cole Porter (1940)
- Lee Wiley Sings Songs by Harold Arlen (1943)
- Night in Manhattan (1951) with Bobby Hackett
- Lee Wiley Sings Vincent Youmans (1952)
- Lee Wiley Sings Irving Berlin (1952)
- Lee Wiley Sings Rodgers & Hart (1954)
- West of the Moon (1957)
- A Touch of the Blues (1958) with Billy Butterfield and His Orchestra
- Back Home Again (1971)
- Duologue (1954) with Ellis Larkins
- Lee Wiley Sings and Lennie Tristano Plays (1954) with Lennie Tristano
- The One and Only (1964)
- On the Air (1977)