Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


LEES, Gene

(b 8 February 1928, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada; d 22 April 2010, Ojai CA) Lyricist, songwriter, vocalist, journalist. He grew up in St Catharines, Ontario (also trumpeter Kenny Wheeler's home town); he worked as a journalist on Canadian newspapers, became music and drama editor at the Louisville Times (KY), was editor of down beat magazine '59-61, contributing editor of Stereo Review '62-5, columnist and contributing editor for High Fidelity '65-70. He contributed to many other publications, wrote sleevenotes, broadcast on radio/TV in USA/Canada, etc.

His songs '62-85 have been recorded by Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Peggy Lee, Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae etc. He was first to translate bossa nova songs, including Antonio Carlos Jobim's 'Corcovado' (named for a mountain near Rio) as 'Quiet Nights Of Quiet Stars', 'Samba Do Aviao' ('Song Of The Jet'); also 'Waltz For Debby' (tune by Bill Evans), all recorded by Tony Bennett and others; also from the French: Charles Aznavour's 'Que C'est Triste Venise' became 'Venice Blue', sung by Aznavour in both languages. Lees made his own album Sings The Gene Lees Songbook: Quiet Nights And Quiet Stars '70, made in Toronto, orchestra with strings, Ed Bickert on guitar, Mike Renzi on piano, reissued '87 on Stash with new vocal tracks (the old master tape was lost), his intimacy and vocal range well-suited to his romantic ballads with memorable lyrics, especially the bossa nova songs. Duo Leaves On The Water '85 on Choice with pianist Roger Kellaway presents mostly their co-written songs, also 'Waltz For Debby' (again), two by Dave Frishberg. Another studio album Yesterday I Heard The Rain '96 came after successful gigs in Toronto, including nine songs co-written by Lees and three by his hero Johnny Mercer, sextet led by Don Thompson (b 18 January 1940: bassist, pianist, arranger Thompson is one of Canada's finest: recorded with Lenny Breau, George Shearing, Paul Desmond, Jim Hall and others; his own albums included A Country Place '69 on PM, Beautiful Friendship '84 on Concord, Winter Mist '91 on Jazz Alliance.)

Lees translated the poems of Pope John Paul II for an album with Sarah Vaughan '85 (see her entry); has published short stories, novel And Sleep Until Noon, The Modern Rhyming Dictionary: How To Write Lyrics '82, biographies of Oscar Peterson (The Will To Swing '88), Henry Mancini (collaboration on autobiography Did They Mention The Music? '89), Lerner and Loewe (Inventing Champagne '90), Woody Herman (Leader Of The Band '95). Jazz Lives '92 including 100 portraits by photographer John Reeves, and a biography of Johnny Mercer.

With an international following among critics, musicians and academics he started his influential Jazzletter '81 (available elsewhere on this site), a monthly with no advertising full of good writing on all aspects of high-class popular music, including an independent attitude of eloquent disgust with the music business. Bylines apart from Lees included Mike Zwerin (b 11 May 1930; d 2 April 2010, Paris: trombonist, played with Miles Davis, Claude Thornhill, Maynard Ferguson; became columnist on the International Herald Tribune in Paris; books include autobiography Close Enough For Jazz '83), also Dick Sudhalter, Grover Sales, Bobby Scott, bassist Bill Crow (b 27 December 1927) on USSR tour with Benny Goodman (Zoot Sims: 'Any gig with Benny was like working in Russia'). Singers And The Song '87, Meet Me At Jim And Andy's '88, Waiting For Dizzy '91, Cats Of Any Color '94, A Brotherhood of Music '96 are collections of Jazzletter essays from Oxford U Press; Singers And The Song was to be republished in an expanded version. Lees has won three ASCAP/Deems Taylor awards for his writing. His son Philip Lees (b Kentucky; lived in Paris) is a jazz pianist, writes songs and music for French and American TV.