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Skillful Lee

Lee Lessack handily juggles two careers, as a singer and a record producer.

By New York City
Lee Lessack
Lee Lessack
To hear one of Lee Lessack's CDs is to enjoy a voice so lovely and so emotionally communicative that you'll think to yourself, "No wonder this guy got a record contract." But the truth is that, in the fine American tradition of making things happen for oneself, all of Lessack's albums are self-produced. Lessack formed LML Music with the sole intention of creating and distributing his own CDs, but the company soon began taking off and branching out beyond his wildest dreams. The singer/entrepreneur recently spoke with TheaterMania over the phone from his home in Los Angeles about music, inventory, and the weather.

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THEATERMANIA: You have so much going on right now in both areas of your career. What current projects are you particularly excited about?

LEE LESSACK: Well, we have The Actors' Fund of America live benefit concert tribute to Jerry Herman, called Tap Your Troubles Away. It's a big, amazing, double-CD set.

TM: Wasn't that the benefit where Angela Lansbury sang "Hello, Dolly!" and Carol Channing sang "Mame?"

LEE: Yes, it was brilliant. During the sound check, Channing literally came tumbling down the spiral stairs on stage and broke her arm. Everyone was mortified, but she was upset only because she was missing her sound check. She's such a trooper. It was the first time she and Lansbury had ever performed together onstage, so that was pretty wild. Bernadette Peters and Lee Roy Reams also performed -- and Leslie Uggams did "If He Walked Into My Life."

TM: Wasn't Ann Miller there also?

LEE: Yes. They did "We Need a Little Christmas" and they assembled, all around this Christmas tree, everyone who's ever played Mame in the history of musical theater.

TM: I assume that didn't include people who've played it in their basement.

LEE: No. I'm sure there are plenty of those! These were people of note, like Ann Miller and Jane Powell. I have to say, it was just thrilling.

TM: You've also released several CDs of the S.T.A.G.E. benefits. Can you remind me what S.T.A.G.E. stands for?

LEE: It's the Southland Theater Artists Goodwill Event, and it's the longest-running AIDS benefit in the world. My first CD for them was A-B-C, which was their salute to [Richard] Adler, [Jerry] Bock, and [Cy] Coleman. Then I put out Life Upon the Wicked S.T.A.G.E., their Jerome Kern show. Last year, they did Dream: The Songs of Johnny Mercer, and that CD should be out this spring. This year, they're doing Frank Loesser. It's really exciting for me to put out these CDs on what I tend to refer to as "the little label that could." I try to support any vocalist that I think should be heard, but that doesn't necessarily mean that those vocalists sell, so it's projects like these benefit CDs that really help the company.

TM: Do I understand correctly that LML artists retain the rights to their recordings?

LEE: Yes, all of my artists own their masters. What I'm doing is distributing; we're working with the Allegro Corporation now. I basically do all the grunt work that artists don't know how to do or don't want to be bothered with -- licensing, business administration, post-production. Most people don't have a designer to do their graphics. I manufacture everything, get the booklets printed, the whole bit. Some people come to me at the beginning of the process and I have to put together their team -- engineer, musical director, whatever. And some people come to me with a more or less finished product.

TM: Tell me about some of your artists. There's Brian Lane Green...

LEE: Brian was the first -- well, after me. I had met him during an open mike night at the Rose Tattoo here in L.A. Then he called me and said, "I really want you to produce my album and put it on your label." And I was, like, "Wow!" I had never even thought about the label being used for anything except my own recording. Brian and I laugh about it now; we just did a cruise concert together and I said to him, "When you came to me, I didn't know anything. I was doing this on a wing and a prayer."

TM: Now, let's talk about you as a performer. What have you got coming up? Are you going to be doing your Three Men and a Baby Grand show again with Brian and John Boswell?

LEE: I think that show may come back to life. We did it everywhere -- in New York, we ran it at Eighty Eight's and at Judy's -- but we don't have a CD of the group. On the last cruise, we talked about that a lot. It's definitely something we'd like to do, and having the label certainly makes it easier.

TM: So, when you started LML, you really did it just to release your own CD?

LEE: Yes. I had actually gone to David Friedman and I asked him if he would produce my album, because he had MIDDER Music and I was a huge fan of Nancy LaMott. He said, "You know, I'm really not planning to expand this label beyond Nancy's albums. You should start your own." And I was, like, "Okay. What do I do?" He said, "I'll guide you." David was so incredibly supportive and he kept me from making a lot of common mistakes. The business really has grown; we've just released our 65th CD.

TM: Who are some of the artists you might want to single out?

LEE: Patty Morabito, from Chicago. She is really awesome and it's a great CD. I'm excited about Kirsten Benton and Stan Chandler. Their harmonies are amazing; I've never heard such a blend. Stan has a really, really high tenor and so they just sort of dance around each others' voices. We re-released Jack Donahue's CD in the spring and, because it was a re-release, it didn't get the attention it deserved, but I happen to think it's a gorgeous album. I'm very excited about Heather MacRae's new album, I Choose Love. There's an a cappella group called Sixth Wave that we just released; I think they're dynamite. And our 'Nita Whitaker CD is one of our top sellers. Do you know that story?

TM: No.

LEE: 'Nita was one of the first Star Search grand champions -- maybe the very first. She was in Ragtime out here and she just did a run of Me and Mrs. Jones with Lou Rawls at the Prince Music Theatre in Philadelphia. She does a lot of session work and she tours with David Foster. Anyway, David and his wife wrote a song called "Heaven Holds the Ones I Love" and he produced it for 'Nita on her CD. It's stunning. She got it to Rick Dees and he played it on the air after 9/11 -- and the phones just didn't stop ringing. Rick called it "the song to heal the nation." Then 'Nita hired a radio promoter and the song hit the Top 40 charts. The mail we get on that one song is unbelievable. People say things like "My mother passed away and I can't find this song; I heard it on the radio and I want to play it at the funeral." It's a really moving piece and 'Nita has an incredible voice.

TM: Before I let you go, can you tell me what you have coming up in your own singing career?

LEE: Well, I'm still on tour with the Johnny Mercer show that I recorded. I just played Milwaukee, and I'm going to North Carolina and Florida. Then there's An Enchanted Evening: The Music of Broadway, a concert that I do with Joanne O'Brien. I wrote the concert about five or six years ago, and Joanne and I have toured probably 250 cities with it.

TM: Do you have any New York dates scheduled?

LEE: I imagine we'll bring this one to New York in the late spring or summer. I live in Hollywood and, right now, it's a bitter 62 degrees here. So you can see why I don't like to come to New York in the winter!

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[For more information on Lee Lessack, visit the website lmlmusic.com]


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