Lee Lessack Keeps the Music Playing
Debbi K. Swanson visits a talented L.A. lad who's blessed with two burgeoning careers.
Then again, he's something of a split personality: a solo dynamic duo, if you will. Lessack is a singer by night and a CD distributor and promoter by day. And he's one of the nicest people you could meet. You might hear that about a singer, but about the owner of a record label? Not usually.
"This is a business and I have to treat it as such," says the 37-year-old Lessack, who is hoping to expand the LML staff beyond his current bookkeeper and assistant. "It's hard to handle when out of town." He notes that, when LML artist Cory Jamison's CD was reviewed by Howard Reich of the Chicago Tribune, it resulted in hundreds of phone calls a day from people who just had to have the disc. "Some artists sell six CDs a month, some hundreds," says Lessack. That's the advantage of a cottage label; a bigger company probably wouldn't keep those little guys around for long.
To be sure, Lessack is no ordinary record mogul. The son of a former businessman and an opera-singer mother, he's combining all his genetic talents (if there are such things) in his current careers as entrepreneur/performer. A Philadelphia native, he now lives in Larchmont, a tony village of Los Angeles. Here he has settled in the shadow of Hollywood with his partner, Mark, their golden retriever, Bo, and a house full of extraordinary furniture designed by Mark. This is where Lessack runs his business and books his performances.
Lessack's cabaret career is something of a surprise to him, since he always wanted to be an actor. He started out doing The King and I as a child and spent his adolescence performing in various shows--including The King and I again, this time as the young Prince in a professional dinner theater production. Accepted by the American Academy of Dramatic Art as a teenager, Lessack moved to New York and did summer stock. But, after a few years, he burned out and moved on to Chicago, where his parents had settled. After more acting in the Windy City, he headed for the warmth of L.A.
And, brother, was it warm on the August day we met at his home for our interview! An L.A. house without air conditioning is a cruel thing. Yet a gracious Lessack, wearing a surfer print shirt and khakis, was entirely gracious as we talked in his living room. He has clearly made the full transition to California.
Upon arriving in L.A., he started down a classic path: that of working for a celebrity, which sometimes involves dealing with outrageous ego fits and putting in long, unendurable hours. But Lessack was lucky enough to secure a job working for the Fonz himself, Henry Winkler. During those six years, he auditioned and acted here and there. A gig at a local club, The Rose Tattoo, launched his cabaret career. Asked by management if he'd like to put his own show together, he said yes, not knowing how much work was involved. But he did it--and Winkler was there on opening night to give his blessing.
Lessack's life seems to have been blessed ever since. He began playing clubs like Don't Tell Mama in New York, teaming with friends Brian Lane Green and John Boswell for a show called Three Men and a Baby...Grand, which they also performed on the QE II. And he collaborated with his old pal Joanne O'Brien on a show called An Enchanted Evening--The Music of Broadway. Community Concerts, a division of Columbia Artists, picked up that show, which Lessack and O'Brien continue to play all over the country in small and medium sized towns. Lessack is also a successful solo artist; he received a glowing L.A. Times review for his recent appearance at the Cinegrill here, and immediately thereafter made a tour of several East Coast clubs.
Perhaps one of the reasons he works so much is that his cabaret performances seem to touch the souls of his audience. At least, patrons and reviewers keep telling him that. Dubbed a "lounge wizard" by Chicago's Where Magazine, he's also been described as a singer who "gets inside the lyrics of each song, peeling away the layers of words and nuance, rendering them with a tenor that can melt away a long day's stress in a matter of seconds." And his debut album was judged by one critic to be "a beautiful bouquet of simple roses that will make you stop, listen, and swell in delight." Lessack has garnered special praise for his achingly beautiful rendition of Tom Brown's "Jonathan Wesley Oliver Jr.," about a friend's memories of a young man whose name graces a panel of the AIDS quilt.
Mr. L's current project is a tribute to the legendary Johnny Mercer, who is represented on Lessack's two solo CDs by the songs "When October Goes," "I Know You By Heart," and "Out of this World." Director David Galligan wove Mercer's personal story around a clutch of tunes arranged by John Boswell, and a show was born.
Lessack determined to self-produce his first solo CD when he realized that having such a digital calling card was necessary for him to be taken seriously by talent bookers, not to mention the public. Thus was LML Music formed, with friends and business acquaintances such as Joanne O'Brien, Stacy Sullivan, Steven Davis, and Susannah Mars coming aboard as artists. Then, a few years ago, Lessack met Stephen Schwartz--by accident. "I was having a drink with Brian [Lane Green], and at one point Brian said, 'Do you know Stephen Schwartz? He's sitting right over there.' So we talked, and he told me he thought my album was brilliant. I couldn't believe it; he'd gotten it from a friend in London, who had heard it and sent it to him." A few years later, Schwartz provided the liner notes for Lessack's second album. "Unlike singers who feel they need to rely on vocal gymnastics and pyrotechnics to hold the listener's interest," he wrote in part, "Lee uses the limpid clarity of his voice to reveal the layers of a song, so that one feels one is gazing right into its heart."
A growing business, LML Music is demanding more and more of Lessack's time. One unique aspect of the label is that all of the artists get to keep their own master tapes. Lessack distributes via the web and mail, and he ascribes his success largely to his integrity. "I'm so honest that I send checks to my artists for 25 cents if it's due them," he boasts. "I would never cheat another artist!" As success has bred success, Lessack this year took on the distribution of the S.T.A.G.E. AIDS fund-raiser CD, titled ABC (for Richard Adler, Jerry Bock, and Cy Coleman). All CDs can be ordered from www.lmlmusic.com.