What's New on the Rialto
"In Good Company" with LML MusicBy Rob Lester
"It's the intimacy that gives it that niche," Lee Lessack told me on the phone from the other side of the country where he nurtures that niche. He runs LML Music, a company that has put out nearly 100 albums, most of which feature personal, emotional interpretations of songs from the worlds of Broadway and cabaret, with a number of tunes you haven't heard every other singer do. Yes, there are some original songs, such as those written and sung by D. C. Anderson; and there are famous songs, like those on Lee's Broadway duet album with Joanne O'Brien. Lee tends to guide people away from the overdone, unless their interpretations are fresh and new.
Lee never intended to be an entrepreneur with a stable of recording artists. "I started this label to release my first CD. That was as far as I was into it." And he put out a self-titled album of tender songs he loved singing. Then, another singer suggested a slight expansion. That was Brian Lane Green, who is still very much around LML, and is one of 17 guests on In Good Company, Lee's new CD of duets. Lee and Brian are now in New York City, and they'll be at Tower Records, Lincoln Center on Wednesday, August 3 for a free 6 pm concert in the "Any Wednesday" series, along with three other duet partners from the CD providing "good company": The Light In The Piazza's David Burnham, Johnny Rodgers (who arranged and produced the album) and composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz. The following day begins a run of Three Men And a Baby ... Grand, Lee's nightclub act with John Boswell and Brian. They'll be at The Hideaway Room at Helen's on Eighth Avenue near 18th Street. It's not always easy to know what will be in that show, which began years ago. "We change material all the time," Lee tells me with enthusiasm.
Lee knows that a singer's talent and his own love for a recording aren't enough. An album doesn't sell itself. He insists that an artist get out there and perform live in support of the album in order to become better known by concert audiences. "I tend not to release an album unless they're behind it." He tells the singers, "It's your job to get the visibility. You need to be touring. You need to be advertising." And he knows how important it is to have the CD available at the concert site, not just in stores and at his website, www.LMLMusic.com.
LML is now distributing the Nancy Lamott CDs and those by Broadway favorites Susan Egan and Stephen Schwartz. Autumn releases include solo albums by three singers featured on the aforementioned In Good Company: Brian Lane Green; Stacy Sullivan, with a Christmas album ("with a country feel"); and John Philip Alman. Also coming is Barbara Brussell's second album (a tribute to lyricist Alan Jay Lerner) and an album by musical theater performer Steve Blanchard (but it's not show tunes).
Lee used to do virtually everything on the business end himself until the artist roster grew and grew and grew. For the last two years he has had a full-time assistant, a bookkeeper and an accountant, plus a warehouse manager in California. With the new staff, Lee is no longer at sea, even if he is often at sea (with his "regular job," entertaining on cruise ships). I asked how much of his time is currently spent on business, versus other aspects of his life. At first he said 80% was spent on business, but then he paused ... "I'd say 50% of my time is doing the business, 25% on my own singing and the other 25% is my personal life." He simply plans vacations around the cruise ship's port cities or where nightclub engagements might come up.
Lee has been a practical fellow from early on: "I loved music as a kid, and I played the trumpet. But when I got braces, I quit." He grew up in Philadelphia as "a gawky and geeky child, very tall and skinny," and studied piano. He pursued local theater, but didn't imagine himself becoming a singer. Eventually, after studying at The American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York and taking jobs at Bloomingdale's (giving out perfume samples) and temping, Lee became personal assistant to actor Henry Winkler. "It was 24/7," he recalls. The job gave him a look at the glamorous side as well as the business side of show business, and the lessons continue to serve him. He took acting classes and went to open mic nights and clubs "but I never had my own voice. Then one day, when I was 26 or 27, I was singing in the shower and I just suddenly found my voice. 'Til then, I never really felt I could be a singer." And now he certainly is, with years of regular work all over the world.
When we spoke, Lee was on a high from the California concert celebrating the LML tenth anniversary, done as a benefit for tsunami victims [see our review]. "It was really thrilling," he proclaimed. "When I made the album, I wasn't thinking about touring. I had wanted to make a different kind of album, but nothing was motivating me." Then his partner suggested the duets album. "So I put out some feelers for possible duet partners." He didn't want to just use singers who had recorded on LML, but to take the opportunity to broaden his "listener base." He says he was honored to duet with singers who are also writers: Ann Hampton Callaway and Amanda McBroom, and a singer-songwriter he is a huge fan of, Susan Werner. Two Susan Werner songs are on the CD, including a track with Michael Feinstein.
Lee also has tremendous praise for Johnny Rodgers, who co-wrote his track, and is also the arranger and producer for the album. When it turned out that Johnny's album, Box of Photographs from PS Classics, was also being released this summer, they decided to extend their happy working relationship and do a series of engagements together. Lee is excited about being able to perform with the Johnny Rodgers Band around the country. He names Johnny as one of the current songwriters he most admires. Also on the list are Adam Guettel, John Bucchino and David Friedman. But the name that comes up over and over is Stephen Schwartz. "I felt so displaced growing up. Stephen's music saved me," Lee said, turning serious and recalling listening to early Schwartz scores. After his own career got going, he found himself at a party, being introduced to the writer of Pippin and Godspell. "Stephen took my hand and said, 'I think your CD is brilliant.' I just couldn't believe it." Musical theater actor John Barr had sent Schwartz the album. "We kept in touch and I asked him to do the liner notes for my second album, and he did."
Lee is especially pleased to be distributing Schwartz's two solo albums and to duet with Schwartz on "For Good" from Wicked. It's a song about people getting to know each other, communicating and making a difference. "That's what this label is all about," he told me, and I felt his smile through the telephone wires.
For more on Lee Lessack's appearances and the CDs on his label, visit www.LMLMusic.com.
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