Award-Winning Vocalist, Lee Lessack, shines on this tribute to one of the most prolific songwriters of our time. Recorded LIVE at the Cinegrill in Hollywood.
— G.C.K. www.ShowTunesReview.com
“LEE LESSACK: THE SONGS OF JOHNNY MERCER was recorded live at Hollywood’s historic The Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, in The Cinegrill, during July, 2000. In his cabaret act, baritone Lessack delivers a passionate performance of over two dozen hits by songwriter Johnny Mercer, ably accompanied by John Boswell on piano and Adrian Rosen on bass. The act is entitled Too Marvelous For Words, directed by David Galligan who, with Lessack, selected some of Mercer’s most memorable and often haunting words and melodies. Among the highlights are Lessack’s thoughtful renditions of Laura, the medley Days of Wine and Roses/Charade/Moon River, I Remember You (including the rarely heard verse), When October Goes, Whistling Away the Dark and Out of This World. Lessack also handles a few of Mercer’s humorous novelty songs with panache including Whatcha-Ma-Call-It, Pineapple Pete and The Bathtub Ran Over Again. There’s a sprinkling of patter between some of the songs, relaying a Mercer anecdote or two. But the majority of the CD is pure Mercer musical magic with another winning performance by Lessack.”
— Dave Nathan – AMG EXPERT REVIEW
“Johnny Mercer’s words and music fill a lot of space in the Great American Popular Songbook. He has penned words for the music of some of the most venerable songs in popular song history. It’s hard not to find something by Mercer on albums cut by contemporary singers as well as on those by the great song stylists of the past. Albums paying tribute to his work are found throughout the popular song discography. Now comes Les Lessack, singer and recording company executive, with his entry honoring the Savannah-born lyricist. Recorded live in cabaret before an appreciative audience, Lessack runs through a 15-tune play list of mostly well-known Mercer material with a balance between light, cute, and novelty, and serious material. “Pineapple Pete” and “Whatcha-Ma-Call-It” are examples of the former. “Pineapple Pete” is the vehicle for good-natured banter by Lessack as he picks up a fluke (like a ukulele) to accompany himself. In good cabaret tradition, the medley of Mercer’s travel music is adorned with vignettes about the songs. Ballads, on the other hand, are treated with almost devotional respect as they are delivered with deep, sincere emotional feeling. Occasionally John Boswell accompanies Lessack like he is backing a classical vocalist doing lieder by Robert Schuman. The playing becomes ponderous and at times overwhelms Lessack, as on “My Shining Hour” and some other cuts. It’s too bad because Lessack throws everything he has into each tune and every bit of his expressiveness, a critical part of his delivery, needs to be heard. The Lessack voice has a touch of Johnny Mathis, especially the way he uses vibrato at the end of each phrase. Aside from the occasional burly piano, this entertaining tribute to Mercer is recommended.”
— Michael Paoletta, Billboard Magazine
“Cabaret singer/actor Lee Lessack recently made his London concert debut at the Jermyn Street Theatre. The occasion was “An Enchanted Evening: The Music Of Broadway,” a musical tribute (spanning more than six decades of Broadway music) that starred Lessack, who also co-authored/produced the show. (Lessack’s resume includes leading roles in “Grease,” “Fiddler On The Roof,” and “Godspell,” among others.) These days, when not touring the cabaret circuit, Lessack can be found in the recording studio, injecting new life into standards. Recorded live at the Cinegrill at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel last year, “The Songs Of Johnny Mercer” finds the talented vocalist delivering a touching and captivating tribute to one of the greatest songwriters of our time. Accompanied by piano, bass, and audience applause, Lessack handles signature gems like “That Old Black Magic,” “Skylark,” “Autumn Leaves,” and “Moon River” with aplomb. An absolute highlight is “The Travel Medley,” which finds the artist intertwining such Mercer nuggets as “Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home,” “Jeepers Creepers,” and “Come Rain Or Come Shine,” among others.”
— By Howard Reich Tribune Arts Critic – October 27, 2000
“Singers Like Lee Lessack Helping Put Davenport’s On The Map
A great club is more than just a place where you can catch a favorite performer or savor late-night conversation. When a room is triply blessed with a savvy booking policy, top-notch acoustics and a congenial ambience, it can draw audiences and nurture an art form.
Ever since Davenport’s opened on a colorful stretch of North Milwaukee Avenue in 1998, the place has become increasingly important to cabaret devotees and performers alike. As the club’s second anniversary approaches there’s little doubt that Davenport’s is becoming ground zero for cabaret culture in Chicago.
Certainly any showroom that has presented Karen Mason, Hollis Resnik, Cory Jamison and an impromptu turn by Ann Hampton Callaway (each a nationally prominent artist with deep Chicago ties) has earned its place in the major leagues. Considering that Davenport’s contains not one but two acoustically appealing performance spaces–a formal listening room and a more casual piano bar–the venue packs twice the punch of many of its counterparts nationwide.
So a sense of optimism about the future of the club and the fragile art form it champions pervaded the place Wednesday evening, when Los Angeles-based singer Lee Lessack opened a four-night engagement. To see a sizable, midweek crowd relishing a dramatically charged show by a formidable interpreter was to realize anew how much Davenport’s has come to mean to cabaret tradition in Chicago.
This is the city, after all, where fabled but long vanished clubs such as Mister Kelly’s, Chez Paree and the Empire Room featured the likes of Barbra Streisand, Frank Sinatra and Maurice Chevalier. Uncounted cabarets have come and gone since the golden era, the recent casualties including the Toulouse Cognac Bar and Gold Star Sardine Bar.
Skeptics might argue that Davenport’s does not match the opulence of the earlier Chicago rooms, and, indeed, its understated decor reflects the tone of a decidedly more casual age. Yet the high artistic standards that distinguished Chicago’s best rooms endure at Davenport’s, as the work of this week’s headliner attested.
Lessack is hardly an unknown figure in Chicago, having performed in a variety of local venues, but his skills as interpreter seem to deepen each time he returns. As much actor as vocalist, Lessack understands that the best American songwriting requires the performer to produce more than just dulcet tones. Character, point of view, dramatic purpose and emotional range are at least equally important, and in these matters, Lessack was in his element.
No doubt he had the advantage of performing some of the most ingeniously crafted tunes in the American vernacular. “Too Marvelous For Words: The Songs of Johnny Mercer” reaffirmed the songwriter’s place at the pinnacle of his art.
Certainly the American song literature would be poorer without “That Old Black Magic” (which Mercer wrote with composer Harold Arlen), “Laura” (to a melody by David Raksin) and “Come Rain or Come Shine” (Arlen). To contemporary ears, Lessack’s approach to this repertoire at first may seem somewhat nostalgic, in that he subscribes to a quasi-operatic, bel canto style of singing that Sinatra rendered obsolete in the 1950s and thereafter. But this retro style seems to come naturally to Lessack, who makes nary a misstep in re-creating it. Put your reservations aside, and it’s not difficult to be persuaded by the unabashedly big finish he brings to “This Will Be My Shining Hour” or the throbbing high notes he finds in “Moon River.”
Assisted by pianist Chuck Larkin, Lessack covers a broad swath of Mercer’s music in the course 90 tightly packed minutes. What a fitting way to raise the curtain on Davenport’s forthcoming second birthday.”
— Don Heckman, Los Angeles Times, January 12, 2001
“There are times when Lee Lessack sounds almost eerily reminiscent of Michael Feinstein. His vibrato is a bit heavier in spots, but the boyish breathlessness is strikingly similar. Even so, on “Too Marvelous for Words: The Songs of Johnny Mercer” (***), in a performance recorded live in July at the Hollywood Roosevelt Cinegrill–Lessack’s warm amiability and insightful interpretive powers lift his performances well beyond the area of imitation. And with Mercer, he has a wondrous array of music from which to choose: from the balladry of “Laura” and “Come Rain or Come Shine” to the whimsy of “The Air-Minded Executive,” “Lazybones” and “Whatcha-Ma-Call-It.” By the time he’s finished, Lessack’s own musical personality has managed to surface–not quite often enough, but impressively so when it does.”
— Lesley Alexander, Welcome To The Club, WRTN-FM
“Lessack’s breathless vocals capture not only the beauty and romanticism of Mercer’s lyrics but the dynamism too. Those delicious lyrics are all included in the CD booklet. Some of musical director, John Boswell’s bouncy arrangements on numbers like “I Thought About You,” which may improve the pace of the live show, overshadow the delicate nature of the material on disc. Much stronger is his seamless version of “Blues In the Night” coupled with “Anyplace I Hang My Hat Is Home” rendered with vibrance from Lessack and “Skylark,” which it’s been said is the most perfect song. Lessack’s version sure comes close. His sound is so very appealing you just want to hear more and more…”
— 9/25/00 – Rex Reed
“The impeccable selection of songs and your exuberance and humor, not to mention superb phrasing, make for a very smart musical journey into the heart of Mercer country. I think it’s a blooming miracle that somebody today wants to sing quality songs in the first place, but the power and range of your voice, your enthusiasm for the material, and your obvious love for what you are doing as a performer have a cumulative effect that guarantees a smile on every listener’s face. In addition to the timeless, familiar songs, I was also thrilled to make a few new discoveries. I had never heard “Pineapple Pete” or “Whatcha-Ma-Call-It’ before, and I think your gentle take on “When October Goes” is the best I’ve heard since Mel Torme’s. This CD has ample quantities of warmth, joy and intelligence — rare qualities indeed in today’s mediocre market. It deserves wider play and great success.”
— DARYL H. MILLER, Los Angeles Times Thursday, July 20, 2000
“Lee Lessack isn’t just pretending when he sings the Johnny Mercer lyric, “That old blackmagic has me in its spell.” The sorcerer is none other than Mercer himself, casting a spell so potent that Lessack has devoted all of his new cabaret show, at the Cinegrill through Saturday, to the late wordsmith. It’s a nice pairing of talents. Mercer, who died in 1976 at age 66, had a gift for capturing great depths of meaning in a few simple words, and the Los Angeles-based Lessack–who, at 37, has a growing national reputation and two solo albums–does much the same as he subtly shades and shimmers his voice to convey feeling.
In “That Old Black Magic” in Tuesday’s opening show, for instance, his voice flickered in a way that suggested he really was “aflame with such a burning desire / that only your kiss”–and here, he all but kissed that word–”can put out the fire.” His tone is still more remarkable: He floats phrases in a sort of half-whisper, his dusky tenor rippling with just a touch of vibrato. (Unfortunately, his too-heavy miking on Tuesday nearly spoiled the effect.) Prepared with the guidance of theater director David Galligan, the show is nicely paced among love songs (“I Thought About You,” “Skylark”), novelty songs (“Pineapple Pete,” “Whatcha-Ma-Call-It”) and autumnal tunes (“Autumn Leaves,” “Whistling Away the Dark”). Accompanist John Boswell contributes gorgeous arrangements. If there’s a problem, it’s that the shade-over-an-hourlong program leaves us wanting so much more–more verses of the songs breezed over, and more substantive detail about Mercer’s life in the between-song remarks.”
With his graceful lyric baritone vocals and a sophisticated yet endearing persona, Lee Lessack has toured extensively in the United States and Europe to sold-out performances and has released five recordings. His most ambitious recording to date, “In Good Company,”…