By Winston Gieseke
Originally published on Advocate.com August 09 2011 2:45 PM ET
Lee Lessack grew up wanting to perform. “I always wanted to be in theater,” says the award-winning vocalist, whose seventh album, Chanteur, is available today. “My mom was an opera singer, so we were surrounded by music. She got us involved in community theater as kids. I loved it.”
Chanteur, Lessack’s first recording since his critically lauded 2005 duets album In Good Company (which featured pairings with Michael Feinstein, "The Rose" songwriter Amanda McBroom, Wicked composer Stephen Schwartz, and ’70s songstress Maureen McGovern) is “an homage to the great French songbook from an American perspective.”
The album was born out of a concert of the same name that Lessack’s good friend and colleague, former soap star (All My Children, Another World) and Tony Award–nominated Broadway actor (Big River, Starmites) Brian Lane Green, created for him. Featuring songs penned by French composers like Michel Legrand, Jacques Brel, Gilbert Bécaud, and Charles Aznavour, Lessack and Green tested the show in Los Angeles, then embarked on a sold-out engagement in London before going on to Paris.
“Most of the songs are from that show, but we’ve added a few as well,” Lessack says of the album, which includes a cover of Edith Piaf’s “Hymne à l’Amour,” “If We Only Have Love” (from Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris), and “I Will Wait For You” (from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg). “Plus the arrangements [on the record] are very different. The show is very French, very in-your-face and bold, but that wasn’t the listening experience I wanted to create. The album is more mellow. It’s just piano, vocal, and guitar. With a little bass. It’s probably the simplest recording I’ve ever done.”
While onstage, Lessack has been called a “towering presence” and praised for his “gentle charisma with his audience,” over conversation he admits he was a late bloomer whose uniqueness didn’t emerge until his late 20s.
He was living in L.A. and had been working for nearly six years as a personal assistant to actor Henry Winkler and his wife. He says the experience was a good one (“They paid well and they gave me nice gifts—Armani suits and stuff”), but he was eager to jump-start his own career—whatever that might be. “I was taking voice lessons, and one day I was in the in the shower doing my voice exercises and something shifted. Suddenly I heard a tone that I thought was really special and unique. It was at that moment that I made the connection that the voice is an instrument you can play.”
He eventually gave his notice to the Winklers, with whom he remains close. “I said to his wife, ‘You’re never going to promote me to Henry, so I need to find a career for myself.’ And that was the beginning for me.” Lessack began doing concerts, and with the money he’d saved up, he recorded what would become his debut album. The next step was finding someone to release it. Not knowing how to go about that, he decided to do it himself and created his own label, LML Music.
He found a distributor through a lucky break. Lessack had developed a small following based on his live performances, and one tune managed to catch the ear of a producer. “It was an original song written by Tom Brown called ‘Jonathan Wesley Oliver, Jr.,’ and it told the story behind one panel of the AIDS quilt. I performed it in my club act and it was very moving. People kind of knew me for it.”
The song, which was originally intended to be sung by a woman, is about two childhood friends. The boy is thrown out of the house when his parents find out he’s gay, and years later the girl ends up at the AIDS quilt singing about their friendship and how she wants her deceased friend to know that his father had made his panel. It’s a powerful message—and one Lessack thought would be even stronger if sung by a male friend instead of a female one. He recorded a demo and sent it to the songwriter, who wrote him a letter thanking him for his rendition and saying it was the first time he’d heard the song the way he’d heard it in his mind.
A producer named Mitch Gallob tracked Lessack down—but not for the reasons Lessack might have hoped. “He wanted to get the rights to the song because he was hoping to get Bette Midler to record it.” Bette didn’t pan out, but after hearing Lessack’s demo, Gallob hired him to record the song for the first compilation of gay and lesbian singers and songwriters. It was called A Love Worth Fighting For. “There I was, sandwiched between Janis Ian and Michael Callen and all these amazing people.”
Lessack, a natural self-marketer, seized the opportunity and approached the compilation’s distributor about handling his solo record. It did, and his debut album, Lee Lessack, received a favorable write-up in Billboard.
Other artists soon came calling, asking if Lessack would put out their CDs. “This was before everybody and their mother had a CD, mind you,” Lessack says with a smile. “It was still a little unreachable for the everyman.” Figuring he could take on a few additional projects — at this stage he was doing all the sales and royalty reporting himself, manually — he said yes. And every six months or so he expanded his label’s catalog by taking on a few more artists until suddenly it was17 years later and LML Music was home to over a hundred artists and had released several hundred albums.
Lessack is thrilled with the success his label has had. And while he’s excited about people hearing the songs on Chanteur, he says he has no problem not being LML’s top seller. “I’m the least competitive artist I know. I just want to sing pretty,” he says with a laugh. “I have always believed there’s room for everybody. I don’t care if I’m the biggest seller or not. As long as somebody’s selling.”
In addition to Chanteur, LML Music’s new releases include two prominent CDs: Tony winner Lea Salonga’s The Journey So Far and Dukes of Hazzard star Tom Wopat’s Consider It Swung.
Lessack’s Chanteur tour begins in September. For more details check out LML Music’s site.