Born Barbara LeCocq in Detroit, Ms. Lea attended Wellesley College on scholarship and majored in music theory. She began performing in the 1950s in Boston, where she sang with the likes of Marian McPartland, Bobby Hackett, Vic Dickenson, Frankie Newton, Johnny Windhurst and George Wein. She began recording soon after graduation, for the Riverside and Prestige labels. In New York she appeared in such clubs as The Village Vanguard, The Rainbow Room, Michael's Pub and Jan Wallman's. She was known for her understated style, and her devotion to the song as written.
"There are many singers who use music," Ms. Lea once said. "I resent that. Music is sacred. The song has to control the performance. Doing anything else — employing this or that trick — to make the audience applaud is an outrage. Then you are making them applaud you."
In the 1960s, with the cabaret circuit on the decline, she started to study acting and began to work in regional theatre. She moved to the West Coast and received her M.A. in drama at Cal. State-Northridge, then returned to New York and taught speech at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and acting at Hofstra University. Among her theatre roles were Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Portia in Julius Caesar, Carlotta in Follies, Angela in Enter Laughing, Joanne in Company and Fraulein Schneider in Cabaret.
As the cabaret scene started to come back, Ms. Lea resumed her singing and was newly celebrated. "Two decades have changed Miss Lea from a demure, sweet-faced college girl fresh out of Wellesley to a mature, assured, strong-featured woman," wrote John S. Wilson in the New York Times in 1975. "And her voice has grown to match her appearance. There are still echoes of Lee Wiley when Miss Lea sings, but her voice has acquired a depth, a deep velvet sound in her chest tones that carries smoothly into the upper register, enabling her to color her songs with exquisite shading and dynamics. Along with this, she has a jazz singer's ability to lift a dull song, to kick it into life after she has given it the obligatory straight first chorus... She has become the exemplification of what most singers hope they will sound like but rarely do."
Her many recordings include "Lea in Love," "Do It Again," "Deep in a Dream: Barbara Lea Sings Jimmy Van Heusen," "Hoagy's Children," "Remembering Lee Wiley," "Barbara Lea and Keith Ingham Celebrate Vincent Youmans" and "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?" No immediate family members survive.