Barbara Lee Owens Stamy's performances come back to life on a new CD
The Pittsburgh native was a local star on KDKA-AM
December 21, 2013 7:09 PM
Pam Panchak / Post-Gazette
By Adrian McCoy / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
People who remember when radio was the dominant form of home entertainment might recall the voice of the young singer Barbara Lee Owens, whose talents were showcased on a weekly local music show on KDKA-AM in the late '40s.
From 1947-49, she was a singer on "Songs You Love to Hear," a weekly show sponsored by Breakfast Cheer Coffee. She sang duets with the late Johnny Kirby and also did solos, accompanied by Russell Merritt on piano and celesta and organist Johnny Mitchell. The late Paul Shannon, best remembered as a WTAE-TV host, worked at KDKA at the time and was the show's announcer. The half-hour show aired Monday evenings and was followed by Perry Como's radio show.
Barbara Lee Owens Stamy will turn 88 on Monday. The longtime Fox Chapel resident is now living at Longwood at Oakmont. Through the years, she kept a large collection of memorabilia from her days as a performer -- programs and photos, newspaper clippings, correspondence, pay receipts and recordings. And thanks to her son Lloyd Stamy Jr., she has a new CD of her KDKA recordings to add to the collection.
Mrs. Stamy was born and raised in Regent Square. Elizabeth Henderson, her ninth-grade music teacher, recognized her talent and suggested to her parents that she study singing. She started her formal voice training in high school, studying with several teachers, and training in classical and sacred music with Joseph O'Brien, who sang with the Mendelssohn Choir and was an organist at several local churches.
"I always loved to sing -- anything. Singing is part of my soul," Mrs. Stamy said. "I'm grateful that God blessed me with a voice and others encouraged me along the way."
In 1947, she was a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh when she and fellow student Tommy Leiper took a shot at fame on "The Wilkens Amateur Hour," a popular weekly talent show that aired on radio in the '30s and '40s and moved to TV in 1950. They won.
Soon after, she was invited to fill in on KDKA's "Breakfast Cheer" program and quickly became a permanent part.
Doing a live radio music show is a lost art these days. Mrs. Stamy said that Kirby, Merritt and Mitchell got together about an hour before the broadcast to decide on the song lineup.
"Johnny and I would each bring a stack of scores, then choose what combination of solos and duets would go well together, and in what key sounded best. After that, Paul [Shannon] would join us, and we'd run through that evening's entire show to get the pacing right and make sure the guys on keyboards had all the breath markings."
She found studio work easier than being on stage.
"We all had the music in front of us. We could watch each other closely, which helped hold it all together. Oddly enough, it was a more personal experience than being on stage in front of an audience. On stage, all you really see are the lights in your eyes. So you don't really connect with your audience until it's over and the applause starts."
KDKA's powerful 50,000-watt signal carried its shows to other states at night, and her fan base extended far beyond the city limits. There were requests for photos and autographs. The station sent her to New York for a portrait session with the late Murray Korman, a noted celebrity photographer whose stylish portraits included Fred Astaire, Carmen Miranda, Betty Grable and Fanny Brice.
Along with her radio work, she performed on stage, including the Pittsburgh Playhouse, where she appeared in "The Damask Cheek," "After Hours" and "Singing in the Rain," the Civic Light Opera, and as a soloist with The Pittsburgh Concert Society and The Bach Choir. She also sang with local dance bands.
After the show ended, she married Lloyd Stamy and they raised four children. The late Mr. Stamy was a construction equipment dealer, real estate developer and founder of the Lloyd F. Stamy Company.
She went back to graduate school, earning a master's in child development after her children were grown. She traveled extensively, including a solo backpacking trip in Europe. And she continued to perform into the early '90s. Her range extended from popular to classical and sacred music: She performed as a soloist at Shadyside Presbyterian Church Chancel Choir, Fox Chapel Presbyterian Church and other houses of worship.
She experienced sudden radio celebrity in her youth and a life rich in adventure and travel, but Mrs. Stamy never let the fame and attention go to her head. "I didn't really know I was famous; I never felt famous, it was just my life and what life handed me," she said. "I loved to sing, so it wasn't like work, though it did require lots of work." But, she added, "It was fun. All of it."
Much of the recorded history of radio -- which Mrs. Stamy was part of -- is long gone. Programs were recorded on large 16-inch acetate discs, which often were pitched when stations moved or changed owners.
Although "Songs You Love to Hear" was a live show, it was recorded and the discs were sent to other stations that aired the shows. When former KDKA musician Russ Merritt heard that KDKA was cleaning out its archives, he rescued 12 discs of "Breakfast Cheer" and stored them in his garage. Lloyd Stamy Jr. asked to borrow them to transfer them to cassettes, and Mr. Merritt gave them to him.
Among boxes of family memorabilia, Mr. Stamy found the old Korman publicity photos, along with another stack of recordings from the KDKA show.
Mr. Stamy enlisted the help of several local audio and recording professionals, including Chris Hood, Steve Zelenko and George Heid Jr., to restore and transfer the programs to more modern media.
In the early '80s, the originals were cleaned and noise reduction equipment was used to eliminate the crackling and hissing. Mr. Hood transferred the recordings to high quality reel-to-reel tapes. Mr. Stamy made cassette recordings for his mother and siblings.
Earlier this year, he released a collection of highlights of his mother's radio recordings on a CD named after the "Songs You Love to Hear" show. The collection includes 14 songs, mostly Great American Songbook classics such as "Night and Day," "Over the Rainbow, "Someday My Prince Will Come" and "Dancing in the Dark." Korman's original publicity photos are used on the CD cover and liner notes.
Mr. Stamy gave her the CD to mark the show's 65th anniversary.
"I was shocked. I didn't realize he had this." Mrs. Stamy said.
Its contents are fitting for a performer who, despite a varied repertoire, says that her favorites are the classic pop standards, such as "You Go to My Head" and "My Funny Valentine," which she still enjoys listening to. "As far as my contemporaries, I admired Sinatra, of course, Eileen Farrell and Judy Garland. Later on, definitely Streisand -- she's my favorite."
The project has been "fascinating, revealing and fun," said Mr. Stamy, who has followed in his mother's musical footsteps. A retired partner at C.S. McKee, he appears in community theater productions and has sung with choirs and glee clubs.
He said releasing the music on CD was a way to preserve "the memory of her joy of singing" and to share it with others. Personally, he added. "It's just payback for all of her goodness over the years. Her precious gift of song was the abiding influence of music on our family," he said.
Mr. Stamy points out that his mother's voice has been recorded on all recording media -- from the first wire recordings to digital mp3s. Steel wire recordings preceded magnetic tape and were used from the 1930s until after World War II. Mr. Stamy recently found a wire recording of his mother singing works by Debussy, Schubert and Brahms in a 1946 recital.
"Songs You Love to Hear" is the first in a series of his mother's recordings Mr. Stamy plans to release. Copies of the CD are available at barbaraleeowens.com, and mp3 versions will soon be for sale on iTunes and Amazon.com.
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