Through various stages of his career, Dave Barbour was known as a banjoist, a guitarist, a songwriter, the husband of singer Peggy Lee and an actor. At other times he was known for doing not much of anything, including a final period of more than a decade when he hung out in Malibu and made only a few extremely random public appearances as a musician. His greatest accomplishment, all told, seems to have been propelling Lee — who had initially given up her singing career for marriage and children — into becoming a major singing star. Musically, he and Lee were just a great combination, writing much of her best material together, and Barbour often leading her backup band many of their recordings. Their private life, on the flipside, was supposedly something of a mess. Barbour's lips were glued to the alcohol bottle, a problem that continued after the relationship with Lee had fallen apart and no doubt accounted for his fallow period.
Barbour came out of an early generation of jazz string players who changed from banjo to guitar as the swing era took off. He began playing professionally with one-armed Dixieland trumpeter Wingy Manone in the early '30s, and at that point he was still on banjo. By 1936 Barbour had picked up guitar and was in the group of vibraphonist Red Norvo, who almost always featured guitars. Through the late '30s and into the early '40s, the guitarist was extremely busy with a variety of studio and performing groups, including those of Lennie Hayton, Charlie Barnet, Raymond Scott, Glenn Miller and Lou Holden. Benny Goodman hired Barbour in the summer of 1942, and not for a trim, although that was what the feisty bandleader wound up getting. In a story straight out of a '40s musical romance, the guitarist fell in love with the band's singer, Lee naturally, and the pair ran off leaving Goodman minus two bandmembers.
The couple settled in Los Angeles, with the idea being that only one of them would be in the music business. Barbour apparently didn't buy into this plan and jumped at an opportunity presented by Johnny Mercer. Mercer wanted Lee to contribute a pair of cuts to an album he was producing for Capitol, to be entitled New American Jazz. Going right to work, Barbour and Lee came up with "That Old Feeling." As the title suggests, it was more than just a song, it established Lee's seductive and sassy style. The couple's songwriting partnership flourished when "It's a Good Day," for Lee, when her musically adept husband was "Just an Old Love of Mine." "I Don't Know Enough About You" might have been a response to early signs of physical abuse, usually combined with boozing. "Confusion Says" and "(I'm Not Gonna) Let It Bother Me," both masterpieces, are clearly the products of denial while perhaps also being the couple's greatest song, "Blum Blum, I Wonder Who I Am" is something of a theme for an individual left stranded after a sunken relationship. Lee wrote "Johnny Guitar" with Victor Young, but listeners familiar with Lee's personal life will no doubt hear Barbour in there somewhere, as the singer couldn't have helped but think about him while interpreting this especially sad ballad.
Lee married three more times, and could easily be said to have had more of a career than Barbour following the end of their marriage. If there was life after Lee for him, it was for the most part sustained by royalty checks, as songs written by the couple were covered by a wide range of performers, from top jazz vocalists to '50s pop icons such as Doris Day and Perry Como. During this era Barbour made a dash at an acting career, and shows up in two films, both with vaguely biographical titles: The Secret Fury and Mr. Music. From 1952 on his musical appearances were limited to a small number of charity events and a 1962 Benny Carter recording session.
- by Eugene Chadbourne
All Music Group