The Lee & Sally Sweetland Legacy

I wanted to sing Musical Theatre, so I studied with the “working actor’s” voice teachers Lee and Sally Sweetland in Studio City, CA. The Sweetlands did not advertise or promote their studio (in their later years, they were pretty much against the idea completely) and they only accepted students recommended by other students, so getting an actual standing appointment to work with them was not an easy task. I first called in the mid-1980’s (I was working as an assistant in Artist Development at MCA Records at the time) and Sally waitlisted me for about six weeks. When I finally got in, I was ecstatic. This is what I had been looking for. The Sweetlands loved music as much as I did and they were so positive and generous and interested in everything including new music and new technology. Their energy and their “coupleness” were something to behold. And, back to the “working actors” thing, it was always fun to see who I would cross paths with in their livingroom before or after a lesson. Typically, it was someone from Broadway, TV, Film or records and we all shared this interesting kind of secret treasure in finding and working with the Sweetlands.

When I began getting singing jobs, people would come up to me and ask if I also trained singers. When I was getting more than enough unsolicited interest, I finally approached Lee and Sally to ask them if it was okay if I started teaching their approach. Lee was great. He told me, “Bill, you know everything we know. Sure, go ahead.” But I wanted to make sure that I was getting it right, particularly with the female belt, so I would take on Broadway/Pop Belters, train them and then “graduate” them over to Lee and Sally so I could sit in on those sessions and continue to see how these amazing teachers developed proper belts.

Here is Lee singing in his legit baritone back in the day. The leading man meta at that time was a big, warm, powerful, romantic, rather heroic and dark tone. If you have an uncontrolled vibrato, singing “heavy” is a good starting point regardless of gender. In other words, in the gym, if you only practice lifting light weights, your muscles have difficulty lifting heavier weights. But if you lift heavier weight at the start, lighter weights become a matter of finesse.

Here’s Lee singing in a silly baritone with Georgie’s Tavern Band. He used a lighter, speech-level tone to get the jokes out. Working singers make the song work.

And here’s where he gets even sillier! Speaking of animation, here’s a quote from animation great Seth MacFarlane about studying voice with the Sweetlands. Having brought Mr. MacFarlane into our discourse, here is an exceptional vocal from his 2015 album No One Ever Tells You. This is high quality work.

In this track, you can hear the singer’s influences – this was his third album – but you can also hear the singer finding his own lane. Fast forward four years and two more albums and we arrive at this glorious piece…it is a vocal that transcends the teaching. The fundamentals are all there, but the artist has taken control.

Okay, enough about Seth MacFarlane! Let’s get back to the Sweetlands….

While Sally was an accomplished piano player, she also had a radio, film and recording career for decades. When I studied with them, she would play solitaire in the kitchen while Lee would handle the vocal warm up in the livingroom. After the warm up, she would come out and accompany the rest of the session. It was a great routine they had. She must’ve played a million hands of solitaire.

In 1995, George Hearn won a Tony for “Sunset Boulevard.” He thanked the Sweetlands…

Top Ten 1953, Sally sang with Eddie Fisher.