Barbara Lea was born Barbara Ann Le Cocq in Detroit, Michigan, on April 10, 1929. Her family moved to the suburb of Melvindale in 1932. Times were bleak in the 1930s and she had her first job at the age of 7 delivering newspapers. She also took piano and tap dancing lessons. She went to public schools in Melvindale and in Detroit when the family moved back in 1940, and then later attended high school at Kingswood School Cranbrook.
Barbara's whole family was musical and there were always pianos and ukuleles in the house, which everyone took turns playing. Her father had been a clarinetist; her brother played trumpet and harmonica. The family entertainment was gathering around the piano and singing while her mother played. By the age of 6 or 7, she had decided on a career as a singer.
When she was 16, her family bought a summer cottage in Belle River, Ontario. A dance band played outdoors every Friday and Saturday night and, trembling with stage fright, Barbara sat in with them for the last few weeks of the summer. The next winter the band got a Saturday night gig at a nightclub in Windsor, Ontario, and asked her to join them as their vocalist. She was delighted to be paid $5 a night.
At Wellesley College, Barbara majored in Music Theory, her sights set firmly on singing but with no idea how this might happen. Fortunately for her, a friend had a date whose roommate, Bill Dunham, played piano in a Harvard dixieland band called the Crimson Stompers. She became their vocalist. She also had the pleasure of working with Vic Dickenson, Marian McPartland, Edmond Hall, Frankie Newton, Johnny Windhurst and George Wein. After college, Barbara remained in Boston for a year, singing with the same sort of society bands she had worked with in Detroit. She was very popular for her musicianship; she knew and sang every tune they played, saying simply Put it in E flat or Put it in G. Because of this ability, she was paid $10 a night, rather than the standard $5.