Julia Lee 1902-1958
Born in Boonville, Missouri, Lee was raised in Kansas City, and began her musical career around 1920. As a child, she made her debut performance with her father’s string trio. Lee attended Lincoln High School, during which time she entertained house parties and church socials with her music. Following graduation in1917, she began playing piano at Love’s Theater and singing in numerous Kansas City clubs.
She sang with Bennie Moten’s band while Count Basie played the piano. Many of her songs were risqué for the time, but she sang them well and audiences identified with them. Tunes such as “Two Old Maids in a Folding Bed” and “The Fuller Brush Man” could be heard throughout the streets of Kansas City. When the depression hit, Lee continued performing at Milton’s Taproom for just $12 a week. She also performed with her brother for 15 years in a trio that worked primarily at Lyric Hall. The brother and sister both had magnificent voices, and George’s work on the saxophone
complemented Julia’s work on the piano. Julia Lee became a Kansas City legend, and jazz greats would seek her out when visiting the area.
During 1920-1934, Lee performed with her big brother George E. Lee & His Novelty Singing Orchestra in singing and playing piano. Lee made her first records for the Merritt and Brunswick labels with her brother’s orchestra in 1927 and 1929, including “If I Could Be with You One Hour Tonight” and cutting two titles of her own in 1929 (“He’s Tall, He’s Dark and He’s Handsome” and “Won’t You Come Over to My House”). She first recorded on the Merritt record label in 1927 with Jesse Stone as pianist and arranger, and launched a solo career in 1935, working regularly as a single in Kansas City after her brother’s band broke up. Although consistently active as a performer in the famously wide-open Kansas City music scene, she did not record again until signing on with Capitol in 1944.
A popular entertainer who recorded frequently for Capitol until 1950, Julia Lee’s double-entendre songs and rocking piano made her a major attraction in Kansas City. In 1944 she secured a recording contract with Capitol Records, and a string of R&B hits followed, including “Gotta Gimme Whatcha Got” (#3 R&B, 1946), “Snatch and Grab It” (#1 R&B for 12 weeks, 1947, selling over 500,000 copies), “King Size Papa” (#1 R&B for 9 weeks, 1948), “I Didn’t Like It The First Time (The Spinach Song)” (#4 R&B, 1949), and “My Man Stands Out”.
As these titles suggest, she became best known for her trademark double entendre songs, or, as she once said, “the songs my mother taught me not to sing”. The records were credited to ‘Julia Lee and Her Boy Friends’, her session musicians including Jay McShann, Vic Dickenson, Benny Carter, Red Norvo, Nappy Lamare, and Red Nichols.
Although her hits dried up after 1949, she continued as one of the most popular performers in Kansas City. In 1949, at the invitation of President Harry S. Truman, Julia and drummer Baby Lovett played at the White House for the annual dinner of the White House Correspondents Association. Julia ended her long association with Milton Morris in 1950 and began a residency at the Cuban Room.
She had a brief cameo appearance in the locally produced film, “The Delinquents,” directed by Robert Altman in 1957. After 1952, Julia Lee only recorded four further songs, but she was active up until her death in 1958.