Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians
Julia Lee was born in Kansas City in 1902 into a very musical family: her father played violin, and her older brother, George E. Lee, played saxophone and occasionally sang. Both father and brother led their own bands, and, eventually, so would she.
The younger Lee was a formally-trained pianist, as much it was possible for an Afro-American female to be at the turn of the 20th Century; she made a serious study of theory and sight-reading at both Lincoln High School and Western University.
She picked up jazz, however, somewhat less formally; in Kansas City in the immediate pre-jazz age, it would have been hard for her to avoid exposure to ragtime and the blues. Lee’s career as a live performer divides into two distinct extended gigs.
First, for fifteen years (1918-1933) she primarily played piano and occasionally sang in her brother’s various bands. Then, as a solo act, she spent the next sixteen years (1934-1950) working as the regular attraction at Milton’s Tap Room, one of Kaycee’s top “nite spots.”
Lee first recorded as pianist with George E. Lee’s Novelty Singing Orchestra (then in residence at the Novelty Club) in 1929. These sides, Kansas City Star, released by the German label Bear Family Records in 1996.
At this time, Lee also recorded two exuberant performances as a solo vocalist. One was the pop song “He’s Tall, Dark and Handsome,’ in which Lee, singing of her attraction to a “dark” man, obviously gave the song a different connotation than when it was performed by a white act, like Ted Weems and his Orchestra.
The other was the older, more folk-rooted “Won't You Come Over To My House?” Although the latter song was based in the blues, and this was still the era of the great “Classic” blues singers, Lee sounds nothing like Bessie Smith – or even Ethel Waters. At this point in her development, Lee is an extravagant belter, more like Tess Gardella or any number of white singers on Broadway, but with more of a blues sensibility and a jazzy sense of time.
It was the writer and producer Dave Dexter who brought both Lee and then Lutcher to Capitol Records. He had begun his career covering music in his home town for down beat and other publications, then made a lateral move, professionally, to producing sessions with local artists (including the formidable Big Joe Turner).
Dexter then moved physically to Chicago and next to Los Angeles, where he went to work with the emerging firm Capitol Records, then only in business for a few months. He had grown up hearing Julia Lee around KC, and his first idea was to include her as part of a newly recorded historically-oriented album of Kansas City jazz recorded in 1944.
She did two sides for the package, the first of which was a swing-styled update of “Won't You Come Over To My House?”, the other was the blues standard “Trouble In Mind.” Back in Kansas City the following year, she made four tunes (mostly blues, all four credited to her) released on the Premier label.
Lee’s two sides for the Kansas City album proved popular enough for Capitol to offer her a contract of her own. Her two peak years for the label were 1946 and ’47; she was still working nightly at Milton’s Tap Room in Missouri, but she made the pilgrimage to California to do a batch of sessions in August 1946 and June 1947.
She returned for a third series of Capitol dates in November, 1947, just in time to get some sides in before the 1948 recording ban. (Benny Carter plays on several of these, on one of which he picked up the trombone for the only time in his career.)
After the ban, in 1949, Lee resumed recording, but for the remainder of her association with Capitol, the label allowed her to work in Vic Damon’s studio in Kansas City – thus relieving her of having to make that killer commute back and forth to the left coast.
As Bill Millar notes, where most of the major labels had a “race” and a “hillbilly” division, in the mid-‘40s Capitol launched a series called “Americana” that catered to both the blues and country markets. The label’s first big stars in the “race” area were Nat Cole, Lee, and then Lutcher.
Undoubtedly, being based in KC hurt Lee’s recording career – if Capitol wanted someone to “cover” a new song, like right now, they obviously weren’t going to bring in Lee back from Missouri – rather they would give it to someone more conveniently located, usually Nellie Lutcher, who lived most of her life LA. With Dexter’s help,
Lee seems to have generated most of her own material, which, for the most part, consisted of salacious variations on the blues. Then, to prove that man (or woman) does not live by blues alone, she also occasionally recorded vintage jazz and pop standards that were already part of her Tap Room repertoire; the old Kansas City favorite, “Until The Real Thing Comes Along,” was a natural. Unlike Lutcher, there are virtually no new “plug” songs scattered amongst Lee’s sessions.
Dexter quickly discovered what Lee already knew: that she would get the biggest response with double-entendre, risqué blues that combined sex and comedy. Her two best-remembered titles, “Snatch And Grab It” and “King Sized Papa”; the first is allegedly about opportunity (“grab it before it gets away”), the second is supposedly about a very tall man (“There’s such a lot of him, the way he grew / Enough to last till 1992”) but there was no mistaking what Lee was really singing about.
Both songs, like nearly all of her recordings, are animated by the impeccable sense of rhythm that’s necessary both for comedy and the blues. Although virtually all her songs – except the older Tin Pan Alley tunes – concern themselves with Topic A, she finds infinite variety, even in the thinnest of metaphors; in “I’ve Got A Crush On The Fuller Brush Man,” she tells us of how her favorite traveling salesman “scrubs my vestibule, my back porch too.” In “My Man Stands Out,” she tells us “Down at the beach when we walk by / The other girls give him the eye.”
Lee was especially enamored of using food as a metaphor, as in “The Spinach Song” (“I didn’t like it the first time / But oh how it grew on me!”), “All this Beef and Big Ripe Tomatoes” (no explanation necessary), and “I Was Wrong (The Diet Song),” another ode about giving in to temptation. (Too bad that she never reprised Cleo Brown’s “Who’ll Chop Your Suey When I’m Gone.”)
Even so, she doesn’t need sex to make food, drink, and other substances sound interesting: On “Last Call For Alcohol” it’s easy to imagine her barking out to elbow-bending patrons at 6 AM, “drink up, drink up, then order again!” and closing with “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.”
And still there are other indulgences: “Dream Lucky” is about gambling, specifically playing the numbers, built around a phrase that fellow Kansas City-ites Count Basie and Jimmy Rushing used in “Jimmy’s Blues.” Contrastingly, “Wise Guys” is addressed to ne’er-do-well characters who join the rackets to avoid honest labor. “At the end of your game / You get a number for a name,” she sings. “Why, most of your mothers hang their heads in shame.”
If Martin Scorsese ever makes another musical, this could be its theme song. However, Lee’s most extreme song about suspicious substances and illegal activities was easily “Marijuana,” which she recorded in several different incarnations.
Compared to Cleo Brown, Nellie Lutcher, and Rose Murphy, Lee’s voice is a lot darker and deeper – Brown and Murphy, in particularly, are all trilly sopranos, and she is a confirmed contralto; she’s also much less likely to animate her lyrics with vocal effects, trills, and melismas. Her singing is direct and forthright, whether it’s a raucous party blues (like “Come On Over To My House”) or an old weepie (like “My Mother’s Eyes”). She tempers both, making the first less one dimensional and the second less overtly sentimental.
Two titles recorded back to back in 1949 show how Lee could extract the same meaning from songs of widely-different contexts: “You Ain’t Got It No More” and “When Your Lover Has Gone.”
Perhaps Lee’s recording career petered out because she avoided contemporary and mainstream material, and concentrated so exclusively on saucy blues and old standards; Dinah Washington, who was just launching her career at this point, would eventually prove it was possible to sing everything. After the 1948 ban, Capitol was recording Lee less and less frequently: twelve titles in 1949, eight in 1950, four in 1951, six in 1952, and the majority of these were not issued at the time .
The 1952 date was her last for the label; though she did record a couple of later dates for smaller, Kansas City-based operations, including one owned by recording studio owner Vic Damon. Julia Lee died of heart disease in 1958 – in Kansas City, of course - aged 56. The Bear Family collection of her complete recordings (including all the unissued Capitol masters) concludes with “Rock and Bop Lullaby,” which begins “rock me a ragtime tune, bop me some swing till noon,” as if Lee was determined to take every genre she had ever worked in and combine them all into one song. Then again, she had been doing that all along.
Contributor: Will Friedwald