Born: October 31, 1902 | Died: December 8, 1958 Primary Instrument: Piano
A two fisted piano player and consummate performer, Julia Lee ruled in Kansas City, where she shouted blues for more than 30 years. Her black lace gowns, glistening bangs and the artificial flowers in her hair were as familiar as the songs which made her a local legend.
Kansas City's Sweetheart of Song, Julia Lee made her performing debut as a child with her father's string trio. While attending Lincoln High School she began entertaining at house parties and church socials. After her graduation in 1917, she embarked on her professional career as an intermission pianist at Love's Theater and in the clubs lining 12th Street. A talented vocalist and powerful pianist, she specialized in risqué songs her mother taught her not to sing.
Julia's regional fame began to spread when jazz expert Dave Dexter Jr., like Julia a native of Kansas City, put two of her songs in a Capitol Records album called History of Jazz. Disc jockeys picked Julia’s recording of Come On Over To My House Baby out of the album and played it more than the others, so in 1946 Capitol lured Julia to Hollywood to record twelve more sides. She took her drummer, Baby Lovett, along, and on the way out they wrote a suggestive tune called “Gotta Gimme Watcha Got,” which sold out immediately. Her 1947 recording of Snatch and Grab It sold 500,000 copies.
Some jazz critics boldly compared then 44-year-old Julia Lee with the greatest blues shouter of them all, the late Bessie Smith. When Bessie Smith was singing “Young Woman's Blues” and “Empty Bed Blues” in Chicago in the 1920s, Julia Lee was singing the same kind of songs with the late Benny Moten's band in Kansas City. Count Basie played the piano. During the depression Julia went to work at $12 a week in Milton's Taproom. In the rowdy days of the Pendergast era, Julia sang ribald ditties like “Two Old Maids in a Folding Bed” and “The Fuller Brush Man.”
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.
Always preferring to remain in Kansas City 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.