Growing up, Julian Duncan knew that his grandmother, Julia Lee, had been a famous jazz and blues singer in Kansas City, Missouri. But he didn’t know the details. She died just before she was born and her parents did not play her music at home.
Then, at the age of 40, Duncan came across a collection of Julia Lee albums in the family storage and finally listened.
His first reaction? She was an “excellent, excellent” singer. But another fact also quickly became clear.
“His music… was a little dirty! said Duncan. “It really shocked me. Because my father never told me his music was like that!
Julia Lee’s first big hit, “Catch it and grab it”, was recorded 75 years ago this week. In 1947 it was deemed ‘too risque’ for radio play – but thanks to the jukebox it sold over 500,000 copies and was the US Billboard R&B number one hit for 12 weeks.
More recently, he was featured on an NFL commercialthe movie “Cadillac Man” with Robin Williams, and an episode of A Prairie Home Companion.
And it was only up to Lee first rant.
“That’s not what we’re thinking about today. Like, leave nothing to the imagination. It was a two-way street,” says Chuck Haddix, co-author of “Kansas City Jazz: from ragtime to bebop.”
In 1941, Lee was banned from playing at a popular Kansas City club by liquor control officers because of “the kind of song she sang and the way she sang it” – but her fans complained. protested and eventually the ban was lifted.
At the peak of his career in 1949, Lee performed his iconic “King Size Papa” for President Harry Truman at the White House.
“Everyone knew Julia Lee!” Haddix said. “She was Kansas City’s most popular entertainer in the 1920s until her death in 1958.”
There is much more to his story, however, than just lyrical puns.
“Julia Lee definitely deserves more than a spotlight. She needs more recognition. I mean, she was one of many women who asserted themselves musically and socially when it wasn’t socially acceptable,” says Haddix.
A musical prodigy
Born in 1902 into a musical family, Lee studied music at Lincoln College Preparatory Academy in Kansas City before studying advanced piano techniques at Western University in Quindaro, Kansas.
By age 18, she was already playing the piano professionally and singing with her brother’s band, the George E. Lee Novelty Singing Orchestra — at a time in Kansas City jazz’s heyday when it was extremely rare for women to perform. as instrumentalists.
It was also the Jim Crow era. But jazz clubs were one of the few places where the races met.
“There were Black and Tan clubs where, in the days of segregation, African Americans and white people could mix freely,” Haddix says.
Lee also played at many clubs that catered to an all-white audience. Julian Duncan remembers hearing stories about Lee’s performances from his grandfather, Frank Duncan, a catcher and manager for the Kansas City Monarchs baseball team.
“Only the performers could be black, not the audience,” Duncan recalled. “And my grandfather wanted to see her perform. And the only way he could do that was to get an empty instrument case and sit there with the band, like he was a member of the band.”
Lee was known for her raspy contralto voice, Haddix says, as well as her unique phrasing and playful delivery. She sang ballads and was a versatile pianist, regularly incorporating blues and jazz into her performances.
“Julia was just a force of nature,” says Haddix. “She was a liberated young woman who played in jazz clubs when a lot of women weren’t allowed in those clubs.”
She knew the music so well that she could play any audience request — and for shots of bourbon, she made the lyrics of already suggestive songs even more suggestive.
She also had a soulful stage presence that her audiences turned to for comfort and support between songs.
“People went to see her and told her their misfortunes. And she would make them feel better,” Haddix says.
A career your way
As the Kansas City musicians Lee dreamed up — like Bennie Moten and Count Basie — toured the country, she remained a mainstay in Kansas City jazz clubs.
It’s partly because she hated traveling. Lee was traumatized after being involved in a car accident that killed another band member. She was also suspicious of the racism that touring African Americans experienced on the road at that time.
“She kind of found herself at home in Kansas City,” Haddix says. “And so she was very reluctant to travel and that really held back her career.”
Staying in Kansas City didn’t stop her from having her big break in 1946. It was then that she was officially signed to Capitol Records by Kansas native journalist and producer Dave Dexter Jr. City who grew up watching Lee play.
“I basically went there to record Julia Lee. That was my basic reason for going to Kansas City and making records,” Dexter told Chuck Haddix in 1989.
Dexter first recorded Lee in 1944 as part of a jazz compilation album with Jay McShann. When the four-volume album was released, DJs started playing Lee’s song more than any other.
“Her pianist was enviable and she sang with such heart,” Dexter said.
Dexter is credited with producing Lee’s songs in a way that capitalized on his pop sensibility and brought it to a national audience – but decades after his death, one thing still bothered him.
“I’ve had this terrible regret for a very long time that I couldn’t reach Julia and record her until about 1944,” he told Haddix. “If she had made records back then [Billie] Holiday and Mildred Bailey were making records in the 1930s…I’ll always believe she would have been one of the top four or five female singers.”
It means something coming from Dexter, who worked with Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra.
But nothing suggests that Julia Lee ever wanted to be more famous than she was. On the contrary, the evidence suggests that she was happy. She once told journalist Carey James Tate that “there’s no percentage in the big bucks…if you’re not happy.”
“She really liked people,” Haddix says. “And working in the clubs on 12th Street gave her the intimacy with her audience that she thrived on.”
Now, more than two decades after discovering his grandmother’s music, the initial shock has dissipated for Julian Duncan. He considers it a duty and an honor to be the protector of his heritage.
He keeps Julia Lee albums propped up on his piano in his Detroit home. And when people come, he tells them about her.
“I’m like, ‘That’s my grandmother! I was named after him! Right there!'”
In an iconic jazz destination like Kansas City, it’s perhaps no surprise that Julia Lee’s legacy has been overshadowed.
But his story reminds us that while it’s important to remember the critically acclaimed people who propelled Kansas City jazz to the world, it’s also worth remembering the extraordinary people who never left.
This episode of A People’s History of Kansas City was reported, produced and mixed by Mackenzie Martin with editing by Barb Shelly and Suzanne Hogan.