You think you know the songs Julia Lee sang, but you probably don't know the whole story. She is best known for her double entendre songs (or, as she put it: "the songs my mother taught me not to sing"), but there was a lot more to her than that.
[FEEL SORRY FOR THE RESEARCHER DEPARTMENT - Thousands of women had "Julia Lee" as their first two names; hundreds of those were mentioned in newspapers. Also, there were thousands of ads for "Julia Lee Wright's Bread". (I actually felt good when I read that the company was fined for selling adulterated product.)]
Julia M. Lee (nothing ever said what the "M" was for, although she used it on her first marriage license) was born on October 31, 1902, in Booneville, Missouri, to George Lee and Katie Redmond. She had two older brothers: George E(wing) Lee and Elmer Lee. George E. became a famous bandleader, but Elmer died young (tuberculosis, in 1923).
By 1910 at the latest, the family had moved to Kansas City, Missouri (about 100 miles due west of Boonville), where her father (who also had a band) seems to have worked for the Kansas City department that paved roads. In 1910 he was a street laborer; in 1930 he did something with asphalt.
This is the time where I launch into a lengthy (and probably wholly-inaccurate) discourse on wide-open Kansas City. Columnist Edward Murrow supposedly wrote in the Omaha World Herald: "If you want to see some sin, forget Paris and go to Kansas City." (Everyone quotes this line, but no one seems to know when it was written. Note that he's not the famous newsman Edward R. Murrow, but a columnist with a similar name. However, since this quote is also attributed to Westbrook Pegler [ARSC Journal, Spring 1990], unless someone can show me the original in a newspaper, I'll have to assume that it was simply made up many years later.)
Because I'm neither a Kansan nor a sociologist, I'll try to sum it up in one paragraph. Storyville was the wild district in New Orleans, shut down in 1917. Jazz musicians started flowing north, most ending up in Chicago. This became somewhat of a "closed town" to other jazz musicians and those in Kansas City mostly stayed there and developed their own style. Along came Tom Pendergast, the political boss who ran Kansas City, starting around 1925. He had no problem being openly friendly with gangsters, gamblers, and bootleggers, promoting KC as a wide-open town. (Remember, this was during the time of Prohibition, which had begun on January 1, 1920.) This is the atmosphere in which Julia Lee began her career. (Since there are many books and papers on the subject, thus ends my lengthy discourse on the history of Kansas City.)
Julia Lee was graduated from Lincoln High School in 1919, where she'd immersed herself in music theory. (Most accounts say 1917, but that can't be right. In December 1917, her name was on a list of students who'd collected for Negro Charities Tag Day; Julia brought in $9.56. Her name was also in the Kansas City Sun's April 26, 1919 edition as being one of 36 Lincoln High School senior girls who gave a dinner to the Clergy and Ward School Principals of the city.)
We don't know a lot about Julia's early career, except in generalities. When Prohibition began, speakeasies (places where you could still get a drink, although of questionable quality) sprang up all over the country. Many of those had entertainment of sorts, and that's really where Julia started out. East Twelfth Street was a black district of the city (the street about which the famous "12th Street Rag" was written) with pool halls, speakeasies, theaters, and probably anything else a "wide-open" city could provide. Julia would spend most of her career on or around Twelfth Street.
Soon after graduation from Lincoln High, "Julia M. Lee" married Frank Lee Duncan, Jr. on September 25, 1919. He would become a baseball player and was a star catcher for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro National League from 1921 on (although on and off), becoming their manager in 1942. However, in September 1918, when he registered for the draft, he was a teamster; I don't know what he was doing in 1919 (and, of course, I can't find Frank and Julia in the 1920 census). [Note that there was another, older, Frank Duncan in the Negro National League from 1907 to 1931; they weren't related.]
Julia began her professional musical career singing and playing piano in her brother George E. Lee's aggregation. One of the leading Territory Bands of the day, they were active from at least 1919. (When George E. Lee registered for the draft in June 1917, he was a porter in Kansas City.) Originally just the trio of George (on sax and vocals), Julia (on piano and vocals), and Bruce Redd (on drums), they appeared at the Lyric Hall (at Eighteenth and Lydia streets). At some point, Julius Jones (violin) became the fourth member. This was probably while Julia was still in high school.
There was a big bio of George E. Lee in the June 28, 1928 Kansas City Call. To sum it up: George started as a cellist in his father's band. Supposedly he started his own band nine years previously (which ties in with 1919) with Julia, Julius Jones, and Bruce Redd. At the time of the article, the band had nine members (that would vary up and down over the years). Most of the article is a puff piece; it ended with this:
George E. Lee is a real singer, with voice to put over what his musical genius would express.... So Kansas City has an Orpheus in its own George E. Lee, founder and leader of Lee's Novelty Singing Orchestra, musician, business manager, investor in Kansas City real estate. He is a troubadour with all the charm of the ages and all the good sense of his day and generation. No one seeing what substantial returns come to this premier aggregation of musicians, will ever again look at a guitar and call it a "starvation box" without an apology to the gold and silver genii which dwell in the instruments of George E. Lee.
Only a few weeks after her wedding this announcement appeared in the October 18, 1919 Kansas City Sun: "Mrs. Julia Lee Duncan and George Lee's great orchestra every Saturday night at Cottage and Vine streets. Hear them and sing and dance by [sic] good music." Strange that it didn't name the place they're playing at. It seems to be Armory Hall, since the same paper had a little ad: "Prof. Roscoe White's Dancing Academy every Saturday night, Cottage and Vine Sts. Hall for rent $7.00. Bell Phone East 5294. See Roscoe White or Miss Bell Dorgans. Residence 2319 Highland Ave." (There were some other ads that linked White's name to Armory Hall at that address.)
On June 17, 1920, there was a dance given by the Leisure Dancing Club of Leavenworth, Kansas, some 35 miles northwest of Kansas City. Trolley service was available (first car leaves 10th and Main at 7:00 PM). The band was "Prof. Page's six-piece Orchestra, Mr. George Lee, Vocal entertainer, singing the latest song hits". "Prof. Page" isn't further identified, but I suspect it's Walter Page (bassist, tuba, sax), future leader of Kansas City's Blue Devils. It's possible that George took time off from having his own band because Julia had become pregnant.
Julia and Frank would have a child, Frank Lee Duncan III on June 1, 1920. [As an aside, Frank III became the batboy for the Kansas City Monarchs, and eventually a pitcher. At one point in 1941, Frank III was on the mound and Frank, Jr. behind the plate, probably the first time that had ever happened in professional baseball.] The marriage didn't last all that long, however. In the 1930 census, they were both living with their parents. By that time, Julia had remarried (see below). Frank was single, but there was a child (whose name was recorded as "Armada"), born in 1923 in Illinois. Since the child's mother had been born in Texas (said the census), it couldn't have been Julia.
Presumably Julia was soon back at work. The Lyric Hall advertised Leisure Hour Dances, every Thursday starting in mid-September 1920. Music was by Prof. George Lee's Orchestra. The dances were for "the better class of people of the two Kansas Cities". (Kansas City, Kansas was right next door to Kansas City, Missouri.) These dances were put on by Prof. Roscoe White's Dancing Academy.
George E. Lee played the tenor and baritone saxophones and had a powerful voice that needed no amplification (although he probably used the megaphone shown in photos). Rival bandleader Bennie Moten had to wait until 1929, when he hired Jimmy Rushing, to have a singer who could compete with George. However, Lee wasn't a good band manager and turnover in his orchestra was high.
Soon, George started adding musicians and used Jesse Stone as an arranger. They were now the George E. Lee Singing Novelty Orchestra. His big competition was Bennie Moten.
[Bennie was the younger brother of pianist Ira "Bus" Moten. There seems to be some confusion as to how they were related, but in the 1900 census they were both enumerated as sons of Reuben and Lizzie Moten.]
The first recordings by the George E. Lee Singing Novelty Orchestra were for the Okeh label, in June 1923: "Just Wait Until I'm Gone" and "Waco Blues". Both have vocals by Julia Lee and both were rejected by Okeh and never released. Actually, the session, as originally set up, was to have a singer named Trixie Smith, accompanied by the Lee band. But it didn't work out for some reason and Julia ended up doing the vocals.
On October 1, 3, and 6, 1923, the band played for dances at Brenneisen's Hall in Kansas City. (And, just so you know: "Good order will be maintained at all times".)
The band appeared at least once on the radio. On March 18, 1924, they were one of the acts on the Consumer's Bread Company show (on KC's WHB - 411 meters on your dial - from 8-10 PM). Actually, I would have tuned in just to hear "Selections by the Kansas City Zither Club".
A photo taken around 1925 shows the following members: George E. Lee (baritone sax), Julia Lee (piano), Abie Price (drums), Thurston "Sox" Maupins (trombone), Charlie Ross (trombone), Chester Clark (trumpet), and Bob Garner (clarinet). There was a banjo on the floor in front of the band and a saw leaning against the piano (as well as the mallet it was played with).
In 1927, the band appeared at dances held in KC's City Park.
In the spring of that year, the band got to do some more recording; this time for Winston Holmes' local Meritt label. George E. Lee & His Novelty Singing Orchestra recorded two known songs:
Spring 1927 - The known members of the band at this time were: George E. Lee (sax), Julia Lee (piano), Clarence "Tweedy" Taylor (sax, clarinet), Sam Utterback (trumpet), Thurston "Sox" Maupins (trombone), Clint Weaver (bass), and Abie Price (drums).
"The Meritt Stomp" (an instrumental with Julia on piano) and "Down Home Syncopated Blues". (The vocal in the first half of that song is by George E. Lee; the second half is a duet between George and Julia.)
The sides were released soon after being recorded. While something of a local hit, "The Meritt Stomp" had no real distribution (and the label was soon out of business anyway).
In early summer 1927, the Lee band (called "The Pride Of Kansas City") appeared at Spring Lake Park in Oklahoma City (about 350 miles from KC), on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday nights. The first ad that mentioned them was from June 30. While they may have still been around, they're not mentioned after July 29 (when they played for a dance for Oklahoma City's firemen), but they were certainly gone by October 1. At this time, Lee enlarged the band from seven to nine pieces: George E. Lee (reeds), Julia Lee (piano), Herman Walder (reeds), Clarence "Tweedy" Taylor (reeds), Robert Russell (trumpet), Sam Utterback (trumpet), Charles Rousseau (banjo), Clint Weaver (sousaphone and bass), and William D. Wood (drums). While ads generally referred to him as "Geo. E. Lee", a couple of them were misprinted as "General E. Lee".
As I said, at some point, Julia and Frank Duncan had been divorced. She then married Johnnie C. Thomas on July 6, 1927 in Oklahoma City, where she was appearing.
Along with the band's usual turnover, trombonist Sox Maupins died of tuberculosis later that year (December 14, 1927). Since he'd been ill for a while, he wasn't at Spring Lake Park with the rest of the band. There's disagreement over whether his name is "Maupin" (which is on both his death certificate and tombstone) or "Maupins". However, he signed his WW1 draft registration "Maupins", so I'll go with that. It's nice that his tombstone has a picture of a trombone carved on it.
George E. Lee's band had a four-night-a-week engagement at a Kansas City venue called the El Torreon Ballroom in mid-1928, but I can't find any ads for the place.
There's no further mention of the George E. Lee band until November 12, 1928, when they played for an Armistice Day dance in Iola, Kansas (you do remember Armistice Day, don't you?). The blurb in the October 17 Iola Register said that the band, which had been playing at the El Torreon Ballroom, could only be described as "Red Hot". They'd just been hired at the Ritz (also in KC), but November 12 was a holiday, so the band was free that day (although they'd have to travel 100 miles to Iola). "The Lee musicians", continued the article, "carry with them their own 'blues' singers and special entertainers. Considering their quality and box office attractiveness they probably will be engaged to play at the Memorial Hall where the larger crowds can be accommodated. Seats will be arranged for persons not wishing to dance, who may, nevertheless, wish to hear this famous musical aggregation."
On November 25, 1928, George's band participated in the "Battle Of The Century" against Walter Page's Blue Devils (which employed, over the years, Count Basie, Jimmy Rushing, Jo Jones, Hot Lips Page, and Lester Young). The ad said: "Geo. Lee's Undefeated Novelty Singing Orchestra Has Never Met Defeat" and "Walter Page's Blue Devils - Champions Of The South. They Have Never Run From A Contest".
On February 11, 1929, the George E. Lee orchestra played for a dance at the E.A. Prinz Dancing Academy in St. Joseph, Missouri. Prinz gave an Easter dance at his academy on April 6, once again featuring the Lee orchestra (at the time, they were at the Pla-Mor in KC). On April 12, they played for a sorority dance at Prinz's. Since St. Joseph is about 55 miles from KC, the band was used to doing a lot of traveling.
They actually spent a good deal of time in St. Joseph. There was a place called the Frog Hop Ballroom (built by Frank Frogge: "It's just a hop out to the Frog Hop"), where they appeared on April 27, 1929. They were advertised there again six times in May (4, 9, 11, 12, 19, and 25). These were just one line ads saying the band would be there that night. I couldn't tell if it was a full month's engagement. On one engagement (not advertised), on April 28, they were declared winners over the Bennie Moten orchestra in a band battle.
Some more recording; this time for Brunswick Records. The two sessions, at the studios of WDAF in KC, were under the supervision of Brunswick's J. Mayo Williams, who, while he was in town, also recorded Andy Kirk's 12 Clouds Of Joy and Walter Page's Blue Devils.
[At this time, Jesse Stone was the arranger for the George E. Lee group. Stone would go on to greatness. He became an arranger and a&r man man for Atlantic Records in the 1950s and was responsible for the formation of the Cues. He also worked on arrangements for the Clovers and the Drifters. As a songwriter, he penned "W.P.A", and, under the pseudonym "Charles Calhoun", a couple of songs you might know: "Shake, Rattle, And Roll," "Smack Dab In The Middle", "Flip Flop And Fly", "Don't Let Go", "Money Honey", "Call Baby Call", "Bip Bam", "Don't Leave Me Fanny", "Down In The Alley", "I Gotta Get Myself A Woman", "Lipstick, Powder And Paint", and "Your Cash Ain't Nothin' But Trash".]
The Brunswick sessions were:
November 6, 1929 - George E. Lee (baritone sax), Julia Lee (piano), Herman Walder (sax, clarinet), Clarence "Tweedy" Taylor (sax), Albert "Budd" Johnson (tenor sax; his son would be in the Chanters some 30 years in the future), Sam Utterback (trumpet), Harold Knox (trumpet), Jimmy Jones (trombone), Charles Russo (banjo), and Pete Woods (drums).
"If I Could Be With You" and "St. James Infirmary" (both with vocals by George E. Lee); "Paseo Street" and "Ruff Scufflin'" (both instrumentals).
November 8, 1929 - same musicians.
"He's Tall, Dark And Handsome" and "Won't You Come Over To My House" (both with vocals by Julia Lee).
On December 2, 1929, there was a Musicians Ball at Kansas City's Paseo Ballroom. It would be the "Greatest Battle Of The Bands", featuring Bennie Moten's Recording Orchestra, Geo. E. Lee's Singing Orchestra, Andrew Kirk's (12) Clouds Of Joy, Paul Banks' (8) Rhythm Kings, Walter Page's Blue Devils, and Geo. Wilkerson's Musical Magnets.
Brunswick released two "George E. Lee and His Orchestra" records in January 1930: "St. James Infirmary", paired with "Ruff Scufflin'" and ""If I Could Be With You [One Hour Tonight]", backed with "Paseo Street" To my untutored ears, all the Brunswick recordings are pure Kansas City "jass" from the 1920s.
The 12-piece Lee orchestra was back at St. Joseph's Frog Hop Ballroom for a King Hill Masonic Temple dance on February 27, 1930. There was another visit on April 30. Then, it was Lake Contrary (also in St. Joseph) on August 19.
At the time of the 1930 census, Julia and Johnnie Thomas (and her son Frank) were living in Kansas City with her parents. She was an "orchestra musician"; he was a porter in a club.
Brunswick issued Julia's "He's Tall, Dark And Handsome", coupled with "Won't You Come Over To My House" in April 1930. Label credit went to "George E. Lee's Novelty Singing Orchestra". Julia is identified as the vocalist on the top side ("He's Tall"), but not, for some reason, on the flip.
These solo efforts were pointed out when the 12-piece band played the Arkota Ballroom in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. There was an article in the May 14, 1930 Sioux Falls Argus-Leader. The relevant paragraph was:
Original arrangements add color to the musical presentations. The big feature in the way of entertainment is the singing of Julia Lee, a blues singer with the band. Her work was such an outstanding feature in several of the recordings of the band that she is now being featured individually on records.
This became all too common later on, but this was in the May 26, 1930 Columbus [Nebraska] Telegram:
Clarence ["Tweedy"] Taylor, 35, member of the George E. Lee colored orchestra, of Kansas City, was killed and five others in the orchestra badly bruised early today when their auto turned over into the ditch after striking loose gravel on highway 15, eight miles east of Osceola [Nebraska].
Taylor was pinned under the car and died a few minutes after his removal from the wreckage. He is survived by his wife in Kansas City.
The George E. Lee orchestra had played an engagement last night in Grand Island and the musicians were on their way to Omaha to fill a date tonight when the accident happened about 4 o'clock this morning. The six were traveling in a large sedan when the driver lost control in the gravel, while the other members of the organization were using a truck, in which the instruments were carried.
Per an account given by trumpeter Sam Utterback several years later, the driver of the car was none other than Johnnie C. Thomas, Julia's husband. He was the owner of the car (a new Auburn convertible) and was doing over 100 miles per hour. Said Utterback: "It landed in the ditch, tore off the cover of the car, and threw Julia half-way from the front seat to the back seat, one leg was pinned down in the dirt. I was a lucky man, nothing but a cut finger. The car was still running like mad, and Johnny was in there pinned behind the steering wheel, and he was cursing. His wife said, 'Stop that cursing, cut that motor off, and pray!'" This was from Storyville #125 (June-July 1986). Remember, gang, there was no such thing as a seat belt back then, let alone airbags.
But they slogged on. A June 7, 1930 ad for the Arkota Ballroom in Sioux Falls, South Dakota was for: "George E. Lee And Brunswick Recording Band. 12 Super-versatile Artist Entertainers, Including Julia Lee, Renowned Blues Singer". A blurb in the June 7 Sioux Falls Argus-Leader told fans that the band had "won a battle of music from Zez Confrey and his recording orchestra at the Rigadon Ballroom in Sioux City [Iowa] early this week by a walkaway."
The band was all over the place from 1930 to 1934. Here's a partial list of their engagements:
May 1, 1930 - Bourkes Park, Horton, Kansas
May 15, 1930 - Arkota Ballroom, Sioux Falls, South Dakota
June 7, 1930 - Arkota Ballroom, Sioux Falls, South Dakota
June 21, 1930 - Arkota Ballroom, Sioux Falls, South Dakota
July 25, 1930 - Bourkes Park, Horton, Kansas
September 17, 1930 - Arkota Ballroom, Sioux Falls, South Dakota
October 9, 1930 - Bourkes Park, Horton, Kansas
December 5, 1930 - University Coliseum, Lincoln, Nebraska
December 9, 1930 - Arkota Ballroom, Sioux Falls, South Dakota
January 8, 17, & 31, 1931 - Arkota Ballroom, Sioux Falls, South Dakota
February 2, 1931 - Greenwood Hall, Wymore, Nebraska
April 11, 1931 - Arkota Ballroom, Sioux Falls, South Dakota
April 15, 1931 - Memorial Hall, Atchison, Kansas
May 16, 1931 - Arkota Ballroom, Sioux Falls, South Dakota
June 3, 6, 11, 27, 1931 - Arkota Ballroom, Sioux Falls, South Dakota
July 26, 1931 - Lake Contrary, St. Joseph, Missouri (a series of dances)
August 11, 25 & 27, 1931 - The Bagdad, Manhattan, Kansas
September 2, 1931 - New Pavilion, Huron, South Dakota
September 15, 17, & 19, 1931 - The Bagdad, Manhattan, Kansas
September 24, 1931 - Orscheln Heights, Moberly, Missouri
October 2, 1931 - Wareham Ballroom, Manhattan, Kansas
October 20, 1931 - Arkota Ballroom, Sioux Falls, South Dakota
January 13, 1932 - Cahan Park, Marysville, Kansas
March 28 & April 30, 1932 - Arkota Ballroom, Sioux Falls, South Dakota
May 11, 1932 - Cahan Park, Marysville, Kansas
May 14, 1932 - Arkota Ballroom, Sioux Falls, South Dakota
June 7, 1932 - Community Pavilion, Schuyler, Nebraska
November 18, 1932 - Herrington, Council Grove, Kansas
December 8, 1932 - Masonic Temple, Clinton, Missouri
April 8, 1933 - Cherry Blossom, Kansas City, Missouri
July 8, 1933 - Venetian Ballroom, Lake Contrary, St. Joseph, Missouri
July 24, 1933 - The Bagdad, Manhattan, Kansas [Moten-Lee band]
August 3, 1933 - Soden Pavilion, Emporia, Kansas [Moten-Lee band]
May 9, 1934 - Dance Pavilion, Huron, South Dakota
May 12, 1934 - Arkota Ballroom, Sioux Falls, South Dakota
December 31, 1934 - Wareham Ballroom, Manhattan, Kansas
The number of musicians in the Lee band kept changing. In mid-1930, there were 12. Now, a blurb in the November 18, 1932 Council Grove [Kansas] Republican said: "George E. Lee, whose popular orchestra is playing at Herington tonight, has added two new musicians to his organization. The orchestra now carries ten people, including the blue [sic] singer." Not being a musician, I can't tell you how these things work, but it seems to me that arrangements would have to be adjusted every time there was an additional musician added or one lost.
When the Cherry Blossom opened on April 8, 1933 in Kansas City, the Lee orchestra was there on opening night and beyond. The Kansas City Call (April 14, 1933) said:
George E. Lee's orchestra scored the "Porter's Love Song" and "Rosetta." Julia Lee's rendition of the ever popular "Exactly Like You" was well received.
There's an ad for the Bagdad, in Manhattan, Kansas, on July 24, 1933 that says "See and hear the great stars of Bennie Moten and Geo. E. Lee Under The Personal Supervision of Tommy Douglas". I don't really know what that's all about. It doesn't say that their bands have been combined (you'll have to wait a couple of paragraphs for that). It could mean that Tommy Douglas had stolen some of the Moten and Lee musicians.
[For all you history buffs, Manhattan, Kansas is right near Fort Riley. It was in and around this area that the great flu pandemic of 1918-19 began. Soldiers shipped to France to fight in World War I carried it and at least 50 million people, worldwide, died from it. It was nicknamed the "Spanish Flu", but it had nothing to do with Spain. Because there was a war on, there was just so much that newspapers were allowed to print about the disease. Since Spain wasn't involved in the war, their newspapers were full of articles about it, hence the association.]
I don't propose to try to unravel all this, but when the Bennie Moten band was playing the Cherry Blossom in September 1933, he started exploring a merger with the George E. Lee band. With rumors of the merger flying, Count Basie took over Moten's band, forcing Moten out altogether. The Kansas City Call (September 15, 1933) had a blurb titled "Count Basie Now Owner of Bennie Moten’s Band". It would then be known as Count Basie and his Cherry Blossom Victor Recording Orchestra.
Moten quickly put together a new band, but times being what they were (that minor inconvenience called the Great Depression), he soon joined up with George Lee, and the combined 15-piece band opened at KC's Harlem Night Club in late October. There's a Halloween ad for the club that had the combined band playing for the "Gala Opening Of The Winter Season". This was from the October 28, 1933 Kansas City Journal-Post:
The Harlem club has made a real scoop in the night club field. It has consolidated the bands of Bennie Moten, Victor recording artist, and George E. Lee, Brunswick recording artist, and formed a new band under joint leadership. With the best musicians from the two orchestras and several new artists in the group ... the new 15-piece band will be directed by Buster Moten and his accordion, play the arrangements of Eddie Durham and feature George and Julia Lee as soloists.... And in addition to presenting its superlative new band, the Harlem club, now newly decorated and properly ventilated and heated, offers the fastest 45-minute floor show three times nightly that has been seen in a Kansas City cabaret. The entertainers include Maceo Birch, master-of-ceremonies; the Four Dancing Covans; Daisy and Edith, rope jumping dancers of exceptional merit; Jelly Bean Johnson, Ethel Willis, Bobby Davis, Shorty and Ruby and the Six Sepia Steppers. When you’re hitting the high spots, don’t miss the Harlem
Another Musicians Ball, this time at Kansas City's Roseland Ballroom on December 4, 1933. This one had Ernest Williams' Blue Devils, Paul Banks' Rhythm Aces, Tommy Douglas And His Aristocrats, Andy Kirk's 12 Clouds Of Joy, Count Basie And His Vagabonds, and "The Big Feature": The Combined Bennie Moten-Geo. E. Lee Band with Maceo Birch and His Famous Harlem Night Club Floor Show. Since "it's been months since you've had a chance to dance till your feet got weary", you shouldn't miss this one. "Hotcha-digga-dig!"
However, by May 1934, Moten and Lee had split, with Moten being booked into the Harlem. George put together another 12-piece orchestra: he's advertised at the Rigadon Ballroom (Sioux City, Iowa) on May 6, the Dance Pavilion (Huron, South Dakota) on May 9, the Arkota Ballroom (Sioux Falls, South Dakota) on May 12, the Surf Ballroom (Clear Lake, Iowa) on May 26-27, and Lake Robbins (Des Moines, Iowa) on June 16. The June 7 Kossuth County Advance (Algona, Iowa) said:
A torch singer will be a feature of the second of a series of clubhouse dances next Monday night [June 11], when George E. Lee and his 14-piece Brunswick recording negro orchestra plays here. The singer is Julia Lee, also colored. [The venue was called the Country Club.]
Julia was with the band for their New Year's Eve 1934 engagement at the Wareham Ballroom in Manhattan, Kansas, but this is the last time she was mentioned as appearing with George.
But she wasn't quite finished with being a band singer. An ad from February 8, 1935 advertises Julia Lee ("Creole Blues Singer") appearing with Bennie Moten & His Hi Hatters Of Jazz (along with brother Buster Moten and James Rushing) at the Orpheum Theater in Lincoln, Nebraska. I don't know why she was with Bennie and not George, but that seemed to be her last gasp with a band. Bennie himself wouldn't last much longer; he died on April 2, 1935, suffering a heart attack after undergoing a tonsillectomy.
George kept going for a while, but ads get fewer and fewer. In early July 1935, Geo. E. Lee's Orchestra was at Clearwater Beach in St. Joseph. The following week, he seemed to be the singer ("World's Greatest Ballroom Entertainer") with Tommy Douglas' 12 Harlem Aristocrats, playing the Ritz in Oklahoma City. George got another orchestra together and played Musser Tavern (Jefferson City, Missouri) in December 1936 and again in March and April 1937. Later that year, he was at the Jockey Club in KC. In 1940, he was living in Detroit and working on an auto factory assembly line. However, by the time he registered with the draft in 1942, he was still in Detroit, but unemployed. He gave Julia as the "person who will always know your address".
After that February date with Bennie Moten, Julia began her career as a soloist. She initially sang at Tootie's Mayfair in KC, run by Milton Morris, who was only in his early 20s at the time, some 10 years younger than Julia. Soon, however, he opened his own place, Milton's Bar (which would morph into Milton's Tap Room).
Julia played the piano and sang, usually with just a drummer. Supposedly, since she was left-handed, her piano playing eliminated the need for a bassist (which doesn't, of course, explain why she appeared with one throughout the 1950s).
Milton Morris, who employed Julia for nearly twenty years, later said: "She was a fabulous character. She could sing the most beautiful songs you ever heard. A few years from now, people will start missing her. She will become a sort of legend." (The Second Line January-February 1960. The publication of the New Orleans Jazz Club.)
A big article about Morris appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on December 5, 1983, around a week after he'd died. In it he was quoted as saying:
Blacks couldn't come into white joints. But a lot of black musicians, Count Basie and a lot of them, they liked to come hear Julia Lee. So you know what I did?
I had me a little platform over next to Julia's piano. And I had some chairs and tables set up on that platform. And that's where I seated the black people that came in to see Julia. Anybody ever gave me any trouble, I would just point over there at Basie and all them up there on the platform and I'd say, 'Why, hell, that's my bandstand. And those people are part of my band'."
Both George and Julia were mentioned in a paragraph about Kansas City entertainers in the January 1, 1938 Billboard:
George E. Lee, now playing with a small combination at the Jockey Club, should be ready for big time soon. Tommy Douglas at the Antlers' Club is another group which bears watching. Clarence Love's Band and the one fronted by Harlan Leonard are due to move up before long. Julia Lee and Lee Etta Smith, both singers and pianists of the Cleo Brown type, have possibilities. Both are playing in night spots here.
Notice how skillfully they dealt in vague predictions and avoided saying anything definite. I wonder how you learn to write like that.
Dave E. Dexter, Jr. (whom we'll meet again later) had this review of Julia Lee at Milton's (Billboard, July 2, 1938):
One of city's more intimate spots, tastily decorated and boasting effective indirect lighting throughout. Current attraction is Julia Lee, buxom colored pianist and singer, probably the best known nitery entertainer in this section [part of the country].
Julia's piano is subtle and always subordinated to her vocal selections, yet it's probably the feature of her entire routine. Distinctive and almost humorous in its accompaniment at times, her pianologics [sic] are highlights of the bill. Bill Saunders, tenor sax, and Ernie Williams, drummer, also are featured. The trio makes for pleasant and unique entertainment.
Milton Morris is always on hand to extend a greeting to patrons. High-class patronage here, and service, along with food and drinks, is excellent. Business fair but, even so, better than at most other spots of this type.
Dexter had another review of the show in the December 31, 1938 Billboard:
One of the most unique local niteries, this spot for nearly four years has featured the same act, Julia Lee, talented and personable singer, who accompanies herself at the Steinway. Her library includes current hits, swing ditties and old pop tunes, with emphasis on the latter, all of them presented in a highly distinctive manner. Julia gets aid from sleepy-eyed Harold Gadson, drummer, whose skin-thumping style and occasional vocal contributions fit in elegantly with the Lee manner of entertaining the nice class of patronage attracted to the spot.
Julia, too, seems to have high turnover in musicians.
Speaking of turnover: another failed marriage. In the 1940 census (taken in April), She was "Julia Lee", a "night club musician", living with son Frank. She said she was married, but Johnnie Thomas wasn't present.
There's nothing more about Julia until this blurb in the July 31, 1943 Billboard: "Julia Lee moves into the Silver Frolics, Chicago, August 7." However, there weren't any ads.
The April 15, 1944 Billboard had an ad in the form of a letter to the Mutual Entertainment Agency in Chicago. It read:
A VOTE OF CONFIDENCE
Congratulations! Congratulations to you, J.J. "Bookie" Levin, and to you, Jack Russell, on the opening of your new booking office. We're happy to be associated with such a progressive office, and know that with your reputation for honesty, personalized service and far-sighted ideas we will all mutually prosper. Best of luck. We're with you one hundred per cent!
Okay. Kind of schmaltzy, but.... The question is: who's that "letter" from? It was "signed" by Dallas Bartley, the Ray Biondi Trio, the Four Tons Of Rhythm, Adam Lambert, Julia Lee, Bobby Short, Joe Williams, the Trummie Young Orchestra, and more than two dozen other acts. In other words, the Mutual Entertainment Agency "sent" it to itself. Ain't the entertainment business wonderful?
Re-enter Dave E. Dexter, Jr. From Kansas City himself, he'd been an associate editor of Down Beat magazine and was now a producer for Capitol Records. In that capacity, he decided to record both Julia Lee and Jay McShann for a proposed "History Of Jazz" series.
Dexter came to Kansas City and went through the roster of musicians' union Local 627 (with which he was friendly), and picked out a bunch of KC musicians. Matching them up with Julia Lee on vocals, they held a session locally.
November 1, 1944 - Jay McShann (piano), Oliver Todd (trumpet), Tommy Douglas (alto sax), Clairborne "Frog" Graves (tenor sax), Efferge Ware (guitar), Walter Page (bass), Samuel "Baby" Lovett (drums), Julia Lee (vocals). While McShann was appearing with an orchestra in 1944, I don't know if all, or any, of these musicians were part of it.
"Come On Over To My House" (the same song as "Won't You Come Over To My House" that Julia had done for Brunswick some 15 years previously), and the 20-year-old Blues, "Trouble In Mind" (with a trumpet solo by Oliver Todd).
It took a while for Dexter to get anything done with his recordings, but in September 1945, the two songs (by "Jay McShann's Kansas City Stompers featuring Julia Lee") were included in a 5-disc 78 rpm album called "History of Jazz - The Golden Era, Volume II". (The other four records were by different artists.) While the album got favorable reviews, it was usually "Trouble In Mind" that was singled out as being the gem of the set.
By this time, Julia was using John Tumino as her manager/booking agent (McShann had already been using him for a few years). Tumino had had a club called the Century Room and also managed the dance pavilion at Fairyland. (This was the one in Kansas City, not the one in Oklahoma City's Spring Lake Park at which George E. Lee's band had appeared in 1927. It was a fairly common name for a park back then.)
McShann and Tumino had made the papers a couple of years previously. This was in the July 14, 1942 Moberly Monitor-Index (Moberly, Missouri):
Last night's dance at Joyland Park, which saw the fatal stabbing of a dancer, was an ill-fated affair all around, In addition to the stabbing and the arrest of the knife-wielder, the orchestra leader and the orchestra's booking agent were entangled with the law here last night.
The orchestra leader, J. McShann, was named in an action to replevin [basically repossess and return to the rightful owner] his 1941 Buick automobile.... When Sheriff Joe Klugmann sought to serve the papers on the leader, he was not to be found, but the sheriff did find his automobile and have it towed to a garage here.
Then John B. Tumino, Kansas City, the orchestra's booking agent, was arrested by the state patrol on charges of driving a car without a driver's license and of careless and reckless driving. He pleaded guilty and was fined $5 and costs on the first charge and $10 and costs on the second in Howard Maxwell's justice court.
Before that Capitol album was released, Julia did some recording for Hubert Somson's Premier label in St. Louis, backed up by the Tommy Douglas Orchestra. Note that Jay McShann also recorded for Premier around the same time.
Summer 1945 - Julia Lee (piano and vocals), Tommy Douglas (alto sax, clarinet), Freddie Culliver (not "Gulliver"; tenor sax), Harry Ferguson (tenor sax), Clarence Davis (trumpet), Efferge Ware (guitar), Ben Curtis (bass), and Baby Lovett (drums). Douglas, Ware, and Lovett had been on the prior year's Capitol session.
"If It's Good", "Show Me Missouri Blues", "Lotus Blossom", and "Dream Lucky Blues" (this last only has Julia, Ben Curtis, and Baby Lovett as "Instrumental Trio").
"If It's Good" has some nice sax work and the interesting lyrics "If it's good, I want it; if it's bad, I still want it". In "Lotus Blossom", Julia is speaking to her marijuana ("soothe me with your caress") to help bring her lover back. In case you're interested, this is called "apostrophe": speaking to someone or something that can't be expected to answer because it isn't present, is dead, isn't human, or is inanimate. (Those long conversations you have with your goldfish are examples. [Yes, we know about those.])
In "Dream Lucky Blues", she defines the Blues: "The blues ain't nothin' but a good woman wantin' her man". She starts with "Did you ever dream lucky and wake up cold in hand". The last three words are an old expression meaning "broke" (thanks to Chris Smith for that). As is the case with many Blues numbers, bits and pieces were "borrowed" from older songs. Some of "Dream Lucky Blues" was used in "Bald Headed Mama" (Billy Banks Chicago Rhythm Kings; 1932) and Jimmy Rushing's "Blues In The Dark" (1938).
Premier released all four songs in November 1945. "If It's Good" was paired with "Show Me Missouri Blues" and "Lotus Blossom" was backed by "Dream Lucky Blues".
However, Premier wasn't long for this world and in March 1946 Mercury Records announced that they'd purchased 125 of its masters. Included were the four Julia Lee sides, as well as tunes by Ted Fio Rito, Nick Lucas, the Vivien Garry Trio, Jay McShann, and (of course) Ambrose Haley And His Ozark Ramblers.
Mercury wasted no time in re-releasing the Premier sides. "If It's Good" and "Show Me Missouri Blues" came out that same month; "Lotus Blossom" and "Dream Lucky Blues", in June 1946.
Various editions of Swing magazine (a publication of Kansas City's WHB radio station) had reviews of Julia at Milton's Tap Room:
January 1945: MILTON'S TAP ROOM - Otherwise known simply as "Julia Lee's" - for Julia is an institution around here. She's spent 11 years at that piano, crooning lyrics - tender, bawdy, and otherwise - into the mike.... Robert Moody plays traps [drums] for her.
July 1945: Julia Lee's dim and smoky kingdom, managed casually by plump and friendly Max Morris, while brother Milton is off to the wars. So, by the way, is Julia's son, Frank. He's 25 now and you'd never guess it to look at Julia!
January 1946: An amiable place where lots of people dance with lots of other people to Julia Lee's music, and the rest sit, sip and listen.
March 1946: [of Julia and Baby Lovett] They are nationally known Decca and Premier recordings artists and some of their platters are collectors items. [I've asked it before: why are there so many singers who are said to be Decca artists, when they never recorded for Decca at all? Many other Swing reviews also mentioned Decca. I'll probably never know. This is the first mention of Baby Lovett with her at Milton's.]
June 1946: Julia Lee and Baby Lovett do things with the piano and drums that send the cats crawling home talking to themselves.
July 1946: Julia Lee's dim and smoky kingdom, noisy, crowded and authentic. This is Julia's 13th year at that piano. She sings, too, and is one of the best genuine jazz-makers left in this part of the country. Her sparring mate is that drumming bronze bomber, Baby Lovett.
On August 24, 1946, Capitol announced that Dave Dexter had been named head of their new Race Department. He'd actually quit them in August 1945, and now they'd brought him back with a promotion. Dexter wasted no time in recording Julia Lee. (Actually, industry practice dictated that you never announced that you were going to do something until you had already done it. By August 24, Julia had already been recorded; see below.) Capitol released a slew of records semi-monthly and Dexter promised that at least one Race record would be included in each mass release. Strangely, considering the kinds of songs that Julia would end up recording, Dexter was quoted in the March 23, 1946 Billboard as saying:
I'm against risqué lyrics and don't think they should be permitted....
In anticipation of the formal recordings, Julia held a rehearsal session in Kansas City (probably at local radio station WHB). The date and musicians are unknown, but it's probably Clint Weaver on bass and Baby Lovett on drums. There were seven songs, none ever released (although the recordings survived): "I've Got A Crush On The Fuller Brush Man", "Shake It And Break It", "Shake That Thing", "Some Of These Days", "St. Louis Blues", "Two Loves Have I", and "Wee Baby Blues". It seems strange that she never attempted to record any of those songs again.
Formal sessions were set up in Los Angeles (home of Capitol Records) and Julia took drummer Samuel "Baby" Lovett with her on the train (both were afraid of flying). Lovett, who had once had his own orchestra, had replaced an ailing Jo Jones for a while in Count Basie's band in 1942. Baby Lovett would be on every one of Julia's recordings from November 1944 through the end of 1950.
Dave Dexter always assembled a great bunch of musicians for her sessions. On record labels, they were usually individually named, but always called "Julia Lee And Her Boy Friends", regardless of the musicians actually present.
[A note on the music. I don't really like a lot of the music on Julia's Capitol records. I'm a reed man; I like to hear saxophones and clarinets. I've never thought that trombones should be lead instruments. I'm also not crazy about lead trumpets. And, I just found out, as famous as Red Norvo was, I don't really care for the xylophone either. This is just me; don't send any threatening letters.]
In a two-week period, Julia had three Capitol sessions, each with a slightly different mix of musicians. There were 12 masters in all:
August 23, 1946 - Julia Lee (piano), Henry Bridges, Jr. (tenor sax), Vernon "Geechie" Smith (trumpet), Nappy Lamare (guitar), Billy Hadnott (bass), Samuel "Baby" Lovett (drums).
"Julia's Blues", "Lies", "Gotta Gimme Whatcha Got", and "When A Woman Loves A Man".
August 26, 1946 - Julia Lee (piano), Henry Bridges, Jr. (tenor sax), Geechie Smith (trumpet), Leonard "Lucky" Enois (guitar), Billy Hadnott (bass), Baby Lovett (drums).
"Oh, Marie!", "I'll Get Along Somehow", "A Porter's Love Song", and "Have You Ever Been Lonely".
Early September 1946 - Julia Lee (piano), Dave Cavanaugh (tenor sax), Karl George (trumpet), Lucky Enois (guitar), George "Red" Callender (bass), Baby Lovett (drums).
"Since I've Been With You", "Out In The Cold Again", "Young Girl's Blues", and "On My Way Out".
Capitol led off with "Gotta Gimme Whatcha Got", backed with "Lies" in September. "Gotta Gimme Whatcha Got" has a great piano and sax. It's not particularly double-entendre as Julia's songs went, but it's easy to tell why it became a hit. "Lies" was a straight-forward ballad with some nice sax work.
In October 1946, Capitol issued another one: "When A Woman Loves A Man", coupled with "Julia's Blues". The top side is pretty; "Julia's Blues" is the usual thing about an untrue man.
"Gotta Gimme Whatcha Got" was reviewed in the October 21 edition of Cash Box:
Julia Lee really socks it in this "race type" novelty called "Gotta Gimme Whatcha Got", and if you've got spots where they want 'em fast and hot, with enough breezy lyrics to make the side interesting, you should do business with this one. In addition, the combo on the instruments are first class rhythm and melody makers, and they are given enough spotlight to suit the more critical customers. Flipped, all hands slow it up to sad blues pace for "Lies", a number that's fondly remembered by everybody. Julia fits her style to make [the] most of this oldie, and the crew go down low to back her beautifully all the way. Peg Julia and this disk as a comer for the "race" locations.
And in the November 9 Billboard:
With plenty of bounce to the beat, Kansas City's Julia Lee turns a contagious sample of race chanting in Gimme Whatcha Got [sic] for her first bow on this label. Accompanying herself at the keyboard, she is joined by Geechie Smith's muted trumpet, Henry Bridges' sax and a rhythm section that helps keep the spinning at a lively pace. Lies, race oldie, gets an expressive voicing from Miss Lee as the jazz combo holds the slow beat. A bright entry in the race sweepstakes.
The November 2 Billboard reported that: "Julia Lee and Baby Lovett, long-time favorites at Milton's, have just returned from a waxing session for Capitol on the West Coast." This implies, probably correctly, that Baby Lovett had been part of Julia's act at Milton's for a long while.
"When A Woman Loves A Man" and "Julia's Blues" were reviewed in the November 4, 1946 Cash Box:
They say Julia Lee delivers melody in the Kansas City manner, but on "When A Woman Loves A Man" she delivers the very straight blue ballad in the manner of the late, great Helen Morgan, and for that reason this disk has a wider appeal than only to "race type" locations. It can draw action wherever they want something subdued and blue once in a while and more than that. 'Cause, friend, Julia's really good! And when she handles material like this she really sells it. "Julia's Blues" is more typically juke box, what with the hollerin' and such that goes to make it up, and Julia puts the number across. In addition, the crew take enough solo rides to give you the idea that they're present. Spot the topside right, however, and it'll catch. Just give it to your less noisy spots, and let the customers take it from there.
On November 16, 1946, "Gotta Gimme Whatcha Got" debuted at #3 on Billboard's Most-Played Juke Box Race Records chart. It remained for 7 weeks.
You don't expect to see an ad for a bar in a newspaper's Personals column, but this one (December 16, 1946 Kansas City Times) showed that Milton had a great sense of humor. The reference was to a one-time radio soap opera, called "John's Other Wife":
John's Other Wife - Meet me at Milton's, 3511 Troost. Julia Lee and Baby Lovett, playing from 8 p. m. on. John.
In December, Capitol issued "On My Way Out", backed with "Oh, Marie!". The former is a pretty, although sad song ("On my way out, I'll leave my heart with you"); on the flip, she sings "Oh, Marie!" in both Italian and English. The record was reviewed in the December 16 Cash Box:
"Oh Marie", essentially an Italian folk song, comes up on this waxing by Julia Lee as something really new and clever. Julia injects a jazzy beat into her chirping, and it winds up nice. It's novelty stuff, and if your phonos and trades cater to a mixed crowd, they won't mind this. Backed by "On My Way Out", the lass turns out some more stock race stuff. Ops should bend an ear towards "Marie".
After reading that review (isn't it amazing how little they actually say in these things?), I had to listen to "On My Way Out" again. Why the reviewer thought it was "stock race stuff" is completely beyond me. Any Pop singer could have done it. As a matter of fact, the song had been written a couple of years earlier by Morton Downey, Sr. (Downey, some of you might remember, was an Irish tenor, who was not only a big radio star of the 20s and 30s, but the primary vocal influence on Bill Kenny of the Ink Spots.)
Billboard begged to differ in their January 18, 1947 review:
Whatever it is Julia Lee tries to prove with "Oh, Marie," it's a cinch it's not the trouble. [No, I don't understand that sentence either.] For a race artist to pick an Italian ballad and sing two of three choruses in the foreign tongue to a hot jive beat is a wax venture without apparent purpose. If the idea is to show she can swing a ballad, that's been done before. If she wants to display her linguistic accomplishments, her Italian doesn't deserve it. Aside from a couple of good instrumental licks and right solid beat, top surface has little to its advantage. It's the B side that holds the ear with her torchy Harlemese style giving Morton Downey's old tear-jerker "On My Way Out" added zest. Pacing the accompanying jazz group from her Steinway, she chants the vocal regrets in a convincing fashion. Race-coin attraction here is centered on "My Way Out"; save "Marie" for Kansas City spinning where Julia Lee's following may deliver.
On February 7, 1947, Julia opened at the Paradise Theater in Detroit. Also on the bill was the Buddy Johnson Orchestra, with Ella Johnson and Arthur Prysock. For comedy, there was John Mason, no doubt doing his "Open The Door, Richard" routine. Ads said "Julia Lee And Her Boy Friends"; I'm not sure what that meant, but the Los Angeles musicians who were on her sessions probably wouldn't be accompanying her on tour.
The February 8 Detroit Tribune had a blurb titled "Julia Lee In Person":
Julia Lee, empress of boogie and blues, will make her first personal appearance at the Paradise theater.
Her first smash record was released last October 1 [September, but they were close] and coupled "Lies" with her own composition, "Gotta Gimme Whatcha Got." The latter tune was composed by Julia while she rode the Super Chief from Kansas City to Hollywood for the Capitol record session.
Julia pounds a potent piano [nice alliteration] and simultaneously sings with a depth, understanding and clarity that few of the younger singers today can match.
Miss Lee's second record of [sic] Capitol is "When A Woman Loves A Man" and was released a few weeks ago [not even close this time] along with her own "Julia's Blues." This disc is also proving a brisk seller in America's record stores and disc jockeys from Cape Cod to Coronado [San Diego, California] are tabulating requests for it from a legion of Lee fans.
Sometime in February, Capitol issued "Young Girl's Blues", coupled with "I'll Get Along Somehow". I can't understand much of what she's saying at the beginning of "Young Girl's Blues" (it seems like drugs are involved, but I can't be sure). After that, it's a lament about her not having sex appeal. "I'll Get Along Somehow" is the song you know by Larry Darnell. It goes back to 1937, when Pha Terrell sang it with Andy Kirk's Clouds Of Joy.
Cash Box reviewed the record on March 3, 1947:
More race stuff that can be termed strictly stock is this latest pair of waxings by Julia Lee. Titled "I'll Get Along Somehow" and "Young Girl's Blues", Julia renders her stuff in that deep blue vein. Done up brown, and with lots of moaning, both sides could be used to good advantage by music ops who have a call for her. The backing, a bit on the suggestive side, might go well in spots. You know your route, so take it from here.
This clearly points out that these reviews weren't for you and me, but for distributors and "ops", operators who owned juke boxes and had to choose the records to place in them. They really did have to understand the clientele at each juke's location, or the coin box would be empty at the end of the week. (They also had to learn a new language in order to understand what the reviewer was saying.)
"I'll Get Along Somehow" was on the Most-Played Juke Box Race Records chart, at #5 (May 24, 1947), but only for the single week.
The March 20, 1947 California Eagle reported that Julia had signed a new three-year contract with Capitol. President Johnny Mercer said that Julia had been doing so well that she'd be given the same choice of songs and the same number of releases as the King Cole Trio.
In June, Capitol issued another disc: "A Porter's Love Song", backed by "Since I've Been With You"; these were on the Capitol Americana series (which mostly featured Country & Western music). The top side (whose title should actually be "A Porter's Love Song To A Chambermaid" was a real oldie, written in 1930 by James P. Johnson and Andy Razaf. It was introduced that year at Smalls Paradise (Harlem) in "The Kitchen Mechanics Revue". Johnson himself recorded it in the following year, followed by many other artists, including Fats Waller. It had lyrics like "You can be the clothespin; I'll be the line". "Since I've Been With You" is really nothing special.
The disc was reviewed in the June 28 Billboard:
Julia Lee dusts off the old Fats Waller fave, A Porter's Love Song, warbling and knuckling the ivories in true Kaysee fashion. Crowding around her Steinway to add interest to the side are Henry Bridges on tenor sax, Geechie Smith on trumpet, with Baby Lovett's drums setting the groovy beats. With a solid, rhythmic lilt in her pipes she voices her original Since I've Been With You, a rather toothsome dish of tune material. Race jukes will find reminiscent spinning in Porter's Love Song.
By the time that review was printed, Julia had trained to Los Angeles again (along with Baby Lovett) to lay down another 16 tracks in a week of four sessions.
June 11, 1947 - Julia Lee (piano), Dave Cavanaugh (tenor sax), Ernie Royal (trumpet), Jack Marshall (guitar), Harry Babasin (bass), Baby Lovett (drums).
"There Goes My Heart", "(Opportunity Knocks But Once) Snatch And Grab It", "If You Hadn't Gone Away", and "Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out" (which only has Julia's piano for instrumentation).
June 13, 1947 - Julia Lee (piano), Dave Cavanaugh (tenor sax), Ernie Royal (trumpet), Vic Dickenson (trombone), Jack Marshall (guitar), Red Callender (bass), Baby Lovett (drums).
"Curse Of An Aching Heart", "Bleeding Hearted Blues", "Living Back Street For You", and "Wise Guys (You're A Wise Guy)".
June 16, 1947 - Julia Lee (piano), Dave Cavanaugh (tenor sax), Benny Carter (alto sax), Bobby Sherwood (cornet), Vic Dickenson (trombone), Kenneth "Red Norvo" Norville (xylophone), Jack Marshall (guitar), Red Callender (bass), Baby Lovett (drums).
"Mama Don't Allow It", "Doubtful Blues", "Ain't It A Crime?", and "Knock Me A Kiss" (with a duet vocal by Julia Lee and Joe Alexander). Joe Alexander, another Capitol artist, was a drummer, as well as a baritone singer, who had previously been with the Floyd Ray orchestra.
June 18, 1947 - same musicians as prior session, except that Ernest Loring "Red" Nichols replaced Bobby Sherwood on cornet. (Since it had Red Norvo, Red Callender, and Red Nichols, should we call it a "Red hot" session?)
"Cold-Hearted Daddy", "My Sin", "When You're Smiling", and "I Was Wrong.
While in Los Angeles, Julia was the guest of honor at the Cricket Club in Los Angeles, where she started on July 1 for a couple of weeks. She was back in KC by the time a blurb in the August 2 Billboard was printed: "Julia Lee is celebrating her 14th year at Milton's. She's just back from a Coast disking session at Capitol, where she cut 16 sides."
"(Opportunity Knocks But Once) Snatch And Grab It", backed with "I Was Wrong" were released at the beginning of August 1947. Strangely, it came out on both the Capitol Americana series and a nearly identical label without the "Americana". The top side is ostensibly about not letting opportunity get away (but we know better). "I Was Wrong" is another pretty one about breaking up. They were reviewed in the August 11 Cash Box:
Strong following of this chirp points to a long healthy run of this tune. Julia Lee, the favorite of so many race music fans grabs the mike to spill the wordage to "Snatch It And Grab It" [sic], and if you have spots that go for this heavy stuff, you're bound to snatch this platter. With just a tint of double entendre [seriously?], Julia pipes the lyrics behind a strong beat furnished by some of the finest musicians in the biz. Tempo is lively throughout, with Julia putting the emphasis on the title all thru. On the flip, Julia does a double-take [they actually meant a 180-degree turn] as she offers moody blues in the person of "I Was Wrong". Metro [?] spins in slow mood, with a love affair hanging in the balance of this wax story. Ops with race spots should like the topside tune.
There was a heart-warming article in a September 1947 California Eagle (exact date unknown) about a Mrs. Grace Calixtro who was determined to write a song "in between her sewing duties". She finally did ("So You're Falling In Love") and Geechie Smith, the bandleader at the Cricket club, got Julia Lee to record it. One small, nay miniscule, problem: Julia never recorded the song at all (although Dan Grissom did, later that year). Also, it didn't bother to say that Grace had copyrighted some songs back in 1944.
Douglas Watt, a columnist in the September 21, 1947 New York Daily News, gave Julia a supreme compliment. "Bessie Smith, who died 10 years ago as a result of an automobile accident, is still discussed and considered the greatest of the blues singers.... The nearest thing to her I have heard in our own time is Julia Lee, the Kansas City favorite."
"Snatch And Grab It" was on Billboard's Most-Played Juke Box Race Records chart for 28 weeks, beginning on October 11, and spending 10 of those weeks at #1. This is the one that really did it for Julia.
Capitol issued "Doubtful Blues" (is her lover cheating? "my weary mind is full of doubt") and "My Sin" in October 1947. "My Sin" isn't what you'd think ("my sin is wanting you though you're gone from me"). These were also on the Capitol Americana series. They were reviewed in the November 7 Amarillo (Texas) Daily News:
"My Sin" leaps lightly at comfy, bouncing tempo as Julia Lee pounds the Steinway and sings the vocal choruses with the backing [of] a group of highly regarded jazzmen. Julia performs "Doubtful Blues" at slower tempo on the flipover and Bobby Sherwood is heard on trumpet. The insinuating instrumental riff at the start is ingeniously carried through the vocal and instrumental solos.
But now, there was a musicians strike looming. On January 1, 1948, union musicians would be prohibited from making recordings. In anticipation, record companies worked around the clock to stockpile masters to be released in 1948. In addition, there was fear that musician fees would skyrocket, so it would be cheaper to do a lot of recording now. Consequently, Julia (and Baby Lovett) were brought back to Los Angeles, where Capitol took to recording with a vengeance. In a four-day period, Julia laid down 19 tracks, all but two of which would eventually be issued ("Away From You" and an unknown title from the second session).
November 11, 1947 - Julia Lee (piano), Dave Cavanaugh (tenor sax), Benny Carter (trombone, alto sax), Vic Dickenson (trombone), Geechie Smith (trumpet),Jack Marshall (guitar), Red Callender (bass), Baby Lovett (drums).
"Pagan Love Song", "All I Ever Do Is Worry", "Take It Or Leave It", "That's What I Like", "King Size Papa", "Blues For Someone", "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles", and "Breeze (Blow My Baby Back To Me)".
November 13, 1947 - same musicians as above, except that Geechie Smith isn't present and Billy Hadnott replaced Red Callender on bass.
"I Didn't Like It The First Time (The Spinach Song)", an unknown title, "Crazy World", "Tell Me, Daddy", "Christmas Spirits", and "Until The Real Thing Comes Along".
November 14, 1947 - Julia Lee (piano), Dave Cavanaugh (tenor sax, clarinet), Jack Marshall (guitar), Charlie Drayton (bass), Baby Lovett (drums).
"Charmaine" (instrumental), "Lotus Blossom" (a reprise of her 1945 Premier tune; in an alternate take, she substitutes the word "Marijuana" for "Lotus Blossom"), "Sit Down And Drink It Over", "Away From You", and "The Glory Of Love".
As long as she was in Los Angeles, she was booked as part of Gene Norman's sixth jazz concert, at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium on November 12. Others on the bill were the Count Basie Orchestra, the Benny Carter Orchestra, Jimmy Rushing, Frankie Laine, and Ake Hasselgard ("the Swedish Benny Goodman").
At the time, both she and Basie were appearing at the Million Dollar Theater in Los Angeles. Billboard (November 15) said of Julia: "She rapidly overcomes an uneasy opening to win over the crowd." (And, you could see Philo Vance Returns on the big screen.)
According to the November 22 Pittsburgh Courier: "Count Basie did the best business of his career in L. A. last week at the Million Dollar Theatre. He booked and paid Julia Lee, the new disc satellite [???], seven and a half yards to add spice to his offering." ("yard" was slang for a $100 bill.)
While Julia is mentioned a lot in 1948, she didn't record at all that year because of the musicians strike.
When Billboard published its "1947 Honor Roll Of Hits" in its January 3, 1948 edition, Julia Lee was #3 in the list of "Year's Top Female Vocalists On Race Records On The Nation's Juke Boxes", coming in right behind Savannah Churchill and Nellie Lutcher.
In the "Year's Most-Played Race Records On Nation's Juke Boxes" category, Julia was #6 with "Snatch And Grab It". The big winner was Louis Jordan, who had 5 of the top 10 songs on the list: "Ain't Nobody Here But Us Chickens" (#1), "Boogie Woogie Blue Plate" (#2), "Jack, You're Dead" (#4), "Let The Good Times Roll" (#7) and "Texas And Pacific" (#8).
In January 1948, Capitol released "King Size Papa", backed with the standard "When You're Smiling"; these were the last Julia Lee recordings in the Capitol Americana series. Billboard reviewed them on January 31:
King Size Papa (81): Lee gal sells good race lyrics strong over solid ork backing.
When You're Smiling (79): Disk features above average instrumental solos aplenty with short Lee vocal on vaude-oldie.
The January 1948 Record Changer talked about "Doubtful Blues" and "My Sin":
If this gal isn't the best popular vocalist in the country, I won't argue about it at all, but if anyone else turns out better vocals I'll be happy to listen. This particular record isn't a shining example of her work because the tunes aren't much to speak of, but on Doubtful Blues, a standard 12-bar job which is over-dressed by the curiously heterogeneous accompanying band, you can hear her sad-edged voice and her tasteful piano fill-ins to good advantage. Red Norvo, on xylophone this time, is easily the standout of the group, even with his silly tag on Doubtful Blues. [That is, the few gratuitous notes Norvo throws in at the end for no reason.] Getting back to Julia Lee, what an awful lot she has to teach both vocalists and pianists in this age of nervous anxiety! Benny Carter's swooping alto sax and Vic Dickenson's trombone are also heard, as well as a trumpeter listed as Red Loring who must certainly be Red Nichols [he was].
I don't know why, but Mercury re-released "Lotus Blossom" and "Dream Lucky Blues" in January 1948.
The February 1948 Record Changer talked about those two, as well as "King Size Papa" and "When You're Smiling":
This department's very favorite pop vocalist, Julia Lee, is represented on two labels this time, thanks to Mercury's revival of a couple of sides from her first record date.
It's a shame that the inferior recording [the Premier/Mercury disc] is musically better. Dream Lucky, accompanied only by Baby Lovett on drums and Ben Curtis on bass (and Julia herself, of course, on piano), and Lotus Blossom, backed by a very small and unobtrusive band, are far, far better than the more self-conscious Capitol sides. At that, the Capitol sides are excellent, and are not to be missed.
Despite the low technical quality, Lotus Blossom is a record which will stand up for many years to come as a mood piece of near-perfect execution. The only flaw — Lovett's over-dramatic tom-tomming whenever Julia reaches the line, "knock me clear out" — is in itself an authentic commentary, on the environment out of which Julia, Baby, and the whole style of this performance have emerged. Clarence Davis plays a fine wa-wa trumpet behind Julia most of the way. The other side is a string of familiar blues choruses on the theme of "Did you ever dream lucky and wake up cold in hand," but they bear repetition well, and Julia's piano backing is in excellent taste. This is one of the finest popular records in recent years, and it's a shame it's not recorded better on grade-A material.
Julia is unchanged and unspoiled in the more recent When You're Smiling and King Size Papa, but her accompanists take up too much space in every respect. Being somewhat "all-star," it seems that everybody has to get into the act, which is wrong for a Julia Lee record. This is especially true on When You're Smiling, whereas King Size Papa, one of those endless blues built on the Red Wagon structure, has more Lee set in soft-shoe two-beat rhythm. Incidentally, did I hear that second verse correctly ? Can't tell you what it sounds like to me — the Record Changer is a family magazine.
I can't really agree about the instrumentation on "King Size Papa". Other than a couple of solos on the bridge, it's very restrained. "When You're Smiling", on the other hand....
Did Capitol get a bit over-enthusiastic with "When You're Smiling"? According to the February 14, 1948 Billboard:
Here's the latest in dipsies caused by the mad pre-January rush to record before the Petrillo [musicians] ban. Capitol now turns up with three recorded versions of Mills Music firm's When You're Smiling, revival plug from Columbia pic. The platters: Benny Goodman, Skitch Henderson, Julia Lee. The reason: East and West Coast offices of Cap didn't co-ordinate completely during pre-deadline days.
Makes a cute blurb, but Julia's version wouldn't be competing with Goodman's and Henderson's (and I'm not even sure those two would be competing with each other). "Petrillo" is James Petrillo, head of the American Federation Of Musicians union.
"King Size Papa" was on the Most-Played Juke Box Race Records chart for 28 weeks (starting on February 14, 1948) and spent 9 of those weeks at #1. In addition, it also made the Best Selling Retail Race Records chart for 15 weeks, rising as high as #5. (That meant that, not only were people listening to it on juke boxes, they were actually buying it.) It even turned up on the Most-Played Juke Box Records (Pop) chart, as #15, for a single week (March 27). It became the #16 Top Race Record Seller for 1948 (Sonny Thompson's "Long Gone" was #1).
February 1948 saw Capitol release "That's What I Like" and "Crazy World". "That's What I Like" isn't as raunchy as some of the others. "Crazy World" is really nothing special. It's of the "eat, drink, and be merry" variety: "Let's all get romantic; we'll be too busy to fight" and "all talk of war will be forgotten when the atomic kiss is found".
There was an article about Julia in the February 28 Indianapolis Recorder. Titled "Julia Lee Disc Brings Her Fame", it went:
The power of the phonograph record as a builder of stars is illustrated in the sudden rise to fame of the nation's new piano-playing, blues-singing sensation, Julia Lee.
Skyrocketed to national prominence with her sensational recording of "Snatch And Grab It", now in its 29th week in best-seller position, the formerly obscure Kansas City artist suddenly finds herself a star on the nation's boxes.
Her spectacular rise to stardom seems all the more remarkable when it is known that Julia Lee has been playing and singing for the last 15 years in a remote night spot, Milton's Tap Room in Kansas City.
Dave Dexter, former Kansas Cityan and now a Capitol Records executive, gave Julia her opportunity to record. But even then, success was elusive. It was her 13th recording that proved to be the lucky one! Snatch And Grab It, written for her by Down Beat columnist Sharon Pease, was the number which showed off her talents at their best and brought her stardom.
Ah, to be a press agent. Not counting the two Capitol sides she did with Jay McShann in 1944, "Snatch And Grab It" was actually the fourteenth tune she recorded for Capitol. But that really doesn't sound as good as 13th, does it?
Julia got a tremendous compliment in the April 1948 Record Changer. They were reviewing some new sides by Dinah Washington, such as "Fool That I Am", "Mean And Evil Blues", and "Since I Fell For You". The review had this:
As Dinah Washington's records appear, it becomes noticeable that she is learning control and restraint and even a little about singing as opposed to winning applause by sticking in the popular clichés of the day, most of which currently stem from Sarah Vaughan. Not being blessed with a voice, as Julia Lee happens to be, Dinah has come a great way since her first records and among the cheap-grade pop balladettes she rates pretty high.
On April 24, Billboard reviewed "Crazy World":
Crazy World (87): Julia masterfully decides that love is the cure-all; tram duet by Vic Dickenson and Benny Carter wonderful. [By "tram", they mean "trombone". Normally an alto sax player, Benny took up the trombone on this recording.]
That's What I Like (84): Consistency is the word for Julia when it comes to these light jump blues items - always top grade.
Keep in mind that a lot of things influence these ratings. First, how big is the artist? Has Julia had a big hit lately? Answer: Yes. Then, how big is the company? Answer: Capitol was one of the biggest, therefore able to spend big bucks advertising and distributing a record. I suppose that, somewhere along the line, they actually listened to the record and, if they didn't fall asleep or gag, it got a good write-up based on the first two criteria. Remember, these are trade publications; they're trying to influence juke box owners and record distributors to buy the record, not consumers.
On May 14, 1948, Julia opened at the Powelton Cafe in Philadelphia.
At this point, all of you who have large collections of 78 rpm records might want to skip the next four paragraphs. The May 22, 1948 Billboard had an article titled "Distrib Pitch For Race Wax Seen Cause Of Bogus Disks". It went (and afterwards, I'll try to put it in English):
CHICAGO, May 15 - Attempts to gain distribution of leading race platter hits was uncovered as a major cause of the wave of counterfeit disks which has recently hit the market. A major Midwest distributor of indie labels, it was learned this week by The Billboard, called two race label prexies during the past two months and flaunted the info that he had sold several thousand more copies of their current best sellers than had the indies' authorized distributors in their particular areas. The unauthorized distributor would not disclose the source of his product (it was learned that the disks were part of the bogus biscuits circulating), but sought to convince the execs to discard their regular distributors in favor of the counterfeit peddler.
Quirk of the situation is the fact that the West Coast indie label prexy, to whom the unauthorized distributor spoke, was so impressed by the sales talk that he started negotiating with the Midwest peddler to the extent that a deal was almost made for the counterfeit disk distributor to take over from the appointed distributor. When the authorized distributor was informed of the impending change, he raised such a stink that the deal fell thru.
Indie label distributors recently have been making big pitches to race labels for their lines because of strong contenders the indies are developing. Aside from Julia Lee and Nellie Lutcher (Capitol), Louis Jordan (Decca) and a short spurt by Rosetta Howard (Columbia), The Billboard's race charts show a majority of indie label platters popping up, while in the pop and folk field the indie label peddlers are finding that major labels continue their domination.
Translation: Recently, most of the "Race" records on the charts have been from relatively small independent record companies (the "indies"), not the majors, and a lot of these have been counterfeited. A certain (unnamed) distributor in the Midwest has been buying up these counterfeit records and selling them to stores in his area, presumably at a lower price than the regular distributors. [Remember, record manufacturers rarely sold their product to stores; they sold to middlemen called "distributors".] This unnamed distributor then contacted the presidents of two of the indies and told them that he'd sold more of their records in the Midwest than the indies' regular distributors, so why don't they abandon their regulars and do business with him instead. It's a really fun business. You might want to check out my article "How Many Boots Do You Have?"
Capitol's next release was "Wise Guys (You're A Wise Guy)" and "All I Ever Do Is Worry" in May 1948. The top side is about racketeers ("at the end of the game, you get a number for a name"). Julia probably saw (and even knew) plenty of them in Kansas City. On the flip, she worries ("I worry when you're not around").
The week of May 28, 1948, Julia Lee made her only appearance at the Apollo Theater, along with Ina Ray Hutton's Band and the 4 Step Brothers.
Billboard finally got around to reviewing the Mercury re-release of "Lotus Blossom" in their May 29 issue. It had come out in January, so what took them so long?
Lotus Blossom (85): A mood piece, beautifully sung, about the caress of the poppy pipe. Nice backing. Originally issued some years back.
Dream Lucky Blues (82): Julia cries the blues with the sorrowing conviction that has made her a biggie on race lists.
In that same May 29 issue, "That's What I Like" entered the Most-Played Juke Box Race Records chart, peaking at #6 in its 3-week run. It was on the charts at the same time as "King Size Papa".
On June 11, Julia (and her "Boy Friends", whoever they may have been) started a week at Chicago's Regal Theater. She shared the stage with Billy Eckstine and the Sabby Lewis Orchestra.
Her latest Capitol record was reviewed on June 19 by both Billboard and Cash Box:
Wise Guys (BB; 87): Seems that Julia gets better with every release. For warmth, phrasing, and all-around good taste, chirping here is tops. Smarty instrumental support, too.
All I Ever Do Is Worry (BB; 85): Flip is fine. Disk could bridge race category and score as a pop.
(CB; no ratings): Pair of sides for ops with race spots are these offered in pleasing fashion by the well known Julia Lee. Both spill in much the same manner - with Julia offering the slow, free and easy wordage in delightful styling. Topside ["Worry"] weaves around the title, with some slow haunting sax work working throughout the background of the song. Flip is a repeat gala performance for the crew, with Julia in the vocal spotlight once again. Both sides are there for the asking. Ops that have a call for Julia Lee and her Boyfriends [sic] are sure to want this pair.
Not waiting for those to become hits, Capitol issued "Tell Me, Daddy" and "(It Will Have To Do) Until The Real Thing Comes Along" in June. "Tell Me Daddy" is really raunchy "you better snatch and grab it honey, or it won't be here very long". "Until The Real Thing Comes Along" is the standard, but with some different lyrics than I'm used to. Billboard reviewed them on July 24:
Tell Me Daddy (84): Julia turns out another fine jump blues with an all-star tootler backing; terrific punch ending.
Until The Real Thing Comes Along (80): Julia does a commendable job on the evergreen.
The Record Changer of July 1948 talked about "That's What I Like" and "Crazy World":
We're getting two-beaten to death this month, but that's good if it will kill off some of the false notions that two-beat means dixieland. (Words, words, words — they mean all things to all people!) The first side is two-beat as all hell, somewhat in the vein of that other great exponent of two-beat music, Louis Jordan. It's a double-entendre blues with some slick accompanists who mean every penny of the $41.25 a man they got for the date. Julia is not in top form, but then the material is not conducive to first-class singing. Of its kind, it's a top- notch record.
Backing is pretty melodically, with Benny Carter making his debut as a trombonist. He wisely confines himself to harmonizing with Vic Dickenson and playing the lesser half of a duet with him. Julia isn't terribly interested in this number and unaccountably doesn't bother to finish one of the verses (a nicely disdainful touch, I think). The guy who is credited with Crazy World, Red Burns, wasn't able to make up his mind whether he was going to slip across a little sex or preach about the state of the world in an atomic civilization, but he got Capitol to do the tune, which is what counts in the music game.
Cash Box really liked "Tell Me Daddy", making it its Race Disk O' The Week in its July 31, 1948 edition.
"Tell Me Daddy" was on the Most-Played Juke Box Race Records chart for 3 weeks (starting on August 7, 1948), peaking at #9. In addition, it also made the Best Selling Retail Race Records chart for 3 weeks, rising as high as #12.
Another record review from the Record Changer (September 1948). This time it was for "Wise Guys" and "All I Ever Do Is Worry":
This fine gal, who no longer sings quite as fine as she used to, is never a complete letdown, which is a good sign of quality, no matter what the surroundings. As long as her piano playing comes through, especially in slow tempo, her backgrounds are not a loss, and no matter what the material, she gives it plenty.
Wise Guys, a sort of Ace In the Hotel, with "Crime Don't Pay Well" overtones, is not really her type of tune, but she does it oh so nicely, and she gives the reverse, a slow ballad with grade C lyrics, far more than it deserves. Benny Carter has a good trombone solo on this side. Somehow one feels that if Julia had recorded Wise Guys back when she did her marvelous Lotus Blossom it would have been a whale of a side.
Although she couldn't record in 1948, Julia journeyed to Los Angeles again to appear at the Million Dollar Theater starting September 28. Another ad said "Julia Lee And Her Boy Friends", so possibly Capitol provided her with a band.
Soon after this, in October, Capitol released the instrumental "Charmaine", backed with another I-lost-my-man weeper, "Christmas Spirits"
On November 7, 1948, she gave a concert, sponsored by the NAACP, at Central High School in St. Joseph, Missouri. It would also be broadcast over KRES. The St. Joseph News-Press of November 5 said:
Julia Lee, who plays her own piano accompaniments, has been popular in and around Kansas City for many years, appearing now at Milton's Tap Room. She made her first public appearance as a singer there at the age of four [I assume "there" is Kansas City and not Milton's]; began to study piano at ten, and three years later was accepted as a pupil by Professor R.G. Jackson of Western University. Her first steady job was with the band of her older brother, George E. Lee, serving as its vocalist for 17 years.
[And then, although they meant well, the whole thing fell apart:] Julia Lee is married to Frank Duncan, manager of the Kansas City Monarch baseball team, and they have one son, who joined the Chicago Giants as a pitcher after serving almost four years with the armed forces. [She and Duncan had been divorced for over 20 years at this point.]
Another Capitol record: "Cold-Hearted Daddy" and "Living Back Street For You" were issued in November 1948. The top side is pretty standard: her man is cold to her, but she comes back for more. The flip is a very nice love song. Billboard gave both of them an 81 on December 4:
Cold-Hearted Daddy: Julia sings this blues with much feeling and with great aid from an all-star tootler background. Wonderful beat.
Living Back Street For You: Fine Julia vocal on a ballad with a fine lyric which tells a full story. Again, excellent tootler support.
Billboard's January 1, 1949 edition once again had a summary of the top artists for the prior year. In the category of The Year's Top Selling Female Vocalists On Race Records Over Retail Counters, Julia was #2, right behind Dinah Washington and ahead of Nellie Lutcher. However, since Julia had only placed one record ("King Size Papa"), while Dinah had two ("Am I Asking Too Much" and "It's Too Soon To Know"), Dinah had nearly double the number of points.
In the category of Top Female Vocalists on Race Records On The Nation's Juke Boxes, Julia was #1 with both "King Size Papa" and "Snatch And Grab It".
Finally, "King Size Papa" was #4 on the Most-Played Race Record On The Nation's Juke Boxes chart in 1948. Ahead of it was "Tomorrow Night" (Lonnie Johnson), "I Love You Yes I Do" (Bull Moose Jackson), and "Long Gone" (Sonny Thompson). Also, right after Ivory Joe Hunter's "Pretty Mama Blues" and Wynonie Harris' "Good Rockin' Tonight", Julia's "Snatch And Grab It" came in at #7.
A week later, "Christmas Spirits" was #14 on the Best Selling Retail Race Records chart (January 8), but for only one week.
Also in January 1949, Capitol released "I Didn't Like It The First Time (The Spinach Song)", backed with "Sit Down And Drink It Over". The former song is about marijuana (although, if you think about it, it could also be about sex), but it's the flip that's always gotten to me. "Sit Down And Drink It Over" is probably my favorite Julia Lee song, from its title, to its lyrics, to the nice guitar work by Jack Marshall. (The label says Dave Cavanaugh is there with his tenor sax, but if so, they forgot to wake him up; I can't hear one.)
The disc was reviewed in the February 19 Billboard:
Sit Down And Drink It Over (73): Smooth-singing Julia delivers a blues with all her usual haunting mellowness.
I Didn't Like It The First Time (83): A happy double-meaning romper in the spirit of "Snatch And Grab It" and "King Size Papa". Sock backing, including Dickenson's trombone and Benny Carter's alto.
Milton Morris later recalled that he got a little drunk one night and made a phone call. The result was that on March 5, 1949, Julia and Baby Lovett performed for President Harry Truman (who was from Missouri and who actually remembered Julia) at the White House Correspondents 28th Annual Dinner at the Hotel Statler in Washington, DC. Arthur Godfrey was MC and Danny Kaye also entertained. Supposedly she sang "King Size Papa".
"I Didn't Like It The First Time" was on Billboard's Most-Played Juke Box Race Records chart for two non-consecutive weeks (March 12 and April 9); its highest position was #4. It was also on the Best-Selling Retail Race Records for two weeks (March 19 and April 16), climbing to #9. It only spent a single week on the Most-Played Juke Box Records (a Pop chart) at #29 (April 16).
There were another three sessions for Capitol in April 1949, but these were all held in Kansas City and used KC musicians:
April 20, 1949 - Julia Lee (piano), Tommy Douglas (tenor sax), Jim "Daddy" Walker (guitar), Clint Weaver (bass), Baby Lovett (drums). If the name Clint Weaver sounds familiar, he'd been with George E. Lee in 1927 and was on the Meritt recordings.
"Tonight's The Night", "My Man Stands Out", "Do You Want It?", and "It Comes In Like A Lion".
April 21, 1949 - same musicians.
"Don't Come Too Soon", "Ugly Papa", "Don't Save It Too Long (The Money Song)", and "After Hours Waltz".
April 24, 1949 - same musicians, except Tommy Douglas isn't on the session.
"You Ain't Got It No More", "When Your Lover Has Gone", "Oh, Chuck It (In A Bucket)", "Decent Woman Blues", and "Draggin' My Heart Around" (Julia's on organ here).
In May, Capitol released the standard "The Glory Of Love", backed with "Take It Or Leave It" (one of those "stay or go; make up your mind" songs). They were reviewed in the May 28 Billboard:
The Glory Of Love (78): Miss Lee's distinctive rhythm styling gives new life to a virtually forgotten pop. As usual, she's supported by a topnotch jazz combo.
Take It Or Leave It (66): Novelty tune doesn't register, despite thrush's fine projection.
When that one went nowhere, Capitol issued "Tonight's The Night" and "After Hours Waltz" in June 1949. In "Tonight's The Night", her lover is back in town; it's a definitely raunchy number. "After Hours Waltz" is too choppy for me. It seems to be raunchy, but she could even be talking about dancing. She throws in "didn't like it the first time, but ooh how it grew on me".
That one, too, seemingly went nowhere, although "Tonight's The Night" would be on the Most-Played Juke Box Race Records chart for a single week (September 3, 1949) at #13. But that was in the future and August 1949 found Capitol releasing "Oh, Chuck It (In A Bucket)" and "You Ain't Got It No More" in August. The former starts out with what to do with your troubles, but turns raunchy. On the flip, she tells him that sex is out for him, because he's just too old: "your tank's completely empty".
Cash Box reviewed the record on September 3:
Julia Lee and her Boy Friends cut two sides here that are sure to double her number of fans 'round the country. The gal's just terrific. On the topside, "Oh, Chuck It (In A Bucket)", Julia gives out with a lively toe tappin' hunk of wax with the lyrics a lesson in themselves and sure to please. On the flip, "You Ain't Got It No More", Julia once again is gone in lively, lilting, happy style with lyrics that are sure to bring in plenty of silver in juke boxes. [Note: there were plenty of World War 2 nickels floating around then, having 35% silver content; nickels usually had no silver, but the regular copper content had been needed for the war.]
Billboard rated them on September 10:
Oh, Chuck It (In A Bucket) (77): The splendid tonsils of Miss Lee makes much of very little. Fine rhythm backing.
You Ain't Got It No More (83): Julia should clean up on the jukes with this rocking double entendre blues. Superb rhythm.
"You Ain't Got It No More was on the Best-Selling Retail Rhythm & Blues Records chart for a single week (November 12, 1949), at #9.
"Coming in person, Saturday, Sept. 17th for the opening of Arbor Manor's Refreshment Lounge" read the ad for this Lincoln, Nebraska venue. Their ad mistakenly said that she'd appeared at President Truman's Inaugural Ball (if she had, there was never mention of that in the papers - it was the White House Correspondents Annual Dinner). Actually, the January 22, 1949 Billboard had published a list of performers who'd been invited to the ball; Lena Horne and Lionel Hampton were on it, Julia wasn't.
After a week there, she headed out to San Francisco, where she opened at Ciro's on September 23, appearing with the 3 Kats And A Kitten ("They Jump In Rhythm").
The October 1, 1949 Oakland Tribune said: "Julia Lee at Ciro's - a big hunk of pure rhythm and a devastating personality that takes over the minute she strikes her boogie fist to the keyboard and lets loose with her lungful of satire and song." She was held over for another week, before returning to the Arbor Manor on October 28-29.
In October, Capitol issued "Draggin' My Heart Around" and "Blues For Someone". "Draggin' My Heart Around" has Julia playing the organ and lamenting how her man is out having fun. "Blues For Someone" is another of the great ones: "I want to love somebody, worse than anything I know". The sides were reviewed in the November 5, 1949 Cash Box:
The widely known and popular Julia Lee comes up with another pair of potential coin winners in this paring titled "Blue For Someone" [sic] and "Draggin' My Heart Around." The platter shows Julia in her usually great style, turning in a wonderful performance on both sides of this platter. Julia trills the lyrics of the songs in top notch vocal manner, and comes up with a hot pair of sides for music ops. Grab 'em.
Billboard rated them on November 12:
Draggin' My Heart Around (75): Organ and rhythm backing add mood to Miss Lee's heartfelt pleading of a bluesy torcher.
Blues For Someone (72): Nice feeling in a quite [sic; quiet?] blues job with conventional rhythm support.
That same Billboard edition gave really low ratings to Shorty Muggins' "Got A Great Big Shovel" (54) and "We're Gonna Roll" (53). Wonder if the scores would have been higher had they known that "Shorty Muggins" was Sammy Davis, Jr.
In January 1950, Capitol reissued "Gotta Gimme What'cha Got" and "I'll Get Along Somehow". This time, "What'cha" was spelled with an apostrophe.
Julia and her Boy Friends performed at the American Legion Hotel in Hutchinson, Kansas on January 21, 1950. The admission was $1.22 per couple (I'd love to know how they came up with that figure), the same as they'd charge to see Claude Thornhill's Orchestra in about a week.
In February 1950, Capitol issued "Ain't It A Crime?", coupled with "Don't Save It Too Long (The Money Song)". The "crime" was: there are millions of men, so why did I end up with you? (She once again throws in "gimme whatcha got"). "Don't Save It Too Long (The Money Song)" is about saving money. (Of course, if you believe that, I've got a bridge you might want to buy.)
These were reviewed in both Billboard and Cash Box on February 18:
Don't Save It Too Long (BB; 83): Another of those winning double-entendre novelties which have scored heavily for this fine thrush should draw coin.
Ain't It A Crime (BB; 76): Fine beat and swinging small band back Miss Lee as she knocks out a bluesy rhythm ditty which lacks a solid punch.
(CB; no ratings): Julia Lee and her Boyfriends [sic] come up with some new sides, with the refrain of "Ain't It A Crime" and "Don't Save It Too Long" in the offing for music ops. Both sides make for mellow listening pleasure and should be greeted by her many fans with wide fervor. Wax has that spark that makes for consistent juke box silver. Both tunes are styled in Julia's inimitable song manner, with the top-notch aggregation behind her making great music. Wax rates a spot in ops machines.
April 1950 saw Capitol issue "Do You Want It?", backed with "Decent Woman Blues". In "Do You Want It?", she calls "it" hash, stew, and fish, but she's talking about drugs. "Decent Woman Blues" is a ballad with a moral: don't try to be too nice "it just don't pay". Neither trade paper reviewed the record.
On May 29, 1950, she was a guest on the Al Morgan TV show on the ABC network at 8:30 PM. However, since it was on opposite Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts, I doubt many people saw her only known television appearance.
Also in May, Capitol tried again with two standards: "There Goes My Heart" and "Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out". They're nice, but, to my mind, they're not really her style. They were reviewed in the June 3 issues of both Billboard and Cash Box:
There Goes My Heart (BB; 74): A fine old Abner Silver-Benny [Davis] ballad is piped with Miss Lee's usual flawless taste and feeling, backed by star's small combo.
Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out (BB; 74): Miss Lee does a thrilling performance on one of Bessie Smith's greatest numbers. Thrush follows Bessie's treatment even to humming a few bars. A must for the savants, but any blues fan can appreciate this one.
(CB; no ratings): The wide popularity of Julia Lee, always a consistent coin culler for music ops, should result in some healthy coin take with this fresh pair. Both ends have the gal chirping in her usual fond style, with top notch instrumental background to round out the wax. Disk is the sort that will go.
July 1950 was a good time for Julia Lee fans. Capitol released a LP (Julia Lee's Party Time) containing eight of her tunes: "King Size Papa", "(Opportunity Knocks But Once) Snatch And Grab It", "You Ain't Got It No More", "Tell Me, Daddy", "Tonight's The Night", "I Didn't Like It The First Time (The Spinach Song)", "Ain't It A Crime?", and "Don't Save It Too Long (The Money Song)". There was also an album (same title), containing three 45 rpm records with six of the LP's songs, and an album (same title) containing two 45 rpm EPs with all the songs from the LP.
The final July entry was a new single: "My Man Stands Out" and "Don't Come Too Soon", two more raunchy releases (although in "Don't Come Too Soon" she pretends to mean it literally - don't show up at my door too early in the day). They were reviewed in the July 29 trades:
My Man Stands Out (BB; 74): In the spirit and beat of "Snatch And Grab It," thrush gets off a carefree double entendre blues.
Don't Come Too Soon (BB; 76): Another jolly blues side - lyric is certainly too blue for airing, and juke ops with finicky locations should listen carefully before installing this one.
(CB; no rating): Top etching [Don't Come Too Soon] boasts the versatile Julia Lee exploiting her singing and piano-playing talents on the boogie beat of a lyric packed with enough rugged lines to stir hot action. A turnover spinning shows a tune set in exactly the same idiom as the first with the double meaning again cropping up heavily in the wordage. Julia Lee's piano fingering shows well, as does her tonsiling, on both tunes. Ops should find these sides fit juke box requirements. [I wonder if these reviewers were fined if they wrote in plain English.]
Also in July, Julia made some more Kansas City recordings, which mark the last appearances of Baby Lovett.
July 21, 1950 - Julia Lee (piano), Gene Carter (tenor sax), Tommy Douglas (alto sax), Jim "Daddy" Walker (guitar), Clint Weaver (bass), Baby Lovett (drums).
"It Won't Be Long", "You're Gonna Miss It", "Can't Get Enough Of That Stuff", and "When A Man Has Two Women".
July 22, 1950 (same musicians).
"Scream In The Night", "I Know It's Wrong", "Music, Maestro Please", and "Pipe Dreams (Up On Cloud Nine)".
In August, Capitol issued "Pagan Love Song" (an enjoyable version of the 1929 standard), backed with "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles" (even older; it was from 1918), which was ok to be sung in a club, but definitely not a Julia Lee record. They were reviewed in the September 2 trades, with Billboard hating them and Cash Box loving them:
Pagan Love Song (BB; 53): Oldie done as rhythm item is a weak effort for the fine thrush-88'er.
I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles (BB; 52): Same story - Miss Lee and combo take oldie as rhythm tune, and fail to infuse any warmth.
(CB; no ratings): Top notcher Julia Lee sets her pipes on a pair of oldies, and comes up with some favorable wax for music ops to peek at. Both ends should be well known to ops since they have always scored well. This rendition, with Julia purring in her own inimitable style, should do more than earn its keep. Her wide bevy of fans will clamor for the sides.
On September 1, 1950, Julia opened at Hollywood's Tiffany Club; she'd be there until September 28. On October 6, she was back in Kansas City, opening at the Cuban Room and remaining until the end of the year. Note that, if you don't read Cuban Room ads closely, it would seem like she was there, constantly, until March 1956. She wasn't, although she'd have many long-term engagements at the club.
In October, Capitol put out "It Won't Be Long" (kind of a follow-up to her "Tonight's The Night"), coupled with "Bleeding Hearted Blues". They weren't reviewed.
1951 opened with Capitol announcing that Dave Dexter, who had been dividing his time between being an a&r man and the editor of their Capitol News publication, would now be a full-time a&r man. Also in January, Capitol released a new version of her marijuana song, "Lotus Blossom", which she'd originally done for Premier in 1945. It was backed with "Pipe Dreams (Up On Cloud Nine)", which I haven't heard but is, presumably, about opium.
They were reviewed in the February 3, 1951 Cash Box:
Julia Lee talks her way through a very interesting set of lyrics on the top deck ["Pipe Dreams"] and takes you along in her day dreams. Doing the recitation slowly and surely, Julia makes a good story of it. The second side is a slow tune with a beat on which Julia gets some good instrumental backing. Both ends make for good listening.
When those failed to take off, Capitol issued "Ugly Papa" and "I Know It's Wrong (The Diet Song)" in March. She wants an "Ugly Papa", she says, because an ugly man won't give her any grief. "I Know It's Wrong" is a fooler. It starts off "I know it's wrong, but I'm gonna do it" and makes you believe that it's one of her raunchy numbers. However, it ends up "I try to be good for goodness sake / I just must have that chocolate cake / it's wrong, but I'm gonna do it". To me, it's one of her best. Billboard, however, disagreed on March 24:
I Know It's Wrong (58): Subtitled "The Diet Song," Julia breaks the double entendre spell by telling it's wrong to have chocolate cake. The whole thing is on the unprovocative side.
Ugly Papa (73): Julia states her preference for an ugly papa so she can have him to herself. There are at least a few Kansas City blues fanciers who would pay to find out why.
Nothing happened with those, and, in June 1951, Capitol put out "Breeze (Blow My Baby Back To Me)" and "Mama Don't Allow It". In a nice ballad, she tells us that the breeze blew her husband away. (Talking to the breeze is another example of apostrophe.) "Mama Don't Allow It" was a real oldie, based on an ancient song called "Mama Don' 'low", whose origins are hidden in the mists of time (to coin a phrase). Billboard reviewed them on July 7:
Breeze (Blow My Baby Back To Me) (78): If artistic merit were the standard, this would be an overnight hit. Tune's a great pop-blues oldie and Miss Lee sells it with rare beauty, with her piano and fine combo setting the mood. Results are too delicate and fine for immediate commercial value.
Mama Don't Allow It (75): Oldie gives combo a chance for take-your-turn solos: Benny Carter's alto, Bobby Sherwood's horn, Red Norvo's woodpile [xylophone], Vic Dickenson's tram, thrush's 88. A brisk jazz entry.
Another Kansas City recording session:
July 14, 1951 - Julia Lee (piano), Clairborne Graves (tenor sax), Franz Bruce (alto sax), Elmer W. Price (trumpet), Cleophus Berry (bass), William Nolan (drums).
"When Jennie Does That Lowdown Dance", "If I Didn't Care", "Lazy River", and "All This Beef And Big Ripe Tomatoes" (which also has a few lines by an unidentified man).
However, not a single one of these songs was ever released by Capitol.
What was released, in October 1951, was "If You Hadn't Gone Away" (she blames her lost love for her current condition: "I wouldn't be where I am, doing what I am, feeling like I am, if you hadn't gone away"). It was coupled with "Scream In The Night" (in which she screams because she's been dreaming that her man was out having fun). They were reviewed in the October 20 Billboard:
If You Hadn't Gone Away (75): A great, but little-known ballad oldie gets Miss Lee's usual tasty, torchy go, with her own bluesy piano standing out in the background.
Scream In The Night (50): Wretched novelty material hinges on Miss Lee's screaming at regular intervals. She displays little relish for the chore.
If the March 20, 1947 announcement that I mentioned above (Julia would be given her choice of songs) was correct, then she, herself, picked out "Scream In The Night" to record.
Julia was back at Kansas City's Cuban Room (on Linwood, just West of Main) in December 1951. She was advertised from December 6 through January 10, 1952. (Since Cuban Room ads were sporadic and didn't bother to say "coming tomorrow", or "last night", or something like that, the dates I give are for the first and last ads I can find in a particular time period. All I know for sure is that, in between those dates, others were advertised as appearing there. For the most part, I don't know where, if anywhere, she appeared when she wasn't at the Cuban Room.)
Capitol closed out 1951 with a nicely done version of "Out In The Cold Again". It was backed with a reissue of her "Charmaine" instrumental. They were reviewed in the December 22 Cash Box and the December 29 Billboard:
Out In The Cold Again (BB; 72): Julia sings another current revival with an effective melancholy touch. Dave Cavanaugh adds some wonderful mood touches in some breathy tenor sax moments.
Charmaine (BB; 65): Miss Lee displays her quite capable keyboard manner in showing the way thru a tasty instrumental reading of the currently revived standard. Limited value, mainly for the hipsters.
(CB; not rated): A tune that's still hangin' around is sent through its paces in a slow and feelingful manner by Julia Lee and Her Boy Friends. Dave Cavanaugh and his sax are featured on this top end. The lower lid is a fast moving instrumental that shows the fine drumming of Baby Lovett to good advantage. Both numbers have drawing power.
An ad in the March 3, 1952 Shreveport Journal said that Julia would be at the Stork Supper Club for "six days only", but didn't bother to say when those six days would be.
Then it was back to the Cuban Room, where she was advertised from April 25 to May 17, and again from June 5 through June 14. Between those stints, she ("Spinach Girl") was at the Cat & Fiddle in Cincinnati (in an ad from May 27).
In early July, she did some more recording in Kansas City:
July 2, 1952 - Julia Lee (piano), Bob Dougherty (tenor sax), Jimmy Scott (guitar), Clint Weaver (bass), Robert Jordan (drums).
"Can't Get It Off My Mind", "I Got News For You", "Goin' To Chicago Blues", "Last Call (For Alcohol)", "Kansas City Boogie" (aka "Kaycee Boogie"; an instrumental), and "Love In Bloom" (Jack Benny's theme song; another instrumental).
Julia was at the Cuban Room again from July 8 to August 22. This is the time when advertisements started mentioning that she was joined by Clint & Scotty - Clint Weaver (bass) and Jimmy Scott (guitar), from her recent session. She was replaced, for a week by the 5 Scamps, but was back again on August 30 through December 10.
The end of an era. In August 1952, Capitol released its last original Julia Lee record: "Last Call (For Alcohol)", which is, to me, nothing special, but with nice sax work. It was backed with "Goin' To Chicago Blues" (written by Count Basie & Jimmy Rushing).
Julia's "Last Call" (a fitting title for her last Capitol release) was reviewed in the September 6 Cash Box and the September 20 Billboard:
Last Call (CB; "C+"): Julia Lee runs through a cute bouncer with Her Boy Friends in the backdrop to make some zestful listening out of a rhythm and blues type tune. Lyrics are interesting.
Goin' To Chicago Blues (CB; "C"): Here the thrush changes the pace and slowly oozes out a slow blues number. This blues tune gets rhythmic support from the ork and the boys.
Last Call (BB; 78): A natural hunk of tavern wax, this side should do nicely on the coin boxes. It's a rhythmic call for last drinks before the joint closes and it's delivered powerfully by Miss Lee. Pop business is also in store.
Goin' To Chicago Blues (BB; 75): Julia Lee turns in a persuasive reading of the mournful blues. A tasteful job due for spins.
On February 13, 1953, Julia appeared at Jubilee Village in Jefferson City, Missouri. On the bill with her were the 4 Tons Of Rhythm, a group that had varying personnel over the years, but always seemed to have bassist Clint Weaver. I'll assume that guitarist Jimmy Scott was there too.
With all the music in Kansas City, it should come as no surprise that it also had recording studios. One of those was owned by Vic Damon. I've seen his log book and he'd record anything. As well as commonplace secular and religious singers, there were Nutrena Dog Food radio advertisements, hillbilly songs, Skinner's Raisin Bran commercials, Rockwell's Roach Rid, Rutherford Hi-Power Chili, instrumentals for Muzak, barbershop quartets, and Navy jet plane sound effects. Most amazing of all, he recorded Ralph Nafziger, 1950-51 Missouri State duck and goose calling champion, teaching you how to make duck and goose calls. (In a later recording, he also threw in crow calls.)
The point of all this is that there were two Julia Lee sessions at Damon's, resulting in three records released in Kansas City. (I imagine that she sold them at performances.) Since the log uses record numbers and not master numbers, we know that they were actually pressed up (and notes say that all three were made as both 78s and 45s). All six songs were written by Jeta Hall & Margaret Reddy, of Baxter Springs, Kansas
March 1953 (no specific date given) - Julia Lee & Her Scat Cats (there's no mention of personnel in the log book).
"Keep 'Em Barefoot And Busy" and "Baby I'm Through".
Spring 1953 (not dated any finer than that) - Julia Lee & Her Scat Cats.
"Scat You Cats" (the log book says "This one tune now owned by Katz Drug Co."), "I Can't See How", "Wigwam Winnie", and "Your Hands Are Cold As Ice".
As I said, they were all assigned record numbers and were all released on the Damon label in, I presume, the spring of 1953:
Damon 12143 Keep 'Em Barefoot And Busy / Baby I'm Through
Damon 12151 Scat You Cats / I Can't See How
Damon 12152 Wigwam Winnie / Your Hands Are Cold As Ice
On May 31, 1953, Julia was at the Bellevue Country Club, in Atchison, Kansas. (Music for dancing will be furnished by Mr. Music and his Men Of Note.)
On June 27, the Uptown Theater (in KC) presented "The cream of Kansas City's Entertainment Stars" in a Boogie-Woogie and Jive Jamboree. One of the acts was Julia Lee, with Clint & Scotty; another was Joshua Johnson and Baby Lovett. Don't miss this Giant Jive-Jammed Jubilee Of Joy!
Julia (along with Clint and Scotty) was advertised at the Cuban Room from June 11, 1953 through July 22, and again from August 17 straight through to February 13, 1954. After a break, they were back from April 4 through June 20.
From August 31 to September 4, 1954, Julia was at the Elbo Room in Ellinwood, Kansas. The blurb in the September 2 Great Bend Tribune mentioned "and Her Boyfriends" (presumably Clint & Scotty).
Then, it was back to the Cuban Room, where she was advertised from September 16, to December 17.
The Salina [Kansas] Journal of November 28, 1954 had this strange sentence: "Julia Lee, who still holds forth in Kansas City, can't even remember the words to a couple of the slightly-bawdy recordings which made her famous."
Julia was advertised at the Cuban Room again from February 7 through February 10, 1955, the shortest engagement she had there.
Sometime in 1955, Capitol reached into their vaults and re-issued Julia's 1950 Party Time album. However, whereas it once had eight tracks, it had now been augmented with four more: "Last Call (For Alcohol)", "I Was Wrong", "After Hours Waltz", and "My Man Stands Out". There was also an EP, More Party Time, containing those four songs.
Julia (and let's not forget Clint & Scotty) was advertised at the Cuban Room again from July 15 through December 31, 1955. They were back from February 17 through March 9, 1956. This proved to be the last gasp of both "Clint & Scotty" and appearances at the Cuban Room.
By April 4, 1956 (through the end of June), she was at the Stardust Lounge (in KC). By the end of April, Clint Weaver and his Tons Of Rhythm were appearing at the Pla-Mor. Note that Clint Weaver, normally a bassist, could also play the Sousaphone (the kind of tuba that wraps around your body so you can march with it).
The August 11, 1956 Kansas City Times announced that Blevins Davis and John Sandusky had formed Foremost Records in Kansas City. Julia (as well as Monty Matthews' Foggy River Boys of Springfield) had been signed to the label.
Foremost ads through the end of the year kept announcing that Julia was coming. ("She's shoutin' those blues again. Her newest comin' soon.") There was a single session:
Probably late 1956; unknown musicians and date.
"King Size Papa", "Bop And Rock Lullaby", "Trouble In Mind", and "Saturday Night".
On December 3 through December 16, 1956, the Julia Lee Trio was at The Players in St. Joseph, Missouri. This was the only ad for the Julia Lee Trio, and it had no names. However, there's a photo (which I've not seen) of the Julia Lee Trio that identifies the others as Clint Weaver (bass) and James "Daddy" Walker (guitar). (It's in the LaBudde Special Collections, at the University of Missouri, Kansas City Library.) I'll assume those were the members.
On New Year's Eve 1956, Julia entertained at the annual banquet and ball of the Heart Of America Showmen's Club, held at the Hotel Continental in Kansas City.
After teasing us for around six months, Foremost finally released all of Julia's sides in March 1957: "Bop And Rock Lullaby" was backed with her remake of "King Size Papa"; "Trouble In Mind" was coupled with "Saturday Night". (And, after teasing us for around six months, there wasn't a single Foremost ad for the finished product.)
The first record was reviewed in the March 16 Cash Box, both sides receiving a "C+"; the second record was never reviewed:
Bop And Rock Lullaby: A slow blues introduction leads into a swinging rocker featuring Julia Lee with a spirited reading. Jumpin' dance item.
King Size Papa: Another swinging opus that'll go well in the rhythm and blues field as well as the pop dept.
Off to the movies. Julia Lee played the "singer" in the Robert Altman movie "The Delinquents", which starred many people I never heard of. It was filmed in Kansas City by Imperial Productions and released in March 1957. Backed by the Bill Nolan Quintet Minus Two (actually the Bill Nolan Trio), she sings "A Porter's Love Song to a Chambermaid" in the opening barroom sequence and "The Dirty Rock Boogie" later in the film. Nolan had been the drummer on her July 14, 1951 session ("All This Beef And Big Ripe Tomatoes").
In August 1957 Julia began a long-term engagement at the Hi-Ball Lounge in Kansas City, although it was called the "Hi-Lounge" in an October 31, 1957 advertisement for her birthday. She was still being advertised there at the end of August 1958. There weren't that many ads for the place, but I believe she was performing there pretty regularly.
In September 1958, Capitol released an album called K.C. In The 30s. On it, Julia was represented by four songs: "Draggin' My Heart Around", "When You're Smiling", "My Sin", and "I Was Wrong".
On October 2, 1958, brother George E. Lee died in Los Angeles. His passing doesn't seem to have been noted anywhere.
On November 23, Julia appeared at the Rialto Theater in St. Joseph, Missouri along with the Hilltoppers.
The December 9, 1958 Springfield News-Leader had this:
Julia Lee, about 55, famed Negro blues singer of Kansas City's heyday as a wide open town, was found dead at her home today. [It was actually December 8.]
The husky voiced singer was found, lying on a divan, by her long-time maid, Gladys Dillum, when she arrived for work at mid-morning.
The Jackson County coroner's office ordered a post mortem, but said there was nothing to indicate death was from other than natural causes.
Julia had serious health problems. The official death certificate listed these causes:
Chronic cardiac hypertrophy
Acute dilatation of heart
Massive incarcerated umbilical hernia (contributory)
Chronic glomerular nephritis (contributory)
I'll leave it to you medical students to unravel all that, but let's just agree that she was quite unhealthy.
Unlike what I usually find, there were many mentions of her passing and many tributes. Here are some quotes:
Kansas City Times (December 9): "She had worked Saturday night as usual at the Hi-Ball bar, 12 West Twelfth street, but had not worked one night earlier last week after she complained of feeling exhausted."
Kansas City Times (December 10): "Julia will be missed at the annual party that the Friends of Jack Copelman will give for the patients at the Leeds sanitarium the Sunday before Christmas. Julia was always an enthusiastic entertainer at these affairs. If she was out of town at party time, she would send the sick persons a telegram of regret and wish them a merry Christmas. That was Julia Lee."
St. Louis Post-Dispatch (December 14): "Julia Lee was one of the last of a type of jazz singers.... Young jazz singers today are more sophisticated, more arty and often more commercial than Julia Lee. But Julia never changed. She was a natural.... She was a leading member of the so-called Kansas City school of jazz. But when others left town during the decline of jazz interest in the 1930s, Julia Lee stayed on and became a celebrity.... Even though she worked up to the last, Julia had become almost a legend in her lifetime."
St. Joseph News-Press (December 14): "More than 400 persons attended services here [Kansas City] yesterday for Julia Lee.... Recording artists Larry Cummins, Jay McShann, Jimmy Witherspoon, Baby Lovett and Charlotte Mansfield were among those who attended services at the Paseo Baptist Church here."
In October 1962, Capitol reissued "Snatch And Grab It" and "Last Call (For Alcohol)". January 1964 saw an LP, Julia Lee And Her Boy Friends, with a dozen of her sides.
Finally, there was a writer named Carey Tate who'd written a big article about Julia that appeared in the January-February 1960 edition of The Second Line, the publication of the New Orleans Jazz Club. Sometime in 1964, on his own Carey Tate label, he re-issued Julia's second 1945 Premier record "Dream Lucky Blues" and "Lotus Blossom". For whatever reason, he re-named them "Dream Lucky" and "Knock Me Clear Out" (a phrase from "Lotus Blossom"). The label on the latter song says that it features Benny Carter and Tommy Douglas, but Benny Carter isn't on it at all; it's Tommy Douglas doing the sax work. (These songs had been recorded in Kansas City; Benny Carter was a Los Angeles musician who wouldn't record with her until 1947.)
I'll close with a couple of remembrances from Dave Dexter, who produced all of Julia's Capitol sessions. This was printed in the September 9, 1967 Billboard:
Julia was a warm and good-natured woman who played two-fisted piano and bellowed the blues along with inoffensive double-entendre novelty songs. Recording Julia was like taking a vacation. She sold hundreds of thousands of shellacs using men like Benny Carter, Red Norvo, Red Callender, Red Nichols, Baby Lovett, and Dave Cavanaugh as sidemen.
Dexter also wrote a book (The Jazz Story), in which he said: "As Julia's producer for seven years, it was a labor of love for me to select songs, assemble musicians and try to capture her good-natured piano and vocal talents on record."
Today, in the Blue Room Jazz Club at the American Jazz Museum in Kansas City, there's a clear-topped table containing George and Julia Lee memorabilia.
As far as female singers go, Julia Lee was the Kansas City sound. She had her hits, but most of all, she had her loyal followers who allowed her to have engagements that lasted for years. What more can you say?
Special thanks to Chris Smith and Victor Pearlin.
UNRELEASED OKEH (George E. Lee Singing Novelty Orchestra; recorded June 1923)
Just Wait Until I'm Gone (vocal by Julia Lee)
Waco Blues (vocal by Julia Lee)
MERITT (George E. Lee & His Novelty Singing Orchestra; a Kansas City label)
2206 Down Home Syncopated Blues / The Meritt Stomp (I) - spring 27
4684 St. James Infirmary (George E. Lee, vocal) / Ruff Scufflin' (I) - 1/30
7132 If I Could Be With You (voc by George E. Lee) / Paseo Street (I) - 1/30
(the above two records are by George E. Lee & His Orchestra)
4761 He's Tall, Dark And Handsome / Won't You Come Over To My House - ca. 4/30
(the above are by George E. Lee's Novelty Singing Orchestra; vocals by Julia Lee)
CAPITOL (Jay McShann's Kansas City Stompers featuring Julia Lee)
10030 Come On Over To My House / Trouble In Mind - 9/45
PREMIER (Julia Lee & Tommy Douglas' Orchestra)
29012 If It's Good / Show Me Missouri Blues - Premier - 11/45
29013 Lotus Blossom / Dream Lucky Blues - 11/45
MERCURY (Premier masters)
8005 If It's Good / Show Me Missouri Blues - 3/46
8013 Lotus Blossom / Dream Lucky Blues - 6/46 (re-released in January 1948)
REHEARSAL SESSION - 1946; all unreleased
I've Got A Crush On The Fuller Brush Man
Shake It And Break It
Shake That Thing
Some Of These Days
St. Louis Blues
Two Loves Have I
Wee Baby Blues
CAPITOL (all say Julia Lee & Her Boy Friends)
308 Gotta Gimme What'cha Got / Lies - 9/46
320 When A Woman Loves A Man / Julia's Blues - 10/46
340 On My Way Out / Oh, Marie! - 12/46
379 Young Girl's Blues / I'll Get Along Somehow - 2/47
40008 A Porter's Love Song / Since I've Been With You - 6/47 (note 1)
40028 Snatch And Grab It / I Was Wrong - 8/47 (note 2)
40056 Doubtful Blues / My Sin - 10/47 (note 1)
40082 King Size Papa / When You're Smiling - 1/48 (note 1)
15060 That's What I Like / Crazy World - 2/48
15106 Wise Guys (You're A Wise Guy) / All I Ever Do Is Worry - 5/48
15144 Tell Me, Daddy / (It Will Have To Do) Until The Real Thing Comes Along - 6/48
15203 Charmaine (I) / Christmas Spirits - 10/48
15300 Cold-Hearted Daddy / Living Back Street For You - 11/48
15367 I Didn't Like It The First Time (The Spinach Song) / Sit Down And Drink It Over - 1/49
70006 Take It Or Leave It / The Glory Of Love - 5/49
70013 Tonight's The Night / After Hours Waltz - 6/49
70031 You Ain't Got It No More / Oh, Chuck It (In A Bucket) - 8/49
70051 Draggin' My Heart Around / Blues For Someone - 10/49
830 I'll Get Along Somehow / Gotta Gimme What'cha Got - 1/50 (reissues)
838 Ain't It A Crime? / Don't Save It Too Long (The Money Song) - 2/50
956 Do You Want It? / Decent Woman Blues - 4/50
1009 There Goes My Heart / Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out - 5/50
H-228 Julia Lee's Party Time - 7/50
King Size Papa
(Opportunity Knocks But Once) Snatch And Grab It
You Ain't Got It No More
Tell Me, Daddy
Tonight's The Night
I Didn't Like It The First Time (The Spinach Song)
Ain't It A Crime?
Don't Save It Too Long (The Money Song)
CCF-228 Julia Lee's Party Time - 7/50 (an album with three 45 rpm singles)
F15588 Don't Save It Too Long / King Size Papa
F15589 Ain't It A Crime? / (Opportunity Knocks But Once) Snatch And Grab It
F15590 You Ain't Got It No More / I Didn't Like It The First Time
EBF-228 Julia Lee's Party Time - 7/50 (an album with two 45 rpm EPs)
Side 1: King Size Papa / (Opportunity Knocks But Once) Snatch And Grab It
Side 2: You Ain't Got It No More / Tell Me Daddy
Side 3: Tonight's The Night / I Didn't Like It The First Time
Side 4: Ain't It A Crime / Don't Save It Too Long
1111 My Man Stands Out / Don't Come Too Soon - 7/50
1149 Pagan Love Song / I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles - 8/50
1252 It Won't Be Long / Bleeding Hearted Blues - 10/50
1376 Lotus Blossom / Pipe Dreams (Up On Cloud Nine) - 1/51
1432 Ugly Papa / I Know It's Wrong (The Diet Song) - 3/51
1589 Breeze (Blow My Baby Back To Me) / Mama Don't Allow It - 6/51
1798 If You Hadn't Gone Away / Scream In The Night - 10/51
1896 Charmaine / Out In The Cold Again - 12/51
2203 Goin' To Chicago Blues / Last Call (For Alcohol) - 8/52
UNRELEASED CAPITOL (recording date in parentheses)
Have You Ever Been Lonely 8/26/46)
Curse Of An Aching Heart 6/13/47)
Knock Me A Kiss (vocal by Julia Lee and Joe Alexander; rec 6/16/47)
Away From You 11/14/47)
It Comes In Like A Lion 4/20/49)
When Your Lover Has Gone 4/24/49)
You're Gonna Miss It 7/21/50)
Can't Get Enough Of That Stuff 7/21/50)
When A Man Has Two Women 7/21/50)
Music, Maestro Please 7/22/50)
When Jennie Does That Lowdown Dance 7/14/51)
If I Didn't Care 7/14/51)
Lazy River 7/14/51)
All This Beef And Big Ripe Tomatoes 7/14/51)
Can't Get It Off My Mind 7/2/52)
I Got News For You 7/2/52)
Kansas City Boogie (I) 7/2/52)
Love In Bloom (I) 7/2/52)
DAMON (Julia Lee & Her Scat Cats; a Kansas City label)
12143 Keep 'Em Barefoot And Busy / Baby I'm Through - spring 53
12151 Scat You Cats / I Can't See How - spring 53
12152 Wigwam Winnie / Your Hands Are Cold As Ice - spring 53
T-228 Party Time - 55 (reissue with 4 additional tracks: **)
King Size Papa
(Opportunity Knocks But Once) Snatch And Grab It
You Ain't Got It No More
Tell Me, Daddy
Last Call (For Alcohol) **
I Was Wrong **
Tonight's The Night
I Didn't Like It The First Time (The Spinach Song)
Ain't It A Crime?
Don't Save It Too Long (The Money Song)
After Hours Waltz **
My Man Stands Out **
EAP-4 228 More Party Time - 55 (the four new cuts from the LP)
Last Call (For Alcohol)
After Hours Waltz
My Man Stands Out
I Was Wrong
FOREMOST (Julia Lee; a Kansas City label)
45-104 King Size Papa / Bop And Rock Lullaby - 3/57
45-105 Trouble In Mind / Saturday Night - 3/57
T-1057 K.C. In The 30s - 9/58 (various artists; Julia Lee is represented by four songs)
Draggin' My Heart Around
When You're Smiling
I Was Wrong
6033 Snatch And Grab It / Last Call (For Alcohol) - 10/62 (reissues)
T-2038 Julia Lee And Her Boy Friends - 1/64
King Size Papa
Draggin' My Heart Around
My Man Stands Out
Gotta Gimme What'cha Got
After Hours Waltz
(Opportunity Knocks But Once) Snatch And Grab It
There Goes My Heart
Tonight's The Night
I Was Wrong
You Ain't Got It No More
Last Call (For Alcohol)
CAREY TATE (Julia Lee & Her Kansas City Boyfriends; a New Orleans label)
T-001 Dream Lucky / Knock Me Clear Out! - 64
These are reissues of her second 1945 Premier record, with changed titles
Note 1: This was on the Capitol Americana series
Note 2: Some labels say Capitol Americana; some don't