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Julia Lee, Kansas City’s beloved blues queen, was ‘too risqué’ for 1940s radio

David White, KCUR 89.3
Images courtesy of LaBudde Special Collections, UMKC Libraries

For three decades, Julia Lee reigned over Kansas City jazz clubs singing raunchy songs “her mother taught her not to sing.” But beyond the lyrical wordplay of hits like "Snatch and Grab It," Lee was a trailblazer for Black female musicians, and forged a career on her own terms.

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Growing up, Julian Duncan knew his grandmother, Julia Lee, had been a famous jazz and blues singer in Kansas City, Missouri. But he didn’t know the specifics. She passed away right before he was born, and his parents didn't play her music in their home.

Then, when he was 40, Duncan came across a collection of Julia Lee albums in family storage, and finally listened.

His first reaction? She was an “excellent, excellent” singer. But another fact also quickly became clear.

“Her music… was a little dirty!” Duncan says. “It really shocked me. Because my father never told me her music was like that!”

Julia Lee’s first big hit, “Snatch and Grab It,”was recorded 75 years ago this week. Back in 1947, it was deemed “too risqué” to be played on the radio — but thanks to jukebox play, it sold more than 500,000 copies and was the number one US Billboard R&B hit for 12 weeks.

More recently, it's been featured on an NFL commercial, the movie “Cadillac Man” starring Robin Williams, and an episode of A Prairie Home Companion.

Capitol Records

And that was only Lee's first bawdy hit.

“It’s not what we think of today. Like, leave nothing to the imagination. It was double entendre," says Chuck Haddix, co-author of “Kansas City Jazz: From Ragtime to Bebop.”

In 1941, Lee was banned from playing at a popular Kansas City club by liquor control agents due to "the type of song she sang and the way she sang it" — but her fans protested and eventually the ban was lifted.

At the height of her career in 1949, Lee performed her iconic "King Size Papa" for President Harry Truman at the White House.

"Everybody knew Julia Lee!" says Haddix. "She was Kansas City's most popular entertainer through the 1920s up until her passing in 1958."

There is a lot more to her story than just lyrical wordplay, though.

"Julia Lee certainly deserves more than a spotlight. She needs more recognition. I mean, she was one of a number of women who were asserting themselves musically and socially when that was not socially acceptable," says Haddix.

A musical prodigy

Born in 1902 to a musical family, Lee studied music at Lincoln High School in Kansas City before going on to study advanced piano techniques at Western University in Quindaro, Kansas.

Dave E. Dexter, Jr. Collection, LaBudde Special Collections
UMKC University Libraries
In the 1920s, the George E. Lee Band was locked in a "friendly rivalry" with the Bennie Moten Band — but Julia Lee's vocals and general showmanship helped her older brother's band eventually come out on top.

By age 18, she was already professionally playing piano and singing with her brother’s band, the George E. Lee Novelty Singing Orchestra — at a time during Kansas City's jazz heyday when it was extremely uncommon for women to perform as instrumentalists.

It was also the Jim Crow era. But jazz clubs were one of the rare places where races came together.

"There were Black and Tan clubs where during the time of segregation, African Americans and white people could mix freely," says Haddix.

Lee also played at many clubs that catered to an exclusively white audience. Julian Duncan remembers hearing stories of Lee's performances from his grandfather, Frank Duncan, catcher and manager of the Kansas City Monarchs baseball team.

"Only the entertainers could be Black, not the audience," Duncan recalls. "And my grandfather wanted to see her play. And the only way he could do it was he had to get an empty instrument case and sit up there with the band, like he was a band member."

Dave E. Dexter, Jr. Collection, LaBudde Special Collections
UMKC University Libraries

Lee was known for her husky contralto voice, says Haddix, as well as her unique phrasing and playful delivery. She sang ballads and was a versatile pianist, regularly incorporating both blues and jazz into her performances.

"Julia was just a force of nature," says Haddix. "She was a liberated young woman playing in jazz clubs when a lot of women were not allowed in these clubs."

She was so well versed musically that she could play any audience request — and for shots of bourbon, she'd make the lyrics of already suggestive tunes even more suggestive.

She also had a soulful stage presence that her audience looked to for comfort and support in between songs.

“People would go to her and tell her their woes. And she would make them feel better,” Haddix says.

A career on her own terms

While the Kansas City musicians Lee came up with — like Bennie Moten and Count Basie — were touring the country, she remained a mainstay in Kansas City jazz clubs.

That’s partly because she famously hated traveling. Lee was traumatized after being involved in a car crash that killed a fellow band member. She was also wary of the racism that touring African Americans experienced on the road in those days.

“She kind of found herself in a lot of ways at home in Kansas City,” says Haddix. "And so she was very reluctant to travel and that really held her career back."

Staying in Kansas City didn't stop her from catching her big break in 1946. That's when she was officially signed to Capitol Records by journalist and producer Dave Dexter Jr., a Kansas City native who grew up watching Lee perform.

"I basically went in there to record Julia Lee. That was my basic reason for going to Kansas City and making records," Dexter told Chuck Haddix in 1989.

Dexter first recorded Lee in 1944 as part of a jazz compilation album with Jay McShann. When the four-volume album came out, DJs started playing Lee's song more than any other.

"Her pianistics were enviable and she sang with such heart," said Dexter.

Dave E. Dexter, Jr. Collection, LaBudde Special Collections
UMKC University Libraries
"It was quite an honor to be called on a Julia Lee record date because they were such fun," said Dave Dexter Jr. in 1989, who produced Julia Lee's songs for the Capitol label in Los Angeles.

Dexter is credited with producing Lee's songs in a way that capitalized on her pop sensibilities and bringing her to a national audience — but decades after her death, one thing still bothered him.

"I've long, long had this terrible regret that I couldn't get to Julia and put her on record until about 1944," he told Haddix. "If she had been making records back when [Billie] Holiday and Mildred Bailey were making records in the '30s... I'll always be convinced that she would've been one of the four or five most popular singers."

That means something coming from Dexter, who worked with both Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra.

But there’s nothing that suggests Julia Lee ever wanted to be more famous than she was. If anything, the evidence suggests she was happy. She once told journalist Carey James Tate that “there’s no percentage in the big money… if you’re not happy.”

“She genuinely loved people," says Haddix. "And working in the clubs on 12th Street gave her the intimacy with her audience that she thrived on."

Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Starting in the 1920s, Julia Lee recorded for a handful of different record labels — but she didn't break through to national audiences until 1944, when she was part of a jazz compilation album for Capitol Records produced by Dave Dexter Jr.

Today, more than two decades after first discovering his grandmother’s music, the initial shock has worn off for Julian Duncan. He considers it a duty and an honor to be the protector of her legacy.

He keeps Julia Lee’s albums propped up on her piano at his house in Detroit. And when people come over, he tells them about her.

"I'm like, 'That's my grandmother! That’s who I was named after! Right there!'"

In an iconic jazz destination like Kansas City, it’s perhaps not surprising Julia Lee’s legacy has been overshadowed.

But her story serves as a reminder that while it’s important to remember the critically acclaimed people who took Kansas City jazz into the world, it’s also worth it to remember the extraordinary people who never left.

This episode of A People's History of Kansas City was reported, produced and mixed by Mackenzie Martin with editing by Barb Shelly and Suzanne Hogan.

Whether it’s something happening right now or something that happened 100 years ago, some stories don’t fit in the short few minutes of a newscast. As a podcast producer at KCUR, I help investigate questions and local curiosities in a way that brings listeners along for adventures with plot twists and thought-provoking ideas. Sometimes there isn’t an easy answer in the end – but my hope is that we all leave with a greater understanding of the city we live in. Reach me at mackenzie@kcur.org.
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