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Julia Lee pioneered blues 'too risque' for the radio

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Seventy-five years ago today, a Kansas City jazz singer recorded her first big hit - Julia Lee. She was never a household name, but she was one of a handful of women who pioneered a specific type of blues. Mackenzie Martin from member station KCUR has the story.

MACKENZIE MARTIN, BYLINE: Growing up, Julian Duncan knew his grandmother Julia Lee had been a famous jazz and blues singer in Kansas City, Mo. But he didn't know the specifics. She passed away right before he was born, and he had never heard any of her music. Then when he was 40, he came across a collection of her albums in family storage and finally listened.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SNATCH AND GRAB IT")

JULIA LEE: (Singing) Grab it in the night. Grab it in the day. Grab it right now. It'll get away. You better snatch and grab it.

MARTIN: This was his first reaction.

JULIAN DUNCAN: Excellent, excellent singer.

MARTIN: But it was quickly followed by this one.

DUNCAN: Her music was a little dirty, and that kind of surprised me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SNATCH AND GRAB IT")

LEE: (Singing) Grab it in the east. Grab it in the west. Grab it in the place where you hold it best. You better snatch and grab it.

MARTIN: "Snatch And Grab It," recorded by Julia Lee & Her Boy Friends, was deemed too risque to be played on the radio in 1947, but it still rocketed to No. 1 on the U.S. Billboard R&B chart where it sat for 12 weeks.

CHUCK HADDIX: Her song "Snatch And Grab It" sold over half a million copies without any airplay because people fed quarters in the jukebox and played it.

MARTIN: That's Kansas City jazz historian Chuck Haddix. He says, starting in the 1920s, when many jazz clubs served exclusively white audiences, Julia Lee, who is Black, was one of a number of women known for recording this style of blues - a list that includes iconic singer Bessie Smith.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T COME TOO SOON")

LEE: (Singing) Come and see me, baby. Please don't come too soon. Come and see me, baby. But please don't come too soon.

HADDIX: And it's not what we think of today, like leave nothing to the imagination. It was double entendre.

MARTIN: Lee also sang soulful ballads and was a very versatile pianist. But those songs didn't sell as well as, say, "King Size Papa," which Lee once sang at the White House for President Harry Truman.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KING SIZE PAPA")

LEE: (Singing) I got a man that's more than 8 foot tall, 4-foot shoulders, and that ain't all. King size papa...

HADDIX: She was one of a number of women who were asserting themselves musically and socially when that was not socially acceptable.

MARTIN: While many of the jazz musicians Julia Lee came up with were touring and moving to the coasts, she remained a mainstay in local Kansas City jazz clubs partly because she hated traveling, but also because she liked it here.

HADDIX: She was Kansas City's most popular entertainer through the 1920s up until her passing in 1958.

DAVE DEXTER JR: And she sang so - with such heart.

MARTIN: This is the voice of Dave Dexter Jr., who produced Lee's records for the Capitol label in Los Angeles after growing up hearing her perform in Kansas City clubs. He told Chuck Haddix in 1989 that he was convinced if he had been able to get Lee on records sooner, she would have been one of the most popular singers in America, which is saying something since he worked with both Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra.

DEXTER: But it was quite an honor to be called on a Julia Lee record date because they were such fun.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOTTA GIMME WHATCHA GOT")

LEE: (Singing) Listen, babe, what you done to me? You're the only one that I want to see. You got to give me what you got. You got to give me what you got. Got to give me what you got. Oh, yes. Oh, yes.

MARTIN: Today, over two decades after first discovering his grandmother's music, the initial shock has worn off for Julian Duncan. 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.

DUNCAN: I'm like, that's my grandma. That's who I was named after, right there.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHOW ME MISSOURI BLUES")

LEE: (Singing) I'll admit New York's great. LA is real bait. There's only one place that's got me going gay. I got those blues. Show me. Show me, show me, show me Missouri blues.

MARTIN: In a place like Kansas City, it's no wonder Julia Lee's legacy has been overshadowed. I mean, she sang about how iconic the jazz was here, but she was a trailblazer for Black female musicians and made a name for herself on her own terms. For NPR News, I'm Mackenzie Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHOW ME MISSOURI BLUES")

LEE: (Singing) 'Cause I've been to Kansas City. That's the blues I got to lose.

SIMON: And that story came to us from the KCUR podcast "A People's History Of Kansas City." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mackenzie Martin
Mackenzie Martin came to KCUR after three years as a reporter and Morning Edition Host at WXPR Public Radio in Rhinelander, Wisconsin.