Julia Lee Pioneered Blues ‘Too Dared’ For Radio: NPR

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Kansas City jazz singer Julia Lee was never nationally known, but she pushed the boundaries: 75 years ago she recorded her first big hit, ‘Snatch and Grab It’ .



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 of 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 died just before she was born and he had never heard any of her music. Then, when he was 40, he came across a collection of his albums in family storage and finally listened.

(SOUNDTRACK FROM THE SONG, “SNATCH AND GRAB IT”)

JULIA LEE: (Singing) Take it in the night. Take it during the day. Take it now. It will go away. You better snatch it up and grab it.

MARTIN: That was his first reaction.

JULIAN DUNCAN: Excellent, excellent singer.

MARTIN: But it was quickly followed by this one.

DUNCAN: His music was a little dirty, and that surprised me a little.

(SOUNDTRACK FROM THE SONG, “SNATCH AND GRAB IT”)

LEE: (Singing) Catch him in the east. Take it west. Pick it up where you hold it best. You better snatch it up and grab it.

MARTIN: ‘Snatch And Grab It’, recorded by Julia Lee & Her Boy Friends, was deemed too risque for radio play in 1947, but it still climbed to No. 1 on the US Billboard R&B charts where it is sat for 12 weeks.

CHUCK HADDIX: His song “Snatch And Grab It” sold over half a million copies without any airplay because people were feeding into the jukebox and playing it.

MARTIN: This is Kansas City jazz historian Chuck Haddix. He says that from the 1920s, when many jazz clubs served exclusively white audiences, Julia Lee, who is black, was one of many women known to have recorded this style of blues – a list that includes the iconic singer Bessie Smith.

(SOUNDTRACK FROM THE SONG, “DON’T COME TOO EARLY”)

LEE: (Singing) Come see me, baby. Please don’t come too early. Come see me, baby. But please don’t come too early.

HADDIX: And that’s not what we’re thinking about today, like leaving nothing to the imagination. It was a two-way street.

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.

(SOUNDTRACK FROM THE SONG, “KING SIZE PAPA”)

LEE: (Singing) I got a man that’s over 8 feet tall, 4 feet across, and that’s not all. Daddy king size…

HADDIX: She was one of many women who asserted themselves musically and socially when it was not socially acceptable.

MARTIN: While many of the jazz musicians Julia Lee found toured and moved to the coasts, she remained a mainstay at local Kansas City jazz clubs partly because she hated traveling, but also because she loved it here.

HADDIX: She was Kansas City’s most popular entertainer in the 1920s until her death in 1958.

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

MARTIN: It’s the voice of Dave Dexter Jr., who produced Lee’s records for the Capitol label in Los Angeles after growing up hearing him perform in Kansas City clubs. He told Chuck Haddix in 1989 that he was convinced that if he could have had Lee recorded sooner, she would have been one of America’s most popular singers, which is saying a lot since he worked with Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra. .

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

(SOUNDTRACK FROM THE SONG, “GOTTA GIMME WHATCHA GOT”)

LEE: (Singing) Listen, baby, what did you do to me? You are the only one I want to see. You must give me what you have. You must give me what you have. You must give me what you have. Oh yes. Oh yes.

MARTIN: Now, more than two decades after discovering his grandmother’s music, the initial shock has dissipated for Julian Duncan. He keeps Julia Lee albums propped up on his piano in his Detroit home. And when people come, he tells them about her.

DUNCAN: I’m like, that’s my grandmother. I was named after him, right there.

(SOUNDTRACK FROM THE SONG, “SHOW ME MISSOURI BLUES”)

LEE: (Singing) I agree that New York is great. LA is real bait. There’s only one place where I become gay. I have these bruises. Show me. Show me, show me, show me the 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 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.

(SOUNDTRACK FROM THE SONG, “SHOW ME MISSOURI BLUES”)

LEE: (Singing) Because I was in Kansas City. It’s the blues that I must lose.

SIMON: And this story came to us from the KCUR podcast “A People’s History Of Kansas City.”

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