In Kansas City in the 1920’s, George E. Lee and his younger sister, Julia, brewed sweet blues and helped shape the history of Jazz in the city. George E. Lee was a band leader of the “George E. Lee Band”, in Kansas City during the rise of Jazz. Julia played piano and sang with her brother’s band for 15 years before launching her solo career in 1935, and later became the leader of her own band, “Julia Lee and Her Boy Friends”. They were born in Boonville, Missouri and raised in Kansas City.mmf-124

George E. Lee was born on April 28, 1896. He was very much influenced by his father, and strove to be a bandleader as his father was. Both George and Julia started performing when they played with their dad’s string band as children. By the time George and Julia were young adults, they had both dropped out of Lincoln High School, and were wrapped up in the Jazz scene at 18th and vine. When George founded the George E. Lee band and Julia played on piano, they played at a number of venues in Kansas City.

George played saxophone, specializing in “slap-tongue style”. While serving in WWI, George continued to playing music abroad. On return to the US, he created his first ensemble that grew to become the George E. Lee Novelty Orchestra. He made his first recording with the Merritt label in 1927, recording “Down Home Syncopated Blues” and “Merritt Stomp”.

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The George E. Lee band first hit big when they performed at a battle of the bands against Walter Page’s Blue Devils. They played Lincoln, Lyric, and Paseo Halls. At the height of their popularity they played all the latest hits. However, the band suffered from George’s leadership. He was often unfair to the other band members; fining them for minor things, and paying them under scale while he drove his expensive car around. He was known to be ruthless and changed the band members a number of times. His main rival in the 1920’s was the Bennie Moten Band, which ultimately overtook what was left of the George E. Lee Orchestra in 1933. After the band broke up, George continued making music with his sister and performing in Kansas City. He retired from music in 1940 and moved to California. He died on October 2, 1985 in California.

 

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Julia Lee was born on October 31, 1902. She was formally trained as a pianist and sang the blues like no other. In the 15 years that she played with her brother’s band, she experienced recording sessions, performances, and the night life of Kansas City. Julia was known for singing more risqué songs, and was rumored to own a song book she called “Songs My Momma Told Me Not to Sing”. She sang blues from her heart, often talked to her audience about their lives, and gave advice to those who needed it. Her biggest hits were, “Come On Over to My House Baby”, “Snatch and Grab It”, and “Evil Momma Blues”. She died during her performing career on December 8, 1958 in her apartment in Kansas City.

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Written by Abby Langley and Scarlett Miller

 

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Sources:

http://library.umkc.edu/spec-col/parisoftheplains/webexhibit/page4.htm

http://library.umkc.edu/spec-col/local627/text/bands/lee.htm

Kansas City Call – Newspaper

Kansas City Jazz – Frank Driggs and Chuck Haddix

Chuck’s Special Files