Julia Lee’s musical career coincides with the very beginning of Kansas City Jazz in the 1920s. She was featured with her brother George E. Lee’s band and made her first recordings in 1927. In 1935 she began a solo career at Milton Morris’ new club known as The Tap Room.
Milton was a long-time fixture of the Kansas City nightlife scene beginning with the Hey Hay Club in the 1920s and continuing through the 1980s with Milton’s Tap Room. Julia Lee was his regular attraction for many years. Julia didn’t like to travel so she elected to stay in Kansas City long after the Pendergast-controlled nightlife scene was over.
She was married to Frank Duncan who was the star catcher and manager of the Kansas City Monarchs baseball team.
She performed all kinds of material but was most well known for her double-entendre songs such as “King Size Papa,” “Snatch and Grab It” and “My Man Stands Out.” Julia was one of the last Kansas City musicians who enjoyed national success after the fall of the Pendergast Machine. The fall happened at the end of 1938 when the clean-up began in earnest. Pendergast was indicted for income tax evasion and just like that the glory years of Kansas City Jazz were all but over.
Many of the clubs were padlocked including Milton’s who was shut down because of Julia Lee’s risqué songs. Milton fought the decision and eventually won. He was allowed to re-open and continue to feature the piano and vocals of Julia Lee.
In the early days one of Julia’s biggest supporters was journalist Dave Dexter. In 1944, while Dave was a producer for Capitol Records in Hollywood, he began recording her for the label. Between 1944 and 1952 she recorded fairly prolifically for Capitol usually as Julia Lee and Her Boyfriends. The Boyfriends were always an all-star aggregation including the likes of Benny Carter, Vic Dickenson, Red Norvo, Red Nichols and Red Callender. The mainstay was her long-time Kansas City drummer Sam “Baby” Lovett who made all the sessions.
For Capitol she recorded standards and blues and plenty of the risqué songs she was known for. Some, like “King Size Papa,” became jukebox hits.
In his book, The Jazz Story, Dave Dexter wrote: “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.” At times she was Waller-ish, at times Morton-ish, but her delightful rhythm piano and husky vocals could always be quickly identified as Julia Lee.