The young woman, clutching an armful of 78s, peered over the cluttered counter at Seymour’s Loop Jazz Record Mart on South Wabash and handed proprietor Bob Koester one of the discs. “I’d like to know if you’d like to buy these so you can sell them.” They were blues records, featuring a vocalist billed as “Bonnie Bombshell Lee.”
“Who’s that?” Koester says he asked her.
The woman smiled and answered, “That’s me!”
Lee had never met Koester, though he was one of the few white people in Chicago who frequented the south- and west-side clubs where she often sat in as a guest vocalist. But Mayo Williams, the producer who’d recorded her and then given her the records to distribute, had assured her Koester was an important figure in the Chicago music business, so she’d made the journey from her south-side home to talk to him.
It was hard work hustling records all over town and Lee hadn’t received any money for the session, but she didn’t much care. She’d arrived from Texas only a few years earlier, in 1958, dreaming of bright lights and fame, and this was going to be her first big break. She was more than willing to work for nothing and peddle the product herself if that’s what it took.
Koester listened to a side. It was a characteristically crude Williams production–elemental Chicago blues redeemed from mediocrity by the singer’s power. He told her he could take a few off her hands, though he might not be able to move many. “How much you want for ’em?”
“A dollar apiece.”
“But that’s what we sell them for. I can’t pay you that much.”
“Well, that’s what Mr. Williams wants.” As a newcomer to the business, she didn’t dare go back with less money than he’d told her to get.
Koester handed her the record and shook his head. “Sorry, can’t do it.”
She stood silent for a moment. Only a few days before she’d been thrilled to see her name on the label and hear her voice on record for the first time. Now the dream was starting to crumble. She tucked the records back under her arm and walked out the door. Koester didn’t see her again for years.
You got me runnin’
You got me hidin’
You got me runnin’, hidin’, hidin’, hidin’,
Any way you want it, let it roll . . .
Three decades later Bonnie Lee, eyes tightly shut and lips twisted into a theatrical sneer, bellows out her version of Jimmy Reed’s “Baby What Do You Want Me to Do” for a rollicking weeknight crowd at B.L.U.E.S. on Halsted as Willie Kent and the Gents grind out a tough, loping rhythm behind her. Despite the tune’s simplicity, her interpretation sounds like a pastiche of half a century of blues tradition. After a couple of introductory choruses her voice mellows into a croon and she starts teasing her phrases into almost scatlike convolutions–“buh-aya-bee, ooh-ah-ooh-ah-eye-ah buh-aya-bee, hmmm-ah-hmmm-ah-hooh-ah-hi-yuh-doo-ah!”–then suddenly switches to a gospel-tinged shout reminiscent of the classic women blues singers of Bessie Smith’s era. She concludes with a blast of hard-edged, guttural sassiness.
Bassist Kent watches her every move as she plunges from idea to idea, making sure he maintains his steady four-four beat. Over the lurching shuffle of drummer Cleo “Bald-Head Pete” Williams’s rhythms, Kent and Lee communicate with an intimacy that never gets in the way of the good-time looseness of the groove.
As the stage lights sparkle off her sequined hat Lee moves hypnotically from side to side and throws her head back, occasionally snapping her fingers for a measure or two, then letting her arms fall gently to her sides. Her new CD on the Wolf label is on sale behind the bar; during the break she’ll sit at a corner bar stool sipping coffee and autographing copies with a gracious soft-eyed smile. But now she seems enraptured, oblivious to everything but the music.
Even as a child growing up in Beaumont, Texas, Jessie Lee Frealls knew she wanted to be a singer. She’d sit on the porch with her feet dangling between the steps and serenade an audience of dolls, playing imaginary piano patterns on the planks as she sang. It was more than just a way of passing the time on lazy Sunday afternoons after church; even as a fantasy it felt more right than anything else she could imagine.
A lot of children would have been chastised for dreaming of a musical career; in those days religious people often wouldn’t allow “reels”–secular dance music, including blues and jazz–anywhere near the house. But Jessie Lee’s mother and stepfather were more lenient. “She paid for my piano lessons, my mother did. I was just learning the notes, the keys, and how to play piano. My mother, she never did stop me. She just said, ‘If that’s what you want to do, you do it.'”
Recalling those days nearly half a century later, Lee (“I don’t use Jessie Lee, I use Bonnie Lee; I figured that Jessie, that wouldn’t be a professional name”) relaxes on the sofa in the living room of her compact west-side home, which is on a quiet tree-lined street. Outside on this crisp afternoon elderly gentlemen sit on front porches and watch children return from school as orange and red leaves swirl around them–a whiff of small-town sanctuary that forces you to remind yourself you’re only a few blocks from the desolation of West Madison Street.
As Lee tells her story, her voice modulates from a throaty whisper to a squeal of delight. When the recollections are happy she hunkers down in her seat and breaks into girlish giggles. Yet she often falls silent and stares into the middle distance as she struggles to find the right words or to remember dates and places.
She smiles warmly as she recalls her early days growing up in the south, first in Bunkie, Louisiana, and then in Beaumont, where her stepfather labored in the shipyards and her mother worked for the sheriff as a cook. Music resonated through her childhood, first on the radio and later in church. “I liked jazz the best–Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington. But after I started listening to blues I got into it.”
There wasn’t much opportunity for a young girl to practice jazz or blues in Beaumont, so she concentrated on her piano lessons and started to play in church. Her first public appearance almost resulted in a road trip. “We went to church every Sunday, Sunday school–Methodist church in Beaumont. The lady who came to my church, her name was Lillian Glenn, and I played behind her. She did spirituals, and I asked her could I back her up on the piano? And she said yes, so I played. And she asked my mother for me, she said, ‘Well, can I keep her and take her with me? I will send her to music school, voice lessons, and everything.’ My mother said no, I couldn’t go. I got disgusted because she wouldn’t let me go with her.”
Jessie Lee stayed home, but she says, “From right then I said I want to be a singer and leave Texas, go somewhere else and make it. I ain’t never been shy in my life, from a kid on up. I loved to sing ’cause I was born with this. When you’re born with a gift, God give it to you. I was just born with a voice, that’s all.”
For a long time leaving seemed like an impossible fantasy. Places like California–where Texas-born blues musicians such as T-Bone Walker, Charles Brown, and Lloyd Glenn had migrated–or the northern blues mecca of Chicago seemed inconceivably far away. A young man like Muddy Waters could catch a train out of the Mississippi Delta to seek his fortune in Chicago, leaving his family behind. A young woman–even an independent, determined one–had more constraints. Lee married at the age of 14, and though she and her husband separated within a year she remained in her hometown, close to her family.
In the 40s and 50s top blues and R & B artists toured the south virtually nonstop, playing small local venues as well as the occasional big theater. “A bunch of us girls used to go and hear the blues and things. I liked to hear the bands come up on Gladys Street to sing. The Ravens was about the biggest popular club. B.B. King, different artists, like T-Bone Walker. It inspired me because that’s what I had in mind that I wanted to be, a singer. They was enjoying themselves, and that’s what I wanted to be. I didn’t know how to go about it. I just would go around and listen at other people sing, and I just said, ‘Maybe one day I’ll do it.'”
Restless, Jessie Lee found herself increasingly dissatisfied in Beaumont. The only time she sang was when a visiting celebrity held an open session and let her sit in. There were also troubles at home. Despite the warmth and affection her mother and stepfather had always shown her, she says she came to feel alienated because her half sisters made her feel she was somehow less than family, as if “it was whole for them, but it wasn’t whole for me.”
Then, when she was about 17, her natural father showed up. “That was my first time seeing him. My uncle, his brother, lived in Beaumont. I knowed I had a father–I had his picture. But I never did think I’d get a chance to see him. And when he came to Beaumont they called my mother and asked us to come and we did. I still didn’t get used to it. I told him he wasn’t my father, because my stepfather had raised me!”
Her father’s arrival sparked a family reunion of sorts, but it resulted in tragedy for her. “I was raped by my father’s brother, my uncle. You can say it. I’m grown now, that’s done past. It constantly stayed on my mind: how could your own people do that, your own family do that to you? I never told anyone. I just left Texas and went to Alexandria, Louisiana. I had some relatives there. I worked in a shoe shop shining shoes–just did it to earn some money.”
She dropped out of music for a while, but after working for a few years at the shoe store she joined the Famous Georgia Minstrel Show, a relic from the days when minstrel and patent-medicine shows crisscrossed the rural south, providing entertainment for the country folk and employment for legions of black performers.
Touring could be a terrible grind–accommodations were often appalling, and the pay ranged from scanty to nonexistent. After only a few months Lee left the troupe. “I just wanted to try something different. I didn’t like the living conditions, living in a tent and things like that. I came back to Texas.”
For more than a year she traveled to small towns and cities with a female impersonator named Effie Dropbottom. But it was hardly a career-building show, and she eventually returned to Beaumont. The occasional singing opportunity still arose; for a time she worked on weekends with guitarist Irving Charles and his band, and she occasionally sat in with visiting celebrities like Gatemouth Brown. But for the most part she supported herself by working as a waitress, and when the opportunity arose in 1958 to put Beaumont behind her for good she grabbed it.
“I met a fella,” she recalls. “I was at the train station to meet another fella!” She doubles over giggling. “I was gonna meet another friend of mine on the train–it was on the Pacific Railroad. He was a cook. And I was only kiddin’ with Roy. He was a truck driver for Atlas, so I was just going to pass the time away with Roy until the train come in.
“I met Roy at the service station, and I was just only kidding with him. I said, ‘I would like to go to Chicago.’ So he said, ‘You really want to go to Chicago?’ I said, ‘Yeah!’ He said, ‘Where you live?’ I said, ‘On the north end.’ He said, ‘Well, get in!’
“So he went home with me, I got my clothes and everything, and when we got to Liberty, Texas, he said, ‘Well I got to go over here and get you some blue jeans and a blue jean jacket and a cap, and put your hair up, so they’ll think you was a boy.’ And that’s how I come to Chicago–in the truck. I didn’t have any idea what it would be like or what it was. I just wanted to go to a big city and see how the big city would look. It hit me! It was fast, it really was!
“I decided I got to do either one: give it up or try to make it. I didn’t run back home. I was determined to make it on my own. It was pretty hard, but I finally met people. A lot of times I didn’t have money for food and I was hungry, but I didn’t let my parents know that. I didn’t have nowhere to stay, and I didn’t let my parents know that.”
She eventually landed a job waiting on tables in a tavern on South Federal. “I met some friends of mine [from Texas]–everybody used to go over there to the club. Met some lady friends. I just ran up on them. I found my aunt here, then I found out I had sisters and brothers here–that’s on my father’s side. I didn’t even know I had brothers and sisters. I thought I was my father’s only child.
“Where I was working at, I met a girl and she had an extra room. And all I had to do was come from the apartment and go right across the street to work. The girl told me to come on over here and stay with her. When I got paid, I paid her, and we got along just fine.”
In Chicago in the late 50s and early 60s the south side was peppered with clubs ranging from rough-and-tumble joints like the 708 Club on South Indiana to tonier establishments like the Tay May on Roosevelt Road and the jazz room in the Trocadero Hotel at 47th and Indiana. Even the tiniest neighborhood bars had live music. But the scene was fiercely competitive. Nobody but the biggest names made much money, and it took shrewd hustling to land even low-paying club dates.
Despite her ambition and years of singing, Lee had no idea how to build a career, so she began to do what she’d done for so many years in Beaumont: sit in wherever she could, even if she wasn’t paid. “When I’d meet people I’d ask them [where the clubs were], and they’d say, ‘Come on, we’ll take you.’ So a lot of the people that I met, entertainers that I met, I would go with them. Then I’d find out how to get around on my own.
“[Guitarist] Byther Smith–I was waiting tables in the club where he had his band at. I asked him could I sing? And he said ‘Yeah.'” She also sat in at the Trocadero and at Theresa’s, at 48th and Indiana. “I used to be around there [the Trocadero]. When I’d get tired of hanging around there, I’d just walk down to Theresa’s. And when I’d get tired of where Junior [Wells] and them was, I’d get back to the Trocadero.”
Organist James Reese, with whom she sang for a while at a Mexican club in Blue Island, introduced her to producer Mayo Williams. She recorded two numbers for him–“Black but Beautiful” and “My Rock and Roll Man”–which he released on his Ebony label and then gave to Lee to peddle around town. It was Mayo who billed her as “Bonnie Bombshell Lee.” Lee says, “Everybody thought I was going to jump out of a cake!” But the records brought her neither recognition nor money; in those days royalties for struggling blues artists were virtually unknown.
She says it may have been five years before she received any money for singing. Even after her first paying gig, at Steve’s Chicken Shack in Gary, she continued to support herself by waiting on tables. Her career consisted of unpaid guest appearances, occasional low-paying engagements, and long periods of frustrating inactivity.
She believes a lot of her trouble came from her inability to find mentors. Most bluesmen cite someone who befriended them and guided them through the treacherous waters of their early days. Buddy Guy remembers Muddy Waters feeding him sandwiches and encouraging him, Sunnyland Slim recalls Little Brother Montgomery giving him his first professional break, Sunnyland introduced young Muddy Waters to the Chess brothers, and Waters eventually passed on the favor by bringing Chuck Berry to Chess. Many older artists remember Big Bill Broonzy and John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson being especially helpful. But women have often found it difficult to break into this fraternity. “I just really didn’t have nobody to take an interest in me,” Lee says. “I didn’t know. I just didn’t know how to go about knowing anyone to ask.”
The competitive nature of the local scene also hurt, and she says certain women singers were especially cutthroat. “A lot of women, just because you’re a singer and you’re new coming out, they grudge you.”
Yet she also admits she avoided doing things that might have furthered her career because she felt they’d put too much pressure on her. She didn’t, for instance, even attempt to form her own band. “I didn’t want to deal with it. It’s too much of a headache. I think if I’d have taken the chance or had somebody to help me, push me, probably I would’ve been gone!”
In the early 60s she married a man she’d met while singing at the Golden Peacock on Madison and for a while had a modicum of financial stability. But he couldn’t offer her the professional guidance she so desperately needed. “I really didn’t have nobody to take an interest in me till I met Cadillac Baby and met Sunnyland.” Cadillac Baby was a popular flamboyant blues entrepreneur whose nightclub–Cadillac Baby’s Show Lounge on South Dearborn–was famous for being the site of one of Chicago show business’s more impressive entrances: he used to drive a Cadillac onto the stage and emerge from it with a grand sweeping bow. In 1965, after both his club and his Bea & Baby record label had gone out of business, he opened Cadillac Baby Record & T.V. Repair–complete with a colorful marquee that boasted of “Reverb Sound” and “Change for Sale: 5 cents per Dollar.” The store at 4405 S. State soon became a popular hangout for musicians.
Pianist Sunnyland Slim, always an imposing figure, caught Bonnie’s eye as soon as he came into the shop one day in 1967. “I was at Cadillac’s on State Street, and when Sunnyland walked in I asked Baby, I said, ‘Who is that?’ He said, ‘That’s Sunnyland.’ So one word led to another. Baby told him I was a singer, and he asked me would I go on the road with him. And I said yeah.”
Sunnyland’s style–rooted in Delta tradition but with elements of swing and boogie-woogie–was perfect for Lee’s meld of blues and jazz influences. “He was the first one took me to Canada,” says Lee. “He asked me could I drive. I said yeah. And I drove awhile, he drove awhile. That was my first time even going out of Chicago.”
Although Sunnyland has long enjoyed a reputation as a ladies’ man, Lee insists, “We just worked together. He wasn’t my man.” Her supple, jazz-tinged vocals and dignified stage presence played well against his gruff Delta exuberance, and they toured often, playing the expanding late-60s folk-and-blues festival circuit. It seemed as if the dream might finally be coming true.
But at home things were deteriorating. “I was hurt in my marriage. I came home–he used to bring women to the house and things like that. He liked to fight. I couldn’t take it.”
Yet she stayed with her husband. She endured three miscarriages, and then on July 11, 1968, one month after her 37th birthday, her son Earl was born. Shortly after that she ended the marriage. “I got out of it because I didn’t want to kill him, I didn’t want to go to jail, wouldn’t know where my son is at. We separated after he was born, after I went and got [Earl] out of the hospital. He had to stay in the hospital until he was five and a half pounds, on account of he was premature. I had a fibroid tumor with him. I stayed in Cook County Hospital for quite a while.”
In the meantime she’d met the man who would become the most important companion of her life, Edward Bevely, a construction worker who shared her passion for jazz and was willing to step in and take care of Earl while she recuperated. “I met him–oh my God, I forgot the year! But I know we’ve been together for years because my son’s going on 25, on the 11th of July. I thank God he raised my son. He’s a stepfather, just like a father.”
Sure that her son was in good hands, she returned to performing with Sunnyland Slim. In 1974 Sunnyland recorded her on his Airway label, featuring her on “Standing on the Corner” and “Sad and Evil Woman,” a song that’s still a staple in her repertoire. She also sang backup on Sunnyland’s “She’s Got a Thing Goin’ On” and “See My Lawyer.”
Gigs and recording opportunities became more plentiful. She recorded for Chicago blues DJ Big Bill Collins’s Black Beauty label, and the old “Bonnie Bombshell” discs on Ebony began showing up in used-record bins, furthering her reputation among collectors. When Sunnyland took Big Time Sarah on as his newest protege, Lee went out on her own and for a while even led her own band, the Apollos.
But the Airway and Black Beauty records, produced locally with little advertising, had little success outside Chicago and didn’t even get much airplay here. Without Sunnyland Slim to help her find gigs and organize her career, Lee again found herself scuffling for little pay. Her early misgivings about being a bandleader proved accurate. “It didn’t go too hot. Some of ’em wanted all the money. I got discouraged. You get some fellows, they don’t want to act right, don’t want to listen at you.”
She kept at it a while longer, but sometime in the mid-70s the pressure became too much. “I stopped singing altogether, period, because I took sick. I had a nervous breakdown and I just stopped. Just everything got on my nerves. I’d been through so much alone. I wanted to work and do things, and it just looked like I wasn’t getting nowhere. I was trying to take care of my baby. I didn’t want him to be in this hand, and that hand, and the other hand. Because this was the first kid I had ever had.
“I was living right there on Madison, and I just stayed up in the house. I didn’t go nowhere, I didn’t go to no clubs. I had money from disability–I was so I couldn’t walk. They had to learn me how to walk again. I just kept makin’ steps just like a baby learnin’ how to walk. I didn’t even know I had a son in the world, that’s how sick I was. There was so much pressure on me . . . ” Her voice trails off.
She credits Bevely with seeing her and her son through the roughest times. “When I was sick he’d come every day to the hospital, bathe me, put my gown on, wash me, see to the baby. He got me a walker, so I could start to walk again. His family–his mother and them–took care of Earl. It took some pressure off.”
She stayed home and rested, slowly “getting my mind back together” until the end of the 70s, when she began feeling restless and ready to try music again. But, she says, “I had to have somebody to help me, because I wasn’t going to do it [alone].”
Bassist Willie Kent, a west-side veteran who’d known her since her early days, was working with guitarist Buster Benton at the time. Kent, who knew Lee hadn’t been working for a while, began to use her for local jobs and a few out-of-town performances. In him she again found someone who could take care of the day-to-day details she’d never been able to master–hustling gigs, dealing with agents and club owners, managing the band’s finances.
For once, Lee’s timing was perfect. By the late 70s a new generation of women singers–Zora Young, Big Time Sarah, the late Valerie Wellington, all young enough to be Lee’s daughters and all proteges of Sunnyland Slim–had emerged in Chicago, and Lee was welcomed by them as a kind of elder stateswoman. Musicians and audiences alike admired her elegant demeanor and stylistic flexibility, her fusion of classic blues and jazz with the hard-driving contemporary Chicago style.
Lee’s horizons expanded rapidly. “I first went to Europe with Zora, Sarah, and [guitarist] Hubert [Sumlin]. Jim O’Neal did a write-up on us–I think the people overseas saw the Living Blues magazine and wrote to Zora. I don’t know what year that was ’cause I done forgot. I had to go to Texas to see about my father, my father that raised me. Then I came back and Zora said, ‘You’re going to Paris.’ I said, ‘What?’ ‘You’re going to Paris!’ So we went to Paris.” While they were overseas the women recorded Blues With the Girls on the French EPM label.
After returning to the U.S. Lee continued to gig around Chicago with Kent and others. But then, once again on the verge of success, she suddenly had to drop out, suffering two heart attacks. Once more she was housebound.
“I had faith in God, and I had faith in myself. My son used to tell me, ‘Mama, you gonna make it. Just have faith.'” But it took Kent to bring her back. By 1984 or ’85, Kent had begun working regularly at Blue Chicago on State Street. Gino Battaglia, the club’s owner, admires women singers and encourages the bands that work for him to hire them whenever possible. Kent began to drop by Lee’s house, encouraging her to return.
“Kent said, ‘You have too good a voice to let it go to waste.’ Kent came by and picked me up, went over to State Street where he was with Gino, and I did a number. Then Gino called Kent, asked Kent did he know me, and he said yeah. He called me and said ‘Gino wants you to work.’ I gives [Kent] thanks, because if it wouldn’t be for him I wouldn’t be out here now. I’d still be sittin’ up here [in the house], I wouldn’t be happy.”
Despite the international exposure she got from the European tour and CD, Lee had never built a reputation among the predominantly white north-side audience in Chicago. Now she began to establish herself at Blue Chicago, B.L.U.E.S., and other spots. Wolf Records, an Austrian label with good U.S. distribution, came here in 1987 to record her along with two other west-side vocalists, Mary Lane and Barkin’ Bill. When Kent went into the hospital for heart surgery in the late 80s, Lee kept working, joining forces with guitarist Johnny B. Moore, a musician with tastes as eclectic as her own.
But she was most comfortable with Kent, and she got back with him as soon as he was well enough to resume playing. “There’s nothing too good that I wouldn’t [do for him], ’cause I took him and put him in here.” She lays her hand on her heart. “And that’s where he’ll stay. Right here.”
Last year Wolf Records returned to Chicago to record Lee again, and she finally has a full-length album under her own name. She’s also found a more appropriate moniker than “Bombshell”; the liner notes refer to her as the “Belle of the Blues.” Entitled I’m Good after her signature tune, the CD features a powerful accompaniment by Kent and members of his band as well as guitarists Magic Slim, Johnny B. Moore, and John Primer.
That’s an impressive lineup. And if the hard-core Chicago sound doesn’t reflect Lee’s self-image exactly (“I’m on a jazzy-bluesy kick; I’m not a really hard, cold blues singer”), it does provide her with the perfect combination of the structure she sometimes needs to stay in the pocket of the beat and the freedom to explore. There’s a reprise of “Sad and Evil Woman” from the Sunnyland Slim days, as well as several Lee and Kent originals. Also included is another tune that’s become a Lee signature, Little Willie John’s “Need Your Love So Bad,” which she calls “I Need Someone’s Hand.” “That song of Little Willie John’s, ‘I Need Someone’s Hand,’ a lot of times they don’t know I be crying. That gets next to me. I don’t know why, but it just gets next to me.” It has a similar effect on audiences; she says a woman once told her it made chills run through her.
As she looks back on her years of struggle and relishes the success that’s come at an age (“I’m 61 years old and I’m proud!”) when many singers are considering retirement, Lee exudes a combination of youthful enthusiasm and autumnal introspection. She says she was never afraid she would lose her voice or her feel for music, even when it looked as if she might never perform again. “It just came to me. It never left me. The good Lord gave it to me. I never taken a singing lesson in my life. If you got a good ear to hear, that’ll never leave you. Anything, to be successful you got to put the Lord in front and you get behind. Because without him you’re not going to make it. I’m religious. I put my faith in God. Always have and always will. Because in my life he comes first. Even when [Kent] comes to pick me up, I say my prayer. I say, ‘Lord, take care of us ’cause we’re going out.’ When we get off I say, ‘Lord, take us back home safe.’
“One thing–I’m in the blues field. I don’t believe in playing with the Lord. Whenever he change me, I go back to singing spirituals, I’m going to stay right in that field. But while I’m in this field, I’m going to be in this field. I just don’t go to church and be singing spirituals, because I’m a blues singer. I’ll be doing it as long as the good Lord let me and bless me. Other than that, this is a living. It’s how I make my living, it’s how I pay my bills and things. And I’ll tell anybody, when the good Lord get ready to change me, he don’t care where you’re at. You can be up on the stage and he’ll change you. And when he change me, then I won’t look back at no blues.”
But for all her protestations, Lee sings the blues with a fervor that approaches the transcendent. Pressed, she’ll admit that music–both secular and sacred–resonates for her in a way nothing else can. “I’m happy when I’m up on that stage. Most of the time if you see me, my eyes be closed. I’m in another world, I don’t see anybody out there. I put my soul into it. I feel everything that I do.
“Most times when I’m by myself I put on a spiritual and I sing along. Or if I got something on my mind I get me a jazz record and put it on. Sometimes I put my pillows on the floor and lay down and let jazz relax my mind. Spirituals relax my mind. And then I don’t have to do that, ’cause when you walk in my house I got Bibles open. I get my Bible and read it.
“When I was raped, that stayed on my mind. I still keeps that on my mind, about the rape. I always think, I hope nobody else don’t be like this–so many kids getting raped and things. I think that’s what caused me having the heart attack. I kept it to myself–all that just stayed in me. That’s a long time to keep something all up in here. I wasn’t thinking about it, it was just building up. I have sisters and brothers here, but we don’t see one another. The only one I would talk to, I would talk to my doctor about it. I went to a psychiatrist–I didn’t even tell him what’s going on. I got up and left out of his office.
“I don’t get too close. Once you do me something, I just back from you. If I’m your friend, I’m your friend. If I like you, I like you. But I’m just afraid I’ll be hurt again, and I don’t want to get hurt.
“I hold everything in. I don’t care what you do to me, I hold it in. Except when I sing. That certain song that I sing, it bring tears from my eyes. I feel better when I can let it out through my songs. I’m happy when I’m up there. I lets everything out.”
At B.L.U.E.S., toward the end of the first set, Lee pauses for a moment with her eyes down, then gives a signal to Kent and the band. They grind out the opening bars of “I Need Someone’s Hand.” Lee’s body stiffens and twists as she sings, and her face contorts. For most of the song her eyes are jammed shut, but occasionally they open and her expression softens. She sways in time to the music and roars out the lyrics in a raw growl that manages to be fierce and plaintive at the same time:
I need someone’s hand
To lead me through the night
I need someone’s arms
To hold and squeeze me tight
When the lights are low
And it’s time to go
‘Cause I need your love so bad . . .
I need a soft voice
To talk to me at night
Don’t worry, baby
‘Cause I won’t fuss and fight
Please me, darling
I need your love so bad . . .
When the song’s over she lets her body relax and wipes the perspiration from her brow. A woman who’d been dancing in convulsive gyrations during most of the song rushes to the stage and grabs one of Lee’s hands in both of hers, speaking in an intense whisper. Gazing down from the stage, Lee listens politely and then, for the first time since she started her performance, breaks into a radiant smile. After another song or two she steps down and returns to her corner bar stool and coffee cup while the band finishes the set. She’s breathing heavily and drenched in perspiration. But the smile is still there, and it remains on her face the rest of the evening.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Marc PoKempner.