Wednesday, September 27, 2006
Chicago Blueswoman Bonnie Lee dies at 75
Bonnie Lee, one of the last great voices in urban women's blues, passed away on the morning of September 7th. Born in 1931 near the Texas-Louisiana border, the young Bonnie played piano and sang gospel in her hometown church. In her teens, she toured the South as a singer with the great minstrel show; but her life took a new direction when she caught a ride with a moving van driver and headed north to Chicago. Living with an aunt on the South Side, she made her debut as a performer in neighborhood clubs -- first as a dancer, then a singer. Her powerful voice delivered blues in the full range from flirty simper to throaty growl, and her reputation grew as she gained experience.
By the 1970s she had withdrawn from public performance for family reasons; but her heart remained with the blues in the clubs. Her unfulfilled need to sing was painful to her and eventually led to a breakdown that left her fragile and shaken. When she regained her strength, music opened the door to her recovery.
She gave full credit for her comeback to her longtime friend, Willie Kent. Thanks to his insistance, she returned to the clubs, first as part of the audience, later as a singer invited up onstage, and finally as an integral part of the show. Her friend Willie also led her to make two excellent recordings (Sweetheart of the Blues on Delmark, and I'm Good! on Wolf Records), which unveiled the richness of her singing to a wider audience; and her voice also appears on several compilations of Chicago blueswomen. She participated in the "Ladies Sing the Blues" tour in Europe and was an authentic, vibrant presence on the Chicago blues scene. Until her death, she was a regular performer at B.L.U.E.S. on Halsted.
Bonnie Lee's singing style has been compared to that of Dinah Washington, Billie Holiday, and Koko Taylor; but her versatility, power, and sense of timing were entirely her own. In her later years, her performances surprised many: she would arrive slowly, an apparently timid, fragile-looking older woman, would be helped up the steps to the stage, and as the music started she would close her eyes and sway slightly... and from that gentle, unlikely source, a powerful, vital song would blaze out to sear the night. And it would swing.
Bonnie Lee is survived by a son, and by many friends and fans worldwide. Bonnie, we'll miss you!