Bonnie Lee (June 11, 1931 – September 7, 2006) was
an American Chicago blues singer. Known as 'Sweetheart of the Blues',
she is best remembered for her lengthy working relationships with
Sunnyland Slim and
Willie Kent. David Whiteis, who
interviewed Lee in researching his book,
Chicago Blues: Portraits
and Stories stated, "she was one of the last of her genre, the
big-voiced woman blues singer fronting a Chicago band."
She was born Jessie Lee Frealls in Bunkie, Louisiana, United States,
and raised in Beaumont, Texas.
After learning to play the piano as a child, her mother refused to let
her join gospel singer Lillian Glinn on tour. Instead she did later tour
with the Famous Georgia Minstrels, meeting both
Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown and
Big Mama Thornton.
In 1958 she moved to Chicago, and chose the stage name of Bonnie Lee,
working as both a dancer and singer. Two years later she signed a
recording contract with J. Mayo Williams' Ebony Records label. The
downside was Williams' insistence on her being billed as Bonnie
"Bombshell" Lane on her first single, "Sad and Evil Woman." It was a
name she disliked but, after the single failed to sell, she returned to
the Chicago jazz and blues nightclubs. She was later billed as Bonnie
Lee Murray, using her then husband's surname.
In 1967 Lee first appeared on the bill with the pianist
Sunnyland Slim, and their working
arrangement included residencies at a number of Chicago clubs. This led
her, at the end of the 1970s, to release further singles via the Slim
owned record label, Airway Records. After suffering health problems at
the end of that decade, Lee then enjoyed a long professional partnership
with Willie Kent. For many years the combination of Lee backed by
Willie Kent and the Gents, became a
regular feature in B.L.U.E.S., a noted Chicago club. There she sang her
most famous numbers; "I’m Good" and "Need Your Love So Bad."
In 1982, and partnered with Zora Young
and Big Time Sarah as 'Blues with the Girls', Lee toured Europe and cut
a joint album in Paris, France. In 1992 Lee guested on
Magic Slim's album, 44 Blues, with
John Primer. Finally in her own name, in
1995 Delmark Records released, Sweetheart of the Blues, and three years
later another collection, I'm Good, was issued.
In September 2006, after years of poor health, Lee died at the age of 75