Bonnie Lee was a longtime fixture of Chicago's contemporary blues scene as well as one of the last surviving links to its postwar heyday. Born Jessie Lee Frealls on June 11, 1931, in Bunkie, LA, Lee grew up in Beaumont, TX, where she studied piano and sang in her church's choir. Gospel singer Lillian Ginn was sufficiently impressed to extend an invitation to join her on tour, but Lee's mother refused to grant her permission. As a teen Lee nevertheless toured the South as a member of the Famous Georgia Minstrels, befriending blues legends Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown and Big Mama Thornton along the way. She relocated to Chicago in 1958, hitching a ride with a delivery van driver and settling at the West Side apartment of an aunt. After toiling in anonymity as a singer and dancer, in 1960 Lee signed to J. Mayo Williams' Ebony label to cut her debut single, "Sad and Evil Woman," credited at Williams' insistence to Bonnie "Bombshell" Lane, a moniker she reportedly despised. The single fared poorly, and Lee continued touring the Chicago jazz and blues club circuit, developing a potent voice as earthy as it was electrifying. Family obligations forced her to retire from music during the middle of the decade, but in 1967 she resurfaced alongside the legendary pianist Sunnyland Slim, a longtime confederate of Muddy Waters. Lee regularly opened for Slim in the years that followed, becoming a legend on the North Side blues circuit via residencies at clubs including Wise Fools, B.L.U.E.S., and Blue Chicago. In the late '70s, she also cut a handful of singles for Slim's own Airway label. Lee also enjoyed a decade-long collaboration with renowned bassist Willie Kent, during which time she recorded the 1995 Delmark LP Sweetheart of the Blues as well as the 1998 Wolf Records set I'm Good. In addition, she contributed to myriad compilations, most notably Women of Blue Chicago and Chicago's Finest Blues Ladies. Health problems nevertheless plagued Lee throughout the latter half of her life, and she died September 7, 2006, at the age of 75.
Share this page