Woman Lee, Georgia
- Jazz and blues singer
Written by Nikki Henningham, The University of Melbourne
Georgia Lee, born Dulcie Rama Pitt, in Cairns, Queensland in 1921, was a jazz and blues singer of international renown who, in the 1950s was called 'Melbourne's Number One Female Singer'. Of Torres Strait Islander and Cloncurry Aboriginal descent, she was the first Indigenous artist to record a full album, and the first Australian to record one in stereo. Dulcie grew up in Cairns in a house surrounded by music of all sorts. Family gatherings were always an excuse to sing the songs of the islands, but the radio also introduced her to classical music, which she loved. Relatives recall that although she didn't sing around the house all that much, one song she did enjoy singer was Puccini's 'Oh My Beloved Father'. In time, it seemed only natural that she and her sisters, Sophie and Heather, accompanied by their brother Wally, would join forces and form a band.
The Harmony Sisters performed around Cairns and gathered quite a following. When World War 2 broke out, she packed parachutes by day and sang at jazz clubs by night. The arrival of the American troops to North Queensland created new opportunities for the group. Not only did it introduce them to the sounds of the blues, it took them to an audience beyond Cairns. Invited to join the U.S. Service Office Show, they accompanied other performers, including the actor, John Wayne, as they toured North Queensland entertaining the U.S. troops stationed in the region. Their reception at these events was enough to encourage them to try their luck further south. After the war, Heather, Sophie, Wally and Dulcie moved to Sydney. Heather, Sophie and Wally returned home quite quickly but Dulcie decided to stay on. She changed her name to Georgia Lee and embarked upon a solo career that would eventually take her to London's Royal Festival Hall.
Georgia Lee became an identity, in the jazz and blues clubs of Sydney and Melbourne where she performed with well known outfits such as with the Graeme Bell Jazz Band. She became a darling of artistic circles; Russell Drysdale knew her well; Donald Friend, in his diaries, described her visits with him with great excitement and Margaret Olley recalled hearing her sing a 'splendid version of Waltzing Matilda'. With indigenous opera singer, Harold Blair, she took part in the first ever Moomba celebration in Melbourne, launched as an Aboriginal show in 1951.
By the early 1950s Georgia Lee, having made her mark in Australia, decided to go abroad. England was the destination and it proved to be a positive move for her, as her niece, musician Wilma Reading explains:
At the time when she was started out on her career … in the late 1940s early 1950s when she went overseas…there was no interest given to any Indigenous artist. She went on to become a big star in England. She sang with Geraldo's society orchestra at the Dorchester Hotel in London, West End. And at this time there were only people who had money who were able to afford the prices in those days, it was like a society place, people of society met and they just loved her because they had never seen anything like her before, they had no idea where the Torres Straits were.' (Browning/McKellar)
After making her mark overseas Georgia Lee returned to Australia and toured with American jazz giant Nat King Cole in 1957. She worked in television appearing on Bandstand and In Melbourne Tonight, where she showcased her talents to an Australia-wide audience. Family members say that she suffered a nervous collapse in the late 1950s, but recovered well enough to record her trailblazing album Georgia Lee Sings the Blues Down Under in 1962. The album was reissued in 2009 and added to the prestigious Sounds Of Australia register that celebrates historically important Australian recordings. According to contemporary blues and jazz singer, Liz Cavanagh, it's an album that still inspires.
One of the things [about] the album that was interesting … is that it was a single take. That's the uniqueness about that time as well, they were brilliant musicians, and you get a glimpse of Georgia Lee without it being tampered with. It's a beautiful record (Browning/McKellar).
Georgia Lee is generally acknowledged by musicians and musical historians as being at the forefront of Australian blues: her recordings had an Australian identity and themes and a first Australian leading the way. As Graeme Bell, who worked with her throughout the 1950s, said 'She had a really good jazz style and she could sing the blues'. (The Age, 27 April, 2010) And as her niece, Wilma Reading, reminds us, 'historically, she has three points going for her - the first Indigenous person, [the first indigenous] woman, … to record an LP and also the first recording to be recorded in stereo, which I think is a plus, plus, plus - so there you go' (Browning/McKellar). As Georgia herself said in an interview in 1999, 'I had a wonderful life and met so many fantastic people' (Browning/McKellar). She died in 2010.
- 'Georgia Lee Sings the Blues Down Under', in Australian Screen, National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA), 1962, http://aso.gov.au/titles/music/georgia-lee-sings-the-blues/. Details
- Georgia Lee Sings the Blues Down Under (1962), YouTube, YouTube Video, Steve, 26 March 2010, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p3zrX19Ou-8. Details
- Browning, Daniel and McKellar, Phil (Producers), 'Introducing Miss Georgia Lee', in Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC): Radio National: AWAYE!, Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), 27 March 2010, http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/awaye/introducing-miss-georgia-lee/3671168. Details
- Georgia Lee Sings the Blues Down Under (1962)
- Audio Visual
- 26 March 2010