A native of Dayton, Ohio, vocalist Roberta Lee, sometimes credited as simply “Roberta,” graduated from Roosevelt High School and studied at a local dramatic school. She began her career as a singer on radio station WHIO, later moving to Washington, D.C., where she sang in the cocktail lounge of the Mayflower Hotel. Ending up in New York, Lee appeared on Broadway in early 1940 as part of Earl Carroll’s Vanities. She did professional modeling for national magazines before deciding to concentrate solely on singing. In late 1941, Lee became vocalist for Raymond Scott’s dance orchestra. Scott scrapped the band in January 1942 and formed a new group, replacing her. Her big break finally came when she won an audition over 42 other girls to become Les Brown’s new vocalist in late 1942. She remained with Brown until at least July 1943. Her tenure with Brown’s band fell entirely within the American Federation of Musician’s recording ban.
After leaving Brown, Lee worked solo on the West Coast. In January 1944, she opened in the musical revue Insults of 1944 at the Playtime theater in Los Angeles. She made two soundies early that year: Buy a Swell Time for a Dime with The Four Guardsmen and Bird in a Guilded Cage with The Four Ladykillers, the latter a remake of the 1900 hit song in which she played the titular role. In July, Lee sang at the Trocadero night club in Hollywood and appeared as guest vocalist on CBS radio’s Music Shop.
By November 1944, Lee had joined Henry Busse. She remained with Busse’s band through 1945, making her first recordings with them. After Busse scrapped most of his orchestra and formed a new one in early 1946, she married Busse’s former manager, Wally Brady, in New York on April 8. Lee then returned to the West Coast, where that summer she appeared in revivals of the Broadway hit Meet the People and the musical revue The Little Show.
In October, Lee was back in New York with her own radio program on WNEW, and in December she began engagements at both Cafe Society locations. She signed with the Sonora label late that year.
Lee remained at WNEW through at least May 1947. In early 1948, she was back on the West Coast, where she became a regular at the famous Charley Foy’s Supper Club for the next year-and-a-half. In late 1949, she recorded on the Tempo label, which was one of the early leaders in releasing 45rpm singles.
In 1950 and 1951, Lee made a number of appearances on television. She became a semi-regular on Frank Sinatra’s program, not only singing but taking part in comedy sketches. Lee continued performing in night clubs on both coasts and earned a small part as a performer in the RKO film The Blue Veil in which she also dubbed two songs for actress Joan Blondell. In 1952 and 1953, she appeared several times on Vaughn Monroe’s radio program, described as both a singer and comedienne.
Lee recorded on Decca from 1951 to 1954, where she often did crossover country tunes. In 1954, she signed with the “X” label, a division of RCA Victor geared towards handling the development of new artists. She recorded on “X” through 1955. In 1959, Walter Winchell announced that Lee had come out of a six-year retirement to join Ben Blue’s show, though which show that was is unknown as is what Lee retired from in 1953. In the fall of 1961, she sang in the new Roundup Room of the Ranch Club in Palm Springs, accompanied by Hal Rogers on the piano. She then vanished from the records.
Lee was 5’6" (168cm) and weighed 120 pounds (54.4 kg). She had brown eyes and dark brown hair and loved baseball, swimming and horseback riding.
Sonora was a low-cost division of a large radio firm that sold 78s for 39 cents, well below the standard price. The label’s establishment caused a furor in the recording industry as no one believed they could make a profit at such a low cost and other distributors felt that Sonora was simply using the label to publicize their name. Sonora signed only lesser-known artists and rumors were that they paid their talent below the standard rate. ↩︎