Rolland Lee, Q&A
What do you consider your greatest accomplishment?
"That I lasted so long and that I'm still going."
Away from work, what do you enjoy doing?
"I enjoy going out with friends and family and I go to a lot of shows at the Winspear. I'm also a TV addict. I like movies and musicals, adventure and history. And I like reality shows."
If you were a tree or an animal, what kind of tree or animal would you be?
"I'd probably be a spruce tree. I like the shape and I like the smell and I like them at Christmas. I always decorate them so beautifully. It takes me two days to put one up and about three days to take it down."
When you were eight, what did you want to be when you grew up?
"I probably wanted to be a nurse. That's what all my friends ended up being."
How would you describe your fashion style?
"I buy clothes that don't date themselves. I think I have more of a classic style. I buy conventional clothes that I can dress up with jewelry."
What are your favourite colours?
"I'm a winter and I like hot pinks. I wear a lot of black and white. That's probably because I buy a lot of black for performing."
No singer I have ever met reminds me as much of Frank Sinatra as Rollanda Lee. Like ole Blue Eyes, she is a straight shooter who loves a good laugh and harbours no regrets about life.
"What you see is what you get," Lee said with the straightforward expression and body language of a woman at peace with her journey.
Curious about the world, she has travelled across North America, Japan and parts of Europe, singing in seven languages. But like a wandering minstrel, she always returns home.
To most of us, Lee is a dynamic force in Edmonton's Dixieland jazz scene and at one time was K-Days most popular Klondike Kate. To her family and friends in Legal she is simply "one of us."
The daughter of Adrien and Bernadette Hebert, Lee's formative years were actually spent in Villeneuve. With a smile on her face and a faraway look in her eye, she tells the story of her birth.
"I was born on the road. Dad was driving Mum to the hospital and it was pouring rain. I was coming and he stopped at the nearest farmhouse and a midwife delivered me. I started life on the road and I'm still on travelling."
Like most francophone Catholics, the Heberts were a large, but close family of eight. At a relatively young age, the Heberts moved to Legal where Adrien opened up a trucking business and later a butcher shop.
It was the '50s and along with every other young girl in town, Lee attended the Legal Convent by day and took piano lessons from the nuns after school.
"I was so busy with piano my sisters used to tease me I'd get out of doing dishes to play piano."
After finishing school, Lee moved to Edmonton and found a job at the Misericordia Hospital. Working at the hospital was the first of many jobs she would hold to support her music career including secretary, tour co-coordinator and perfume saleswoman.
Ida Banks, owner of Banks Music, a booking agency that was an Edmonton mainstay, recalls hiring Lee to help in the office.
"She had a wonderful sense of humour and didn't take anything seriously. She was great fun and easy to be around. She didn't hesitate to help other artists coming through the ranks."
Lee's professional career took its first step in the mid-sixties when she auditioned for the Edmonton Opera Choir and was accepted as a lyric soprano.
Carmen Tita, owner of Tita's Restaurant, was delighted with the young beauty's lively voice and vivacious personality. For three years, he hired Lee to entertain the pasta-loving crowd with songs in French, English and Italian. She also sings in Spanish, German, Japanese and Hebrew.
During the '60s Klondike Days was the talk of the town. As one of the Klondike Kates, Lee became an official Northlands ambassador, entertaining at 70 conventions a year and travelling as far away as Texas, Brussels and Japan to promote Edmonton.
Playing the part with panache, Lee ordered 45 one-of-a-kind Klondike Kate costumes from Shirley Potter, some costing as much as $4,000.
Noting her professionalism, Banks added, "She was very aware of what she wanted to present. She went to great lengths and great expense to maintain a wardrobe. She worked very hard to have up to date material. She was very conscientious and still presents herself well today."
One of Lee's fondest memories was attending the 1967 Quebec Winter Carnival as Kate at the Grand Ball at the Hotel Chateau Frontenac.
"Everybody would circle around the ballroom. I wore a long red dress with ostrich feathers and a long white cape and a red headpiece. Everybody thought I was a French movie star." Lee still revels in the memory.
But it was Hawaii that captivated her imagination.
"Back in the '70s my youngest sister was an airline hostess and she worked for Ward Air. She was bilingual so they posted her in Hawaii. I went to visit her. One day in shorts and a halter-top we went to the Hilton Hawaiian Village. I didn't know it, but she went up to the band and asked them to call me up. I went up and sang a song. The band was incredible. It's like I'd been singing with them for years. I went back every Sunday until I flew home."
Lee returned to the islands for six months every year for the next 25 years. Singing at the Royal Hawaiian, she performed with Big Band leader Del Courtney and met Tony Curtis during the charity fundraiser The Heart Ball, a Valentine's Day event celebrated with an 18-piece orchestra.
On the other side of the world, Lee performed for the NATO countries in Brussels.
"All the countries put on a specialty night where they try to outdo each other. We put together a show of army wives dressed as can-can dancers and everybody loved it."
Over the years Lee has taken on the role of president of the Edmonton Dixieland Jazz Society.
Tongue in cheek, she said, "Nobody else wants to do it. By now I know everybody by their first name."
The City of Edmonton certainly is proud of her accomplishments. Lee was nominated as the YWCA Woman of Distinction. Last year, she received a citation from the City of Edmonton for her "dedication and commitment to excellence" to local arts and culture.
"My music is my life. It's been quite eventful, busy and happy. I'm very lucky that I met so many wonderful people in my travels."