Born in Chicago, Illinois in 1923, Dee was an only child (though it is sometimes erroneously reported that he was one of eleven or twelve children). As a child, he sang in his church’s choir; he also played ukulele and accordion. As a teenager, he turned playing the accordion into a profession, which he continued until he was drafted into the Navy during World War II in 1943.
Upon his return from service, Dee spent his Navy earnings on a Hammond Model A organ, one of the earliest of its kind. With money from the G.I. Bill, he received instruction in organ at the Chicago Conservatory of Music. Afterward, he began playing hotels and night clubs in the south in the late 1940s to some degree of success, but very little fame and no record contracts.
It was not until the early 1950s that Dee was signed up to Decca after country singer Red Foley heard him playing at the Plantation Inn in Nashville, Tennessee, and thought Dee’s country flavour would be a good contrast to the label’s then prominent organist, Ethel Smith.
Dee made good, and his original composition, Plantation Boogie charted at #18 in 1955. Dee re-recorded the hit on numerous albums, and was often imitated, even plagiarized, but never duplicated.
Dee ventured into recording albums for Decca starting in 1954 with his first LP, Dee-lightful. Part of Dee’s charm was his albums’ zany covers featuring Dee in various situations, and titles with puns that usually included his name, such as Dee-Lirious, Dee-Licious, and Dee-Most! His recording featured organ with other instruments. He was nearly always backed by percussion; depending on the song, he also recorded with guitar; bass; a backup chorus; strings; horns such as saxophones, trombones, trumpets; and even the banjo.
When Dee married his wife, Hendrica, in 1960, the couple settled down in Sarasota and eventually St. Petersburg, Florida, which would become the base of Lenny’s operations for the rest of his career. They had two children. Lenny Dee Jr., his drummer, was one of three children from his first marriage (Betty).
Despite his contract with Decca, Lenny Dee’s first love was live performance. In the mid-1950s he performed for several summers at the Lake Breeze Hotel lounge, at Buckeye Lake, just east of Columbus, Ohio. Around 1960, he played for a few years at a lounge in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. In 1967, after performing regularly in hotel lounges at St. Petersburg Beach like the Desert Ranch and Dolphin Beach resorts, Dee started a night club named Lenny Dee’s Dolphin Den. He later opened Lenny Dee’s King’s Inn a few miles away. His supper club format — with dinner, drinks and his musical and his comedy routines — was popular with local fans and visitors from around the world. The club’s menu included the “One Pound Pork Chop,” along with other selections.
His routine included corny jokes and wild hat and costume routines that Dee was noted for. A lover of animals, Dee often included his pet dogs (particularly one black poodle he owned named “Miss Muffett”) in his routine, with the dogs barking along with some of his numbers.
His television credits include appearances on Toast of the Town with Ed Sullivan, The Tonight Show with Jack Paar, The Lawrence Welk Show, and later Nashville Now. Dee even had his own show in the mid-50s on WFLA-TV in Tampa, Florida called Ladies’ Day with Lenny Dee; it enjoyed a brief run.
Dee continued recording into the 1970s, adding a background orchestra in the late ’60s as many other easy listening performers were doing at the time. By the late 1970s, Dee was in less demand. After recording 56 albums, he was finally dropped from the MCA label, along with many other easy listening artists.
Dee spent the rest of his career at his night clubs and on tour, but the demand for his music continued to decline. In 1999, Dee played on a series of cruise ship tours. He retired in 2003. He died on February 12, 2006 in St. Petersburg.
After his discharge from the Navy, Dee bought a Hammond Model A organ. He later customized this instrument with a Hammond Solovox, a Maas-Rowe Vibrachord, and Leslie speakers (model 31-H). He also had a tape echo built into his organ, allowing him to create his trademark re-echo sound.
In the early 1960s, Dee recorded on a Wurlitzer organ overdubbed with his Hammond Model A. In 1967, he started recording on a Hammond X-66; in 1972, he switched to a Hammond Concorde. In the 1970s, he also recorded on Yamaha and Thomas organs. Other keyboards he used include the Hammond Piper, which he used for its trumpet and harpsichord sounds, and the ARP synthesizer.