Born: November 18, 1924 | Died: July 19, 2011 Primary Instrument: Vocalist
Rightly best known for her time as one the main singers for the Duke Ellington Orchestra in the late 50s and early 60s, Lil Greenwood's polished performances in those times always gave more than a hint of her blues and R&B background. The Duke remarked of her I don't know but what, whether she's better on spirituals or when she's walking and singing the blues.
Lil's roots were put down in November 1924 in the little town of Prichard in the Acadian delta country of Lower Alabama (known locally as the other L.A.;). Before school age she already was sharing her vocal charms with the adoring parishioners of her father's cypress-planked Baptist Church.
In 1948, this 24-year-old Afro-American woman from the other L.A. withdrew the meager savings earned as an elementary school teacher in segregated Prichard Public Schools and boarded a train for San Francisco. Lil also took with her the vague dream of maybe making it in music and expectations of a reunion with her husband, due back in San Francisco from service with the US Army in Japan.
The reunion never happened, but Lil did land a job singing at San Francisco's Purple Onion, and she refused demands by her husband that she quit and join him back in Prichard to raise a family. One of his last requests when he died recently was for Lil to sing at his funeral.
Lil learned quickly that there wasn't a big demand on the San Francisco jazz scene for the hymns and spirituals which she was known for back in Prichard and the three or four secular songs she knew were woefully insufficient for an aspiring jazz club diva. She not only learned more music fast but she started composing her own, some of it included in Back to My Roots. It was a typical evening at the Purple Onion until an unusually well-dressed patron strolled in. Duke Ellington had just finished his own Bay Area performance. Lil was excited but had nearly forgotten about it until Duke himself phoned her a week later from New York.
Could she be in Manhattan by Sunday afternoon to meet with him and Billy Strayhorn? After a late dinner, Duke and Strayhorn surprised her with an invitation to sit in at a midnight recording session. Duke always liked to record in the wee hours. She was savoring the dream scene she had been cast into when suddenly Duke pointed at me and said, ‘Okay, that's where you come in. ’We did just one take and Duke said it was a wrap. That night Duke nicknamed me, 'One Take Lil'.
By midweek, Lil was with the Ellington Orchestra in Boston and a week after that they were on stage at the Newport Jazz Festival. More weeks went by and ‘Walkin’ and Singin’ the Blues’ was released to critical acclaim on the flip side of a 45 with another Duke Ellington creation.
From there began a three decade-long musical roller coaster ride that took Lil to every major American city, Europe, Asia, Australia and countless stages in between.
Years later when she performed and partied with the likes of Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughn and others not known for conservative lifestyles and restrained social conduct, Lil still never smoked, drank or drugged. “I always imagined that my Daddy was looking over my shoulder and I never wanted to let him down or disappoint him. I never preached to my friends about their habits or anything like that, but I did usually leave the parties before they did, she laughs.
I got to Stray's apartment about five in the afternoon. He and Duke had already taken the song I had written to open and close my shows, 'Walkin' and Singin' the Blues', and added more lyrics and verses.”
Thanks to: Debi DeltaDiva Bivens