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.