Lil Greenwood

Vocalist Lil Greenwood (1924-2011) is best known for her contralto voice in her work in the early 1950s in her collaborations with rhythm and blues (R&B) and blues musician Roy Milton and the Four Jacks group as well as in her own recordings. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, she was a soloist with the famed Duke Ellington Orchestra. Growing up immersed in gospel music, Greenwood developed her own musical style with elements of gospel, jazz, blues, and post-war R&B but never became a major star in the music and entertainment industry.

Lil Greenwood was born Lillian Belle George on November 18, 1924, in Prichard, Mobile County. She was one of four children of Maggie and Sylvester George Sr., pastor of Cedar Grove Baptist Church. Greenwood began singing at an early age in front of her father's congregation, frequently performing her rendition of the "Precious Lord" hymn and quickly learned to sing in the gospel style. Determined to expand her repertoire to blues and jazz in her efforts to become a successful singer, Greenwood began performing in the only two clubs in Prichard, against the wishes of her minister father.

Greenwood attended Alabama State College (present-day Alabama State University) in Montgomery, Montgomery County. In 1943, she married Elmer Greenwood, a laborer who was serving in the U.S. Army. After graduating, Greenwood became an elementary school teacher at the Josephine Allen Institute, an all-black private school in Prichard. While teaching, she became more determined than ever to make it as a singer. In 1947, Greenwood entered and won the Amateur Night competition at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York, with her rendition of "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself A Letter." Further encouraged by the Mobile County Schools music supervisor and gifted $100 for travel expenses by her school's headmistress, Greenwood quit her job and boarded a bus to California in 1949 to fully pursue a singing career. She almost immediately found work singing in the Slim Jenkins' Club in San Francisco, making around $250 a week. After her husband's return from his military service, Greenwood refused to meet him or agree to his requests that she stop singing and return to Prichard. Instead, she continued booking sets at local San Francisco clubs.

In 1950, while singing at the Purple Onion club, Greenwood was discovered by R&B bandleader Roy Milton. For three years, Greenwood would accompany Milton and His Solid Senders on their coast-to-coast tour, covering 50,000 miles in a single year. From 1950 to 1953, Greenwood recorded her most popular music with the Modern Records label. "Heart Full of Pain" was the first single released under her name, backed with "Boogie All Night Long," in July 1950 and achieved some notoriety. It was followed quickly by "Ain't Gonna Cry" and "Come Back Baby." In the fall, Modern Records released the single "I'm Going to Cry" backed by "Dissatisfied Blues," and the following year Greenwood released "Young Blood" paired with "Sitting and Wondering." Greenwood's last recording with Modern Records was "No More Heart Full of Pain" backed with "Open Your Eyes." She moved to King Records and recorded other songs during this time with King and its subsidiary Federal Records, with her first single being a duet with Little Willie Littlefield titled "Monday Morning Blues" and accompanied by the Four Jacks vocal group; it was backed by "My Last Hour." Other singles included "Boogie All Night Long," "Come Back Baby," "Grandpa Can Boogie Too," and "Never Again," but none achieved much notice.

In addition to her recording career, Greenwood continued singing in San Francisco clubs. It was at this time that Greenwood came to the attention of agent Gloria Gundry, who recognized Greenwood's talent and arranged for her to sing at the popular 4-40 Club in North Beach, also home to later superstar Johnny Mathis. Greenwood would perform among the house talent at the club for two years and then returned to the nationally known Purple Onion, where she again became part of the house talent. While there, she was invited to perform on TV host Arthur Godfrey's variety show, and Greenwood sang George Gershwin's "Summertime" from the opera Porgy and Bess. In 1956, Gundry convinced renowned bandleader Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington to see one of Greenwood's shows at the Purple Onion. Impressed, he called Greenwood a week later and invited her to Chicago to perform with his band. She accepted, acquired a professional agent, and became the new soloist for the Duke Ellington Orchestra. In 1958, she performed with the band at New York's famed Apollo Theater and at the Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island and the following year toured Asia, Europe, and the Eastern Bloc countries. Also in 1959, Greenwood cowrote the single "Walkin' and Singin' the Blues" with Ellington and composer Billy Strayhorn and recorded it for Columbia Records. For six years, Greenwood toured as a soloist with the Duke Ellington Orchestra and was featured on Ellington's 1963 album My People, a musical record of black history in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Ellington praised Greenwood in an issue of Ebony magazine, describing her voice as a fusion of popular singers Marian Anderson, Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, and Mahalia Jackson. Amid this rise in success, Greenwood also recorded sporadically on various record labels, such as NRC, Reprise, and Tangerine during the early 1960s.

In the 1970s, performing and recording opportunities for Greenwood declined. After Ellington's death in 1974, Greenwood continued singing with the orchestra, then led by his son, Mercer. She occasionally sang with Ray Charles as one of his backing "Raylettes" as well, but performance opportunities dwindled. Greenwood thus began to study acting at the Inner City Cultural Center and would make numerous cameo television appearances on shows such as The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, The Jeffersons, The Flip Wilson Show, and Good Times. She also toured with the musicals Hello Dolly, My People, Buffalo Chips, Wedding Band, Back Alley Tales, and Dark Symphony. In 1986, after the death of her mother, Greenwood retired from music and entertainment completely and returned to Mobile to help care for her father.

Greenwood experienced a renaissance of sorts in the early 2000s, when British label Ace Records released a compilation compact disc of Greenwood's 1950s R&B singles, Walking & Singing the Blues (2002). In 2003, Alabama governor Bob Riley honored her for her lifetime achievements by declaring July 28, 2003, as Lil Greenwood Day in Alabama. Also during this time, Greenwood was inducted into Mobile's Gulf Coast Ethnic and Heritage Jazz Festival Hall of Fame. In 2007, Greenwood spent two days recording the album Back to My Roots with composer David Amram. It received wide critical acclaim but would ultimately be her last. In 2010, Greenwood suffered a stroke and was thereafter unable to perform or make public appearances.

On July 17, 2011, friends, fans, and family joined together at the Alabama School of Mathematics and Science auditorium in Mobile for a tribute concert to celebrate Greenwood's music and career. Greenwood was unable to attend owing to health issues and died just two days later, on July 19, 2011, in Prichard.

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