|Lil Greenwood at 2009 Ponderosa Stomp. House of Blues, New Orleans|
Photo © Ron Weinstock
A preacher's daughter from Pritchard, Alabama, who moved to the San Francisco Bay area where she found work as a nightclub singer and entertainer. In the early fifties, she spent three years with Roy Milton and His Solid Senders and her sessions for Modern Records were cut with this band with her first release being the June 1950 issued blues belter "Heart Full Of Pain," that was coupled with the up-tempo "Boogie All Night Long," that featured Jackie Kelso on alto sax and Camille Howard on piano. The Modern sides also included a live pair of songs recorded at Gene Norman's "Blues Jubilee."
She then recorded for Federal Records, a subsidiary of the Cincinnati based King Records. Her sessions were recorded in Los Angeles under the direction of legendary producer Ralph Bass (who produced among other things James Brown's first recordings. These sides were often with vocal backing by the likes of the Four Jacks or Thurston Harris and the Lamplighters along with "Monday Morning Blues," a vocal duet with Little Willie Littlefield.
All of the Modern and Federal recordings were issued on a wonderful English Ace reissue, "Walking and Singing the Blues." After these recordings she returned to the San Francisco area returning to nightclubs and where her manager got Duke Ellington to listen to her. Ellington was quoted, in the April 1960 Ebony Magazine, about her, “This girl has a voice that’s a mixture of Marian Anderson, Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington and Mahalia Jackson; and I don’t know but what she’s better on spirituals than when she’s walking and singing the blues." It led her to singing with the Ellington Orchestra from 1956 to the early sixties.
Eventually she returned to Alabama to take care of relatives and dropped from public view. Her career enjoyed a renaissance after 2000 as she received awards, had her early recordings reissued and recorded a new album, "Back to My Roots" with composer David Amram and others. She was much beloved and there was a concert in her honor this past Sunday which she was unable to attend.
I had the pleasure to see her as part of the Ponderosa Stomp in late April 2009 and she was terrific. Still a singer of great style and feeling, she brought perhaps a more uptown sheen to her performances than most of those that night. There is an you tube video of her singing "Summertime" from that performance. It was my only opportunity to see her perform but a memorable one. Her legacy is perhaps not as known as it should have been, but she touched many over the years.
In drafting this blog entry, I have drawn heavily on (and paraphrased) material from her website, http://www.lilgreenwood.net/, along with the Ace Records website entry on her reissue, http://www.acerecords.co.uk/content.php?page_id=59&release=813, and the Press-Register blog on her passing, http://blog.al.com/entertainment-press-register/2011/07/memorial_services_thursday_fri.html.