Lil Greenwood discusses her roots with David Calametti and Mod Mobilian, April 2010:
Lil’s was born in 1923 in Prichard. Her father was a minister at a Baptist Church. Lil attended Alabama State College.
In 1948, at 24-years-old, she quit her job as elementary school teacher in Prichard and boarded a train for San Francisco for a reunion with her husband, due back from service with the US Army.
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.
She recorded R&B singles with the Modern label in 1950 and King and Federal Records in 1952/3. Her singles from this era are available on the 2004 Ace Records CD “Walking and Singing the Blues”.
In 1956, Duke Ellington saw Lil perform at the Purple Onion one night. 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?
“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.”
After a late dinner, Duke and Strayhorn surprised her with an invitation to sit in at a midnight recording session. “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 on the flip side of a 45. She worked with Duke and his son Mercer Ellington until the early 1960s.
After her stint in Ellington’s band ended, Greenwood recorded sporadically for other labels like NRC, Reprise, and Tangerine, and made some appearance on TV series, including The Tonight Show, Good Times, and The Jeffersons.
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.
In 2002 a retrospective CD of her early 1950s recordings “Walking and Singing the Blues” was released on Ace Records. Lil returned to Mobile and in 2007 she recorded the CD “Back to My Roots” with David Amram. She suffered a stroke in 2010 and afterwards was unable to perform again. She passed away July 19, 2011.
Lil with Hosea London at Serda’s, March 2010:
Interview & Performance “Back To My Roots” with The E.B. Coleman Orchestra at the Saenger Theater on September 1, 2007: