Lil Green

Lil Green - Port Gibson

Lil Green was known as the Queen of the Blues in the early 1940s when her distinctive, seductive voice was highlighted on “Romance in the Dark,” “Why Don’t You Do Right?” and other blues and pop songs recorded for the Bluebird label. Born Lillie Mae Johnson in or near Port Gibson in 1901, she lived with her family in the College Street area as a child. She began her professional career in Chicago and later toured the country as a top attraction. She died in Chicago in 1954.

Lil Green was one of the nation’s best-loved African-American singers of her era, hailed in an Apollo Theater ad as “the greatest of all blues singers” when she appeared in Harlem in 1943. Her unique blues style and repertoire, incorporating jazz, gospel and pop, engendered widespread appeal, and she attained heights reached only by an elite number of blues singers of the 1940s. Green exuded youthful sweetness and charm yet retained a sultry, streetwise allure in her high-pitched delivery. Upon meeting her one writer described her as “disarmingly down to earth.”

Green and several siblings left Port Gibson at a young age after the deaths of their parents, Elias Johnson and Ida Crockett. In Chicago, by various accounts, she was discovered singing at a revival meeting, sang along to records at her job in a department store, worked as a singing waitress, and got her first break when friends convinced a bandleader to let her do a number at a South Side club. Her biggest hit, “Romance in the Dark,” cowritten by Green and Big Bill Broonzy, came from her first recording session in 1940 for the Bluebird label, a subsidiary of RCA Victor. By 1941 Green was out on tour and on her way to stardom, already billed as the “Queen of the Blues” and the “In the Dark Mama.” Her recording of “Why Don’t You Do Right?” (written by Joe McCoy from Raymond, Mississippi) also earned classic status and was a smash hit for Peggy Lee, vocalist with the Benny Goodman band, in 1943. Broonzy, Simeon Henry and Vicksburg native Ransom Knowling played on Green’s first five sessions. They also made some early Southern tours with her, according to Broonzy, but once Green graduated to the upper echelons of black entertainment, her booking agency teamed her with the big bands of Tiny Bradshaw, Milt Larkin, and Luis Russell for shows at the country’s top African-American theaters including the Regal in Chicago, Howard in Washington, D.C., Royal in Baltimore, Paradise (one in Detroit and another in Nashville), and Apollo in New York. She also performed for whites at Café Society and the Blue Angel in New York, the Downtown Theater in Chicago and many segregated venues in the South where special seating was reserved for whites.

In the late 1940s Green partnered, on and offstage, with trumpeter Howard Callender, who played on several of her last RCA Victor records. Green continued to tour even as her record sales were declining, but uterine cancer began to take its toll. She recorded for the Aladdin label in 1949 and Atlantic in 1951 and was still able to play at the Regal and smaller Chicago venues, Detroit’s Flame Show Bar and other spots in the 1950s. She died in Chicago on April 14, 1954, of bronchopneumonia and was buried in Gary, Indiana, where her older brother Scott Johnson worked in a steel mill. She was only 34, according to published accounts based on her press biography and her death certificate, which listed her birthdate as December 22, 1919. But her girlish looks had enabled her to hide her true age. Her headstone bears a 1905 date of birth and she cited 1910 on her Social Security application. But her 1910 census entry points to a 1901 birth date, if she was born in December; hence, she would have been 52 when she died.

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