Like so many Chicago blues artists, Lil Green
first learned her craft in the church and country jukes down in Mississippi. After moving to Chicago in the 1930s, she teamed up with Chicago mainstay Big Bill Broonzy
and they worked the club circuit together. Her composition "Romance in the Dark" was a 1940 Bluebird hit and in 1941 she followed it with a best-selling version of fellow Mississippi Joe McCoy
's minor-key blues novelty "Why Don't You Do Right?" By then she had outgrown Big Bill
and the tavern scene and moved east to work as a rhythm & blues band vocalist. For the next ten years she enjoyed a successful career touring theaters and clubs and recording for RCA, Aladdin, and Atlantic, all major R&B labels.
When she died in Chicago in 1954 she was only 35 years old. Her experiences paralleled those of her male contemporaries and she made it bigger than most. From Southern jukes to Chicago clubs and on to the Apollo Theater, she participated in the major blues institutions of her time during the golden age of blues history. She was no stranger to trouble. According to R.H. Harris, the leader of the legendary gospel Soul Stirrers
, she served time in prison because of her involvement in a juke-joint killing. He also remembered that she sang religious songs beautifully. Her former partner, Big Bill
, remembered her in his autobiography as a deeply religious woman who neither smoked nor drank and as a warm-hearted friend.
Today, however, few people remember her or her fine work, though they may be familiar with Peggy Lee
's cover of her big hit "Why Don't You Do Right?" We can only wonder why she has been overlooked while more obscure male guitar players with lesser output have received substantially more critical attention. Whatever the case, during her brief career, she proved to be one of the best blues vocalists of her time and her contemporary African-American audience appreciated her art. She deserves her place in history, and today's listener would do well to listen to her music.