Considering that Lillie Bryant Howard was born to sing and exceptionally talented, it's surely no accident that she was destined to hit the bigtime with two major hit recordings at a very young age. But the way she became part of an immensely popular duo that bears her name was an ACCIDENT and living proof that great things can and often do happen if you happen to BE AT THE RIGHT PLACE AT THE RIGHT TIME and SEIZE THE OPPORTUNITY.
Born in Newburgh, NY, about an hour and a half from New York City, Lillie always loved music. Her initial public singing was in the church as a very young child. Her favorite singers were Dinah Washington, Ruth Brown and Nat "King" Cole. Her grandmother would frequently take her to New York City's legendary Apollo Theater to see many of music's biggest performers. Young Lillie vowed to herself "one day I'm gonna be on that stage." And when she turned 14, she WAS on that stage! She appeared during an amateur night and did a rousing rendition of Ruth's signature song "(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean" and tore the house down.
For the next few years she performed in New York City working at different clubs. When she was 17, a dancer at one of the clubs loved her singing and told her that a popular bandleader-arranger-musician-singer named Billy Ford was looking for a female vocalist to be part of his ensemble. Lillie followed up and a couple of months later, Billy invited her to come down and audition for him. On the day of the audition, it just so happened that the regular girl singer with his group did not show up due to illness. So Lillie turned out to be the only one there that afternoon. And that's where the happy accident took place that changed her life. Unbeknowst to Lillie, two very successful producer-songwriters named Bob Crewe and Frank Slay (they wrote and produced the Rays' million-selling hit "Silhouettes) were there to audition Billy's group, which was called Billy Ford's Thunderbirds. Frank and Bob happened to be looking for a duo to record a song that they had written called "La Dee Dah." Being that they were looking for a duo and the young lady who was usually with Billy was not there, they said pointing to Lillie "what does SHE sound like?" Billy said "I don't know! I was going to audition her after you leave." But Bob said "well, we'd like to hear her." They asked Lillie to sing and she chose the Ruth Brown song "(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean." After she sang, they opened up a briefcase and pulled out the sheet music of "La Dee Dah" and said "would the two of you please sing THIS song together"? This was strange because, at this point, Billy and Lillie had no connection to each other. But a somewhat bewildered Billy and Lillie obliged and Bob and Frank loved what they heard. Following their impromptu performance, Frank and Bob looked at each other, nodded their heads and said in unison "we got our duo"! Lillie's scheduled audition for Billy Ford never happened. Instead her unscheduled audition for Bob and Frank DID happen and Billy and Lillie passed with flying colors. Strange things do sometimes happen in the music biz.
Bob and Frank named the duo "Billy and Lillie" and they hit the jackpot by releasing a string of very catchy recordings. In almost no time at all they recorded "La Dee Dah," a song with a gimmick. Its lyrics mentioned the names of hit records that were on the chart at the time. ("You're 'My Special Angel,' my 'Be-Bop Baby,' my 'Little Bitty Pretty' pet.") In almost no time at all, the record was released on the Swan label and it zoomed to the top ten on the Billboard and Cash Box charts. It was the first of several national hits by the accidental duo. Next came "Happiness," which Dick Clark played every day on "American Bandstand" as his daily "dance contest" record. Then came "Lucky Ladybug," which became Billy and Lillie's second biggest hit: like "La Dee Dah," its lyrics mentioned other hits ("'Stupid Cupid' gave me 'Fever' and an 'Itchy Twitchy Feeling'"); it made the national top 20. Their next national hit, "Bells, Bells, Bells," has over the years developed a cult following throughout the country. During their meteoric success, they appeared on the top TV programs devoted to music including Dick Clark's "American Bandstand" and his Saturday Night "Beech Nut" show and Patti Page's "Big Record." They also appeared on a six-week tour with the Alan Freed "Big Beat Show" along with the biggest recording artists in the business. But to Lillie her most thrilling appearance as part of Billy and Lillie was a seven-day stint at the Apollo Theater (yes, she was back on THAT stage): the event was the Battle Of The Duos; it was Billy and Lillie versus Mickey and Sylvia. You ask who won? The answer is, the audience!
While releasing records as half of the Billy and Lillie duo, Lillie also released solo records as Lillie Bryant which became regional hits. They included "Smoky Gray Eyes," "The Gambler," "I'll Never Be Free," and "Good Good Morning Baby."
Billy and Lillie broke up in 1959 but Lillie never stopped singing. Her primary musical focus over the years has changed from catchy rock and roll tunes to jazz and blues. But yes, she still performs the old Billy and Lillie hits including a critically-acclaimed brand new solo version of "La Dee Dah." Recently Lille was a featured principle, along with jazz vocalist Sheila Jordan, in the off-Broadway production of "The Beatnik Cafe." She has also been doing a tribute to Dinah Washington since the fall of 2009 at many East Coast nightclubs. And, for good measure, she recently recorded a highly-acclaimed updated solo version of her million-selling hit "La Dee Dah" which she plans to have released in the future.
Lillie is an amazing singer with an amazing story that includes seizing opportunities and persevering. And she has won many accolades celebrating her versatility. This lucky ladybug can hardly wait for her NEXT performance! Wow! La dee dah!
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