Lillian Goodhue

Jazz Vocals - Soprano Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway

Born: 1896  Montgomery, AL

Died: 1994


From the 1920's to the mid-1950's, Lillian "Biddie" Paige appeared under the stage name of Lillian Goodhue

She was a regular at a Chicago State Street Club as a singer and dancer. She appeared solo and with Annie Mae Crowder (Johnson) as The Creole Girls.

She worked with Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Lena Horne, Louis Armstrong and Count Basie and performed, occasionally, for Big Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Clark Gable, Joe Lewis, Judy Garland and performed for Al Capone.


Source: Alabama Music Hall of Fame





THE CAREER OF ONE MONTGOMERY-born singer spanned nearly five decades, yet her name is not nearly as recognizable as those of the friends who shared her spotlight: Josephine Baker, Gab Galloway, Duke Ellington, and Bessie Smith. Her name might have remained obscure if not for an exciting discovery in 1994. A collection of extraordinary and rare photographs found in a storage shed shortly before her death illuminates once again the life and career of Lillian Goodner.

She was born Lillian Paige in 1896. As a young girl, she went to live with family in Chicago, where educational opportunities were better. Chicago, one of the cities where jazz music would take flight, could not have been a more perfect city for Lillian's burgeoning talent. While finishing her education there, she entered and won many talent contests, singing popular songs of the day. It was not long before the young girl from Alabama made the quick transition from amateur contests to professional entertaining and began touring big cities throughout the country.

In the 1920s, crowds of all races enjoyed musical shows featuring black artists. Paired with her girlhood friend from Montgomery, Mae Growder, Lillian toured with such shows; the duo called themselves "The Creole Sisters." Lillian toured with many shows and many producers throughout the early 1920s. In 1921 she performed with a show under the direction of former Alabama resident Spencer Williams, who would later direct the great Josephine Baker in Paris. Throughout her career, Lillian would encounter many of the biggest names in the business.


She recorded her first songs for Ajax Records of Chicago in 1923. In a powerful and mature voice, Lillian performed such songs as "Chicago Blues," "No One Can Toddle Like My Cousin Sue," and "Awful Moanin' Blues." Two songs from that era, "Four Flushing Papa (You've Got to Play Me Straight)" and "Gonna' Get Somebody's Daddy (Just Wait and See)," featured cornet playing by Bubber Miley, whose distinctive use of the plunger mute would influence the sounds of Duke Ellington, Cootie Williams, Ray Nance, and other jazz trumpeters.

By the mid-1920s Lillian Goodner was touring Canada and major cities such as New York, Chicago, St. Louis, Minneapolis, and San Francisco. She even performed in Europe and as far from home as Australia. By the early 1930s Duke Ellington and his band were backing her up on her solo tour, which included the spotlight of New York's Cotton Club. It was during early morning practices at the Cotton Club that Duke took to calling Lillian by her nickname, "Biddie."

A few years later, Lillian married William Penn and moved from Chicago to Minneapolis to make a home. But even married life could not keep the dedicated entertainer at home; she continued to travel the nightclub circuit throughout the Midwest, performing often in Minneapolis, St. Louis, and Chicago. When the Second World War broke out, Lillian sang in U.S.O. shows in Detroit, Oakland, and even her hometown of Montgomery where, in 1942, she and Glenn Miller entertained troops at Maxwell Field.

As the country moved into the 1950s, Lillian Goodner took her talent to a new venue: television. While continuing to play in clubs, she performed on WTCN-TV in Minneapolis. At the pinnacle of her career, she was billed as "Sister Lillian: Queen of the Sepias."

Lillian was Queen of the Sepias in more than one respect. Resides just a stage name, Queen of the Sepias is also appropriate in describing the photographic legacy she left of her career and travels and friends. Throughout her career, she collected publicity photos of entertainers such as Cab Calloway, Bessie Smith, Josephine Baker, and Glenn Miller. She also took a personal camera on many of her tours in the United States and Canada. Her collection of sepia photographs and their inscriptions offer valuable insights into the world in which these entertainers lived. In some cases, Lillian's photographs represent the only known images of the once-celebrated performers of her era.

By 1960 a widowed Lillian had returned to Alabama where she entertained at the occasional private party. Even into the 1970s Lillian would don her favorite dress -one she wore on television in the 1950s-and delight the fellow residents of her nursing home with the nostalgic sounds of their youth. She lived to be almost one hundred years old, and it was in the last few months of her life that her photographic collection resurfaced.

Lillian's elderly nephew, Clarence, had been cared for by a couple from his church, the Gadsons. After Clarence died in 1994, just a few months before his aunt Lillian's passing, the Gadsons began to clean his storage shed and found a large bag. When they opened the bag they were surprised to find eight-by-ten pictures of Cab Galloway, Etta Moten, Valaida Snow, and other performers. Many of the publicity photos were lovingly inscribed to Lillian Goodner. The Gadsons took the photographs to Clarence's Aunt Lillian Penn at her nursing home in Montgomery. Although the couple had been taking care of her during Clarence's illness, they had no idea she was Lillian Goodner, the "Queen of the Sepias" from the old photos. The then ninety-eight-year-old woman told the Gadsons that the people in the pictures were her friends with whom she traveled and sang and danced long ago. To prove to the Gadsons that she really was the queen of the stage, Lillian performed a breathtaking version of "A Good Man is Hard to Find" for them there in the nursing home.


Lillian decided that the photographs, with their extraordinary view into the lives of the major popular entertainers of the 1920s and '30s, should be available for people to see. Her collection is now being assembled into a traveling exhibition, which will soon tour public libraries and other venues, telling her stories to many people throughout the country. The last wish of a dying diva is finally being granted.

Lillian Goodner's almost fifty-year career as an artist is remarkable. She entertained thousands of people from the days of World War I, through the jazz age of the 1920s, throughout the Depression, during the swing era of World War II, and into the Cold War years of the 1950s. Her photographs are, then, not only a collection of faces from music's history, but also a reflection of American history itself; they follow not only the trends of entertainment, but also of the political atmosphere of the country and its relationship to the world. The inscriptions on the photographs tell a more personal story. They show how much love the performers had for Lillian Goodner, revealing how these stars of the stage became family to one another.

Copyright University of Alabama Press Spring 2004  by Bankert, Marc





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