Lil Gray: “Are You Fooling”
Lil Gray was born Leoncy Luvern Lloyd on the 3rd of July 1929 in the city of Hattiesburg Mississippi. She later moved to Chicago with her great grandmother during 1948, where she met her future husband Norwood Gray Sr, whom she married in 1950. Their first son Norwood Gray Jr was born in 1951 followed by a daughter Denise in 1952 and a further two sons Melvin in 1954 and Romaunt in 1956 (now both sadly deceased). Lil’s husband Norwood Sr, held down two jobs, working by day for the Peoples Gas Company, and by night and weekends as a plumber. He eventually made enough money to allow his growing family to move from an apartment to a house, where he later built a basement studio for Lil who was a practicing licensed beautician to work from. Lil was a regular singer in church and held aspirations of one day becoming a professional performer. Her husband was very supportive of his wife’s ambitions, paying for her to receive singing lessons from a voice coach by the name of Zilner T. Randolph, himself a respected jazz musician.
Following Zilners training, Lil began to perform in local clubs from 1963 onwards. She later sang with blues legend Willie Wally Dixon’s Revue. During 1965 one of Chicago’s most influential Jazz, Blues and RnB clubs of the 1950’s, The Club Delisa (named after its original owners The Delisa Brothers) was reopened by WVON (The Voice Of A Nation) radio station disc jockeys E. Rodney Jones and Purvis Spann. It just happened that by chance Lil’s husband Norwood was employed to carry out some plumbing work prior to the clubs reopening. Whilst at the club Norwood mentioned his wife to Purvis Spann, and it was from this conversation that Lil was eventually introduced to local record label entrepreneur and WVON recording engineer, Ulysses Samuel Warren.
Ulysses Warren or as he was more commonly known, U. S. Warren had recently formed his own record label under the name of Jerma Records (although he didn’t copyright the name until 1966).
Warren signed Lil to his label where she recorded three 45 releases under the stage name of Lil Gray (rather than Leoncy Gray). Firstly “Are You Fooling/I Want To Tell (You Something Blues)” Jerma (101) followed by “Out Of Nowhere( You Suddenly Appeared)/ I Got Tears All Around Me” Jerma (102) and finally “I Got Tears All Around Me/One Day Your Gonna Get Burned” Jerma (103).
“I Want To Tell” (You Something Blues) was championed Purvis Spann on his regular WVON late night blues radio show but the record never really made it big in Chicago, but it did go on to receive extensive airplay in Philadelphia. Lil’s follow up singles again didn’t take the Chicago listening audience by storm, But undeterred by the lack of a hit record, Lil continued to work as a full time performer in clubs in and around the city of Chicago, frequently appearing with Simtec Simmons and Wylie Dixon this lasted until circa late1969.
As the 1970’s dawned Lil began to ease back on her own performing career and began to manage several bands some of which she employed as backing musicians at her own ever decreasing personal performances.
One of the band’s she managed was called ‘The Dynamic Sounds’ which included her son Norwood Jr, Norwood too was a former pupil of Zilner T. Randolph, with whom he had learnt to play the bass guitar. This earlier version of the Dynamic Sounds performed as a 3 man combo with Norwood being accompanied by his childhood friend and neighbour Anthony Barnes a rhythm guitarist, and more often than not using which ever session drummer was available at the time. As well as backing Lil Gray they also did session work for U.S Warren. Both Norwood and Antony’s performing credits can be found on Warrens later collectable funk album “For A Few Funky Dues More (Chytowns 2001). Chytowns being another of Warren’s label logo’s which he operated from his home at 1410 East 72nd St, Chicago.
Norwood and Anthony later went their separate ways. In 1969 Norwood Jr was invited to play on a session that also featured a brass section that included Charles ‘Butch’ Carter (Trombone), Milton Thomas (Soprano and Tenor Saxophone), Louis Minter (Alto Saxophone) and the late Kevin Thompson (Trumpet). It was from this chance meeting and with the later addition of Clifford Conley (Guitar), Ronald Scott (Keyboards), Dennis Howell (Drums) and finally Otis Gould (Conga Drums and Percussion) that a new larger version of The Dynamic Sound was born, this time around renaming themselves, The Dynamic Sounds Orchestra (DSO). This new young group of musician’s where taken under the guiding influence of Lil Gray, when she became their full time manager in 1971, a position she held until the DSO broke up in 1979. During which time Lil’s young protégé’s would go on to become the backing and road band for one the windy cities most respected and world renowned groups The Chi-Lites.
Following the eventual breakup of the DSO in 1979 Lil gradually retired from the music business to enjoy life as a housewife and grandmother, which she continued to do until her untimely death in 2000 from heart failure.
Words by David Welding
Acknowledgements to: Norwood Gray Jr, Otis Gould
Photograph courtesy of: Norwood Gray Jr
Label Scans courtesy of Craig Butler, Andy Whitmore, John Anderson & Karl White.
The Dynamic Sounds Orchestra's Soul Junction Release "Take Me Back" b/w "All I Wanna Do Is Love You" is available from the tables website and all the usual stockists.