By Jennifer L. Warren
NEWBURGH – It’s creation. It’s communication. It’s sheer passion. Many dub it simply magic.
Whatever you interpret it as, Lillie Howard is delivering it. The 83 year old vocalist has transported herself, right in her very living room. Standing up, swaying to one of her old hit songs, the still very energetic-animated Howard is rhythmically moving her body- completely absorbed in the melody streaming out of the nearby CD player. Her eyes are sealed shut, as she loses herself in everything beautiful she is hearing and feeling. Suddenly, it’s released: a smooth, buttery vocal delight that was formally discovered just over 65 years ago.
“Communication is a gift God gave me,” Howard nostalgically reflects after her impressive performance.
It’s a gift that first blossomed in the form of music, fueled by perfect, completely unplanned timing.
A lifelong resident of the City of Newburgh, Howard often spent time as a child with her mother, the Manager of the club, Golden Plaza, where several popular bands performed.
Howard, who loved to sing, particularly at churches, would often have the special opportunity to do so at her mom’s place of work. She also ventured into New York City, contributing her vocal talents which were admired by a particular dancer at one of the clubs, who tipped her off to the need of a popular bandleader-musician-singer, Billy Ford, for a female singer to join his group- The Thunderbirds. After following up on the attractive opening, the then 17 year old, got the invitation to audition for the well-known Ford. However, that performance never took place; rather another life-changing one of chance did.
“I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but two big producers-songwriters, Bob Crewe and Frank Slay, just happened to be there to audition Billy’s group, Billy Ford’s Thunderbirds, but the other female singer was not there due to being sick,” recalled Howard. “They were looking for a duo to record a song they had written called “La Dee Dah,” so after hearing me sing, they asked me to recite their song with Billy.”
Almost immediately the magic happened: the two producers fell in love with the sound, and Howard was on the fast track to fame. The duet “Billy and Lillie” was born.
“I remember coming home and telling my mother I had a recording contract on the very first day of auditioning,” recalled Howard about the incredulous chain of events. “She couldn’t believe it.”
“La Dee Dah” was to skyrocket to the top 10 on the Billboard and Cash Box. Billy and Lillie would go on to perform in venues across the country- including a stint with the Alan Freed Rock and Roll Tour- for several years before Howard cut her own path pursuing a successful solo career. Writing several of her own melodies, Howard communicated her deep beliefs on an assortment of topics close to her heart: relationships, growth, love, and peace as well as an unwavering dedication to the potent words in the Bible. As her family grew (Howard had six children), her focus began to shift toward raising them. Although continuing to sing on the side, Howard was keenly becoming aware of yet another magnetic pull whose intensity she couldn’t deny.
“After I left show business, and I returned to Newburgh more regularly, it really bothered me there wasn’t much activism happening,” said Howard, who was also incited to act after her husband, going to New York City to secure better work prospects, left her alone to raise their six children. “My husband’s leaving me made me realize I needed to do things for myself, make them happen, and be a force of change.”
It wasn’t long before that evolution surfaced. Starting up the Black Women’s Community Service Club, which in turn led to progress such as a mobile business school for women, Howard soon earned yet another revered distinction: The first African-American women to run for City Council in the City of Newburgh, later falling to Audrey Carey who was to go on to become City of Newburgh Mayor.
Howard still wasn’t done with leaving her trailblazing footprints. She was to become the first African-American columnist for this newspaper, THE HUDSON VALLEY PRESS. In fact, the always communicative- always entertaining and deeply feeling Howard, also had her own radio talk show, “Let’s Talk with Lillie Howard, on WGNY, with iconic Newburgh guests such as; Audrey Carey, Harvey Burger, and Pop Lewis as well as other notable folks throughout the Hudson Valley.
Looking back on her serendipitous and decorated journey, Howard is quick to cite her children as one of her biggest blessings, beaming with pride as she talks of how two of her City of Newburgh-based sons, Omari, on the City Council and Phil on the School Board, have followed on her path of advocacy in their home City; while another son is a retired fire fighter. Each of the others holds a special place in her heart, as does the City of Newburgh- a place where her roots have always been deeply embedded and remain to this day.
“Things have improved here in Newburgh, but there is always room for change,” reflects Howard about the present state of her City.
So, what’s the biggest impediment to that elusive even more forward progress that Howard yearns to see?
“Love your fellow man is truly the answer, and it goes right back to the word of God. ‘Love is always the answer.’”
That, and the woman whose extensive hits list includes a tune called, “Lucky Ladybug,” might agree: a little bit of good timing.