There are a few things everybody knows about Billie Green. She has lived in the West Adams Heights-Sugar Hill neighborhood, near Washington and Western Avenues, since the 1970s…and she knows almost everything that happens there, and everyone who lives there. She also works as a field deputy for City Council Member Herb Wesson (which helps with the knowing everyone and everything). And she’s a big collector of African-American art and memorabilia.
So people in the neighborhood know that when something’s happening, or you need to know something, or you’ve got something interesting to show someone…call Billie.
And that’s just what happened one fateful rainy day a while back. Green was relaxing at home when she found a note on her front porch from a neighbor, along with an old postcard advertising a long-ago San Fernando Valley performance by Nellie Lutcher, a jazz singer, pianist and songwriter popular in the 1940s and ’50s. (Lutcher’s most famous songs include “He’s a Real Gone Guy; she’s also credited with being a major influence on many more famous jazz artists, including Nina Simone.) The neighbor’s note said “Her stuff is around the corner on Hobart Blvd. and Washington Blvd. in boxes.”
Green knew who Lutcher was, and that she had lived in the West Adams area for many years. In fact, Green had an old friend who had lived in an apartment building Lutcher built at 1629 S. Van Ness, where Lutcher also lived in until her death in 2007. So Green went out in the rain and found several boxes of what looked like Lutcher’s personal papers, photographs and other items on the corner two blocks from her house.
She brought the papers home for safekeeping, but didn’t do anything else with them for a while. Then, one day, Green was visiting friends a few blocks north, in the Harvard Heights neighborhood. And as they began chatting about their mutual interest in African-American memorabilia, her friends mentioned that they, too, had found some boxes of Lutcher’s papers, on the street near Venice and Westmoreland Blvds. And they gave their boxes to Green as well.
At one point, Green says she made a few attempts to contact Lutcher’s son, who now lives in northern California, to see if he was interested in his mother’s papers. But they never connected.
A while later, though, Green was showing some of the African-American dolls she also collects at one of the annual Black Doll Shows at the William Grant Still Arts Center. She mentioned to staff at the center that she had Nellie Lutcher’s personal papers and photos. It turned out that music and memorabilia collector Alden Kimbrough, who is also associated with the WGSAC, had a large collection of Lutcher’s records. So with the encouragement of the Arts Center, they joined forces to create an exhibition showcasing their treasures. The result is “Nearly Gone Gal: The Rescued Archives of Nellie Lutcher,” which opened in March as the featured exhibit in the William Grant Still Arts Center’s 9th Annual African American Composer Series. It runs through June 10, 2017.
The exhibit includes letters, recordings, original hand-written sheet music, other writing, photographs, and even receipts and bills from Lutcher’s musical travels, recording sessions, and home life. There’s also a video of Lutcher’s one-time appearance on the “This is Your Life” TV show (where she thought she’d been booked to play music until she was surprised, on air, with her own personal trip down memory lane).
In all, it’s a deep and unique look at the (often not easy) life of a modestly well-known singer, who was also a single black mother, making her way through several decades of American music and history.
Green sees the exhibit as an extension of her lifelong role as her own family’s historian. From a very young age, she says, “My grandmother always told me, “You’re going to be the family history keeper.” Green says she didn’t really pay much attention to the prediction when she was young. But when she was older, and her daughters visited Olivia’s Dollhouse Tea Room in Culver City, she noticed that the tea house didn’t have any dolls of color. So Green began collecting them…and she has continued her collecting (of dolls, African-American art, movie posters, family history, and many other things) ever since. “I have all this stuff,” she says now, even though her children are long grown, “so they will know who they are.”
And friends, family and, yes, even neighbors still know who Green is. And they know that when something interesting comes along, they should definitely call Billie.
“It was as if God had put these things in my hands as the Gatekeeper,” she writes in a panel that’s part of the Lutcher exhibit. “I want to be a good Gatekeeper of our history, because we are important. And we have made a significant contribution to America’s culture.”
“A Maid’s Prayer“
Now I lay me down to sleep, a working girl once said.
If I should die before I awake– “Would I still be a maid?
Would I still have to rise each day while others lay in bed?
And put an apron over my wings and make the holy bread?
Would I have to clean and scrub the heaven’s floors?
Would I have to dump the garbage and all the other slop;
Or when I cross the river Jordan, would such filthy duties stop?
Might I go to a movie when I have my Thursday out;
Or will I have to polish stars and help to hang them out?
Are there any streetcars that go a certain route,
Or will there be a chariot to carry me about?
I know I would be discouraged, and I know I would be dismayed —
If I should be a maid in heaven and still be underpaid.
One very important thing, “Should I have a sweetheart”?
Would I find him most divine; would we sometimes walk together
With his arms in mine entwine?
Could we ever free ourselves of these beautiful white wings;
Or would our love affair be just one of those brotherly love things?
I’m a little bit worried about that. Yes, I am.
How stupid can you get: Here I am —- not the least bit sick,
And not the least bit tired of this great and beautiful world —
Worrying about what would happen — should I not wake up.
Oh me! I’ll stop worrying right this minute, and remain —-
A very much, much alive robusted maid.
— by Nellie Lutcher and Florida Morgan
“Nearly Gone Gal: The Rescued Archives of Nellie Lutcher”
William Grant Still Arts Center
2520 S. West View St.
Los Angeles, CA 90016
Now through June 10, 2017
Tuesday-Saturday, noon-5 p.m.