While giving guided tours at the Louis Armstrong House Museum, most people are intrigued to learn that Lucille was Louis’ fourth wife. Naturally, out of curiosity, they inquire about the previous leading ladies in Louis’ life. There was Daisy Parker (m. 1918, div. 1923), Lil Hardin (m. 1924, div. 1938), Alpha Smith (m. 1938, div. 1942) and of course Lucille Wilson (m. 1942-1971). Out of the four, I feel that Lil and Lucille had more influence on Louis’s life and legacy than the others. Lil’s significance is often overshadowed by Lucille’s contributions, yet Lil was a pioneer in her own right.
Lil Harding was a jazz pianist and musical composer born February 3, 1898 in Memphis Tennessee. Her earliest introduction to the piano stems from her lessons with her third grade teacher as well as instruction from Mrs. Hook’s School of Music. As a young adult she received a certificate from Fisk University where she became even more familiarized with the piano.
In the early 1920s, Lil met Louis Armstrong while playing with King Oliver’s band in Chicago. Quickly, Lil helped Louis make his appearance suitable for show business by buying him new clothes and encouraging him to change his hair. She promoted Louis’s career and encouraged him to jumpstart his solo career. He eventually followed Lil’s advice and resigned from King Oliver’s band. He later formed his famous Hot Five and Hot Seven groups. Under Okeh Records they would produce favorites such as “West End Blues” and “Tight Like This.”
Lil and Louis separated in 1931, however they were not legally divorced until 1938. She continued a solo career as a songstress and pianist during the late 1940s and early 1950s. She later exited the music scene and pursued a career as a tailor.
Upon Louis’s death, Lil decided to pay homage to Louis by performing at a memorial concert in his honor. Unfortunately, at this televised event, she collapsed onstage and passed away from a fatal heart attack.