Betty Josephine Green wasn’t even 5 feet tall, but she cast a long shadow. It’s not every person who’s willing to walk into a prison when she doesn’t have to, walk into a hospital or a reform school or a nursing home, bringing with her a gift that the inmates or the patients rarely receive.
Green brought the gift of music — courtesy of Mother’s Band and Show, the group she led from the basement of her Southeast D.C. home — but she brought something even more important: a reminder that as low as you may get, you’re still loved.
Green died on April 25 at the age of 76. She had worked as a cosmetologist doing hair at St. Elizabeths Hospital. Can you imagine anything more intimate than that, a human touch for people who may have long been denied it?
In 1977 Green decided to leave that job and pull together a band. She started with her family — son Spencer (guitar), daughters Vonnye (trumpet) and Robin (vocals) — and then tapped neighborhood kids. Eventually she pulled some of the District’s best musicians into her orbit.
Green played bass, and not just any kind of bass, but a little violin-shaped Hofner, of the sort Beatle Paul McCartney played. Anything else probably would have dwarfed her.
Though her band played traditional venues — Carter Barron Amphitheatre among them — she specialized in gigs at such places as St. E’s, Lorton prison, D.C. Village and retirement centers.
“Her whole goal was to provide entertainment for those who couldn’t get out and see it on their own,” said her granddaughter Danielle Naji-Allah. “She wanted to reach those who were like the underdogs in society.”
It’s easy to see what the media saw in Green: a fireplug from the poor part of town, dressed in gold lame, occasionally sitting in a rocking chair to play. It sounds like a gimmick. And then you see the videos on YouTube. Mother’s Band — 12 pieces! — was good: tight as a snare drum and able to turn on a dime on such numbers as Grover Washington Jr.’s “Mister Magic.”
The band included musicians who played with Chuck Brown, such as keyboard player and trombonist John Buchanan. It had members from Parliament-Funkadelic’s horn section: Greg Boyer, Bennie Cowan and Greg Thomas.
“You had these world-class musicians who could play with anybody, but because of her mission and — and, I believe, her ministry — they got sucked in, just like I did,” said one-time Mother’s Band singer Willie Jolley, now a motivational speaker. “They were magnetized.”
Keyboardist Michael Hill was 13 years old when he joined, recruited by Green after she saw him play at their church, Our Lady Queen of Peace.
“When I joined the band, she bought me a tuxedo,” said Hill, now a music teacher. “The main mantra of Betty Green was, ‘You got to be business,’ meaning, ‘I know that you’re 13, but I’m not going to treat you like a 13-year-old.’ ”
Hill was shy at the time and nervous about playing alongside the hired guns. But Green would buck him up. “She would come up to me and say, ‘Michael Hill, you got to be business. Don’t worry about these guys. You’re just as good as they are.’”
Local filmmaker Jeff Krulik met Green when he worked at a public access cable channel in Prince George’s County. She walked in one day wanting him to put her on TV. He was so smitten, he did, even orchestrating a weekend broadcast of an hour-long Mother’s Band concert on a continuous tape loop.
“She was hard not to love,” said Krulik, who ended up helping to promote the band. “You’d have to be a really cold person to not like what she was about.”
Perhaps Green’s empathy came from her own childhood. From the ages of 8 to 18, she was raised in foster care in Charles County, Md. Her foster mother was Mary A. Brown, who over the years provided a home for 125 children. At a 1999 ceremony in her honor, Brown said that all any child wanted was “to be loved and understood.”
It’s a sentiment Green took to heart.
Betty Green is survived by her husband, Ralph F. Green; three children; a sister, Catherine Milstead; seven grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren.
Granddaughter Naji-Allah played with Mother’s Band, a tambourine in hand.
“I didn’t have any skills,” she said, laughing. “She taught me to smile and do your best.”
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/people/john-kelly.