Lena Horne

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  • Biography
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  • The Great Songs
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When Lena Horne made her triumphant return to Broadway in 1981, in Lena Horne: A Lady and Her Music, she sang the great Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler song, “Stormy Weather,” as she had performed it in the 20th Century-Fox film of the same name in the 1940s. It was heartfelt, moving, and melodic. Then the 64-year-old Horne sang it again, the way she would have performed it had the studio bosses allowed her to express herself as she wished. The second rendition was angry, melodramatic and unlike any performance from the forties. The crowd went wild at the histrionics and energy. But some in the audience wondered what Lena Horne was so angry about.

She underwent the all-too-usual degradations of her race and emerged a great star of nightclubs and recordings with a few film and Broadway appearances in the mix.

Plenty, as it turned out. Horne was born in 1917 in Brooklyn, into a middle-class black family. Her father worked for the New York’s Department of Labor and was numbers runner; her mother was a would-be actress; her grandfather was a teacher and newspaper editor; and her grandmother was a prominent member of the NAACP. Horne inherited her sense of right and wrong from her grandparents and thanks to them, at two years old she was the youngest member of the NAACP.

Horne’s father left for Seattle in 1920, leaving her mother free to pursue her acting. Surprisingly, she was somewhat successful, working with Harlem’s Lafayette Stock Company and touring the country in black productions of previously white shows including Madame X, in which young Lena appeared on stage for the first time.

After several years on the road, with occasional stops at the homes of friends and relatives, Horne moved back in with her grandparents in 1929. When her grandmother died three years later, Horne lived with a friend. When her mother returned to New York, she took Lena from Brooklyn to the Bronx and eventually to Harlem, where, at age sixteen, she was hired for the chorus at the Cotton Club.

The Cotton Club was the most notable of the great jazz clubs in Harlem, and a favorite spot for white folk to go “slumming.” The club had a strict whites-only policy, and even the friends and family of its performers were barred from the shows. This offended Horne’s sensibilities, and she eventually quit the club in 1935.

She took a job with Noble Sissle’s band and recorded two sides for the Decca label. And though her career was starting to take off, when she met Pittsburgh politician Louis Jordan Jones she quit show business and married him, eventually having two children. The marriage was rocky, and in 1938, when Horne was offered a small role in a Duke Ellington film, The Duke Is Tops, she went back to work. She made her Broadway debut as “A Quadroon Girl” in Dance with Your Gods and followed it with a short-lived appearance in Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds of 1939.

After another try at her marriage, she left again, this time to join Charlie Barnet’s Orchestra as the first black singer in an all-white band. Audiences had a hard time accepting a beautiful black singer at the mike, and at certain bookings, Horne waited on the bus while the band performed. Worried about dragging her daughter on band dates (her husband had custody of their son) and tired of the problems brought on by the racism of audiences, hotels, and bookers, she returned to New York City.

In early 1941, Barney Jacobson booked her into his Café Society Downtown. Six months later, she quit and moved to California to open a new club. Because of the war, building materials were scarce and Horne’s Los Angeles debut was postponed. She finally opened in February of 1942 at the Little Troc and was discovered by Roger Edens of MGM. Horne signed with the studio, but not until she had her contract vetted by the NAACP to make sure that she wouldn’t have to play maids or other parts she deemed demeaning. Instead, she was relegated to performing a number or two in movie musicals starring white performers. These interludes could easily be excised for showings in southern theatres. Her appearances may have been brief, but her excellence was noted and she gained a much wider fan base. She was always dressed and lit in the best Hollywood style and treated like an exotic screen goddess. Clearly, she left audiences hungry for more.

In 1943, she did appear in full-fledged acting roles in two pictures, MGM’s Cabin in the Sky, acting opposite the quite jealous Ethel Waters, and 20th Century-Fox’s Stormy Weather, co-starring Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, whom Horne considered an “Uncle Tom” performer. She was, by this time, the highest paid black actor in the company but she felt estranged from the white community, whom she felt only invited her to parties if she would perform. (Since most Hollywood parties of the day included performances by the guests this might not have been such an insult.)

Horne devoted herself to entertaining troops as part of the USO. She refused to perform in front of segregated audiences and once, when German POWs were seated closer to the stage than black soldiers, she declined to go on. Just as Betty Grable was the pinup girl for white servicemen, Lena Horne became the black soldier’s dream of perfection.

After the war, Horne performed in England, France, and Belgium, where she was greeted with acclaim. In December, 1947 she married Lennie Hayton, a white man, in Paris (it was illegal then for them to marry in California). She once claimed that she married Hayton, not out of love but because he could open doors for her. Horne’s marriage infuriated MGM chief Louis B. Mayer since he did not sanction the union between his two employees. Perhaps Horne’s biggest disappointment at MGM was when Ava Gardner was cast as Julie in the 1952 remake of Show Boat. Horne had to be content with having sung the part in one segment of Till The Clouds Roll By (1946).

Horne returned to the United States to find herself blacklisted as a Communist sympathizer, her performing limited to nightclubs and recordings. She spent much of the next seven years in Europe, avoiding the blacklist and racism of America. She returned to the States in September of 1950 for an appearance at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas but then it was back to Europe. With the blacklist finally lifted, Horne returned in 1954, signed a new contract with RCA and did some television guest spots. Her career was in full swing, with bookings at key nightclubs and hotels hit records and, in 1957, a starring role in the Broadway show Jamaica by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg.

She spent the 1960s in clubs and recording studios. As the civil rights movement heated up, Horne threw herself into the battle, marching with Medgar Evers in Mississippi and Dr. King in Washington, D.C. She received wide publicity after publishing an article in Show magazine titled “I Just Want to Be Myself.” Songwriters Arlen and Harburg took the hint and wrote her the song “Silent Spring,” taking a cue from the title of Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking book about the pillaging of the environment. Jule Styne, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green wrote her the song, “Now,” a civil rights anthem. The team, with librettist Arthur Laurents, would later write the show Hallelujah, Baby! with her in mind, though the lead eventually went to Leslie Uggams.

Horne’s career continued unabated through the sixties though her recording career, like those of many of her contemporaries, was spotty. She appeared on a number of television specials, including one with Harry Belafonte based on their Caesar’s Palace appearance in 1969. She slowed down a bit in the seventies, appearing with Tony Bennett in Europe and the States, including an engagement at Broadway’s Minskoff Theatre.

In 1981, she appeared in her record-breaking one-woman show, Lena Horne: A Lady and Her Music which might have been better titled, Lena Horne: A Lady and Her Anger. The entire evening was a rant against those whom she perceived had held her back. Audiences accepted Horne’s blame with liberal guilt and she was awarded a special Tony Award, which she grudgingly accepted. Her righteous indignation also won her two Grammy Awards and a Kennedy Center Honor following the tour, in 1982.

More awards and a few recordings followed in the 1990s, including a cut on Sinatra’s Duets album and An Evening with Lena Horne on her new label, Blue Note. In 2000 she came out of retirement to record three songs for a Duke Ellington tribute album, Classic Ellington.

Lena Horne was a classy, beautiful interpreter of jazz-oriented popular song. She underwent the all-too-usual degradations of her race and emerged a great star of nightclubs and recordings with a few film and Broadway appearances in the mix. (KB)

Cut and paste

“Ain’t It De Truth,” was an early hit for Lena Horne which she performed in the film, Cabin in the Sky only to have the number cut, supposedly at the request of a jealous Ethel Waters, but possibly because she sang the number in a bathtub and it was considered too risqué for its time. Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg later interpolated the song into Jamaica.Ain’t It De Truth

Away from the lights

“The Man I Love” is that rare Gershwin brothers song that achieved fame away from the lights of Broadway. Not that there wasn’t a concerted effort to use the song in a show. It was written for the Fred and Adele Astaire vehicle Lady, Be Good! but cut in Philadelphia. In 1927, it was inserted into the score of Strike Up the Band (as “The Girl I Love”) but that show closed out of town. Its final stage appearance was in Rosalie (1928), where it was sung by Marilyn Miller, but again it was cut before the show reached Broadway. Lady Mountbatten introduced the song, by then published, to the haut monde in England and it soon conquered the continent, too. Finally, America woke up to the song and it became a hit in the States in the thirties.The Man I Love

Improv

Schwartz had difficulty finding a tune for Libby Holman to perform in The Little Show. Dietz heard pit pianist Ralph Rainger play an improvisation and quickly wrote a lyric with the hitherto unknown composer.Moanin’ Low

Heavy thinking and remembering

Having made only $50 from the successful “Memphis Blues,” Handy looked around for a suitable subject for another blues song. He remembered a time a few years earlier, when he was “unshaven, wanting even a decent meal, and standing before the lighted saloon in St. Louis, without a shirt under my frayed coat.” He also recalled a “woman whose pain seemed even greater. She had tried to take the edge off her grief by heavy drinking, but it hadn’t worked. Stumbling along the poorly lighted street, she muttered as she walked, ‘My man’s got a heart like a rock cast in the sea.’ By the time I had finished all this heavy thinking and remembering, I figured it was time to get something down on paper, so I wrote, ‘I hate to see de evenin’ sun go down.’ If you ever had to sleep on the cobbles down by the river in St. Louis, you’ll understand the complaint.”St. Louis Blues

The story of my misery

Ethel Waters knew she had a great song to sing the minute she heard this tune. “When I got out there in the middle of the Cotton Club floor … I was singing the story of my misery and confusion … the story of the wrongs and outrages done to me by people I had loved and trusted…. I sang ‘Stormy Weather’ from the depths of my private hell in which I was being crushed and suffocated.”Stormy Weather

Hard to tie Fats down

Andy Razaf recalled trying to get Waller to sit down and write this song: “It was hard to tie Fats down to a job; my mother used to make all the finest food and special cookies for him just to keep him out at our home in Asbury Park, New Jersey. We were working on a show called Load of Coal for Connie and had just done half the chorus of a number when Fats remembered a date and announced, ‘I gotta go.’ I finished up the verse and gave it to him later over the telephone.”Honeysuckle Rose

Who wrote the tune?

Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields were reportedly outside Tiffany’s jewelry store when they heard a swain tell his girlfriend, “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.” They took the phrase, added “Lindy” (referring to Charles Lindburgh) and wrote a song. Perhaps realizing that the addition would date the song, they replaced the name with “baby.” Or maybe not. Fats Waller claimed he wrote the tune and sold it to Jimmy McHugh, along with “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” We do know that later, when Fields wrote additional lyrics for the film remake of Roberta, titled Lovely to Look At, she kept McHugh’s name as co-author on the songs although he had nothing to do with writing them.I Can't Give You Anything But Love

Tapeworm

Harold Arlen called this song one of his “tapeworms,” because the melody sort of wanders along. Arlen credited Mercer with much of the success of the song: “[It’s] a wandering song. Johnny took it and wrote it exactly the way it fell. Not only is it long—forty-eight bars—but it also changes key. Johnny made it work.”One for My Baby

Saloon singer

“Girl, you're just a saloon singer. We're saloon singers.”Bobby Short to Lena Horne

My own way

"In my early days I was a sepia Hedy Lamarr. Now I'm black and a woman, singing my own way."Lena Horne

06/30/1917
Born in Brooklyn
1919
Youngest member of the NAACP, her grandmother was an activist with the group.
08/1920
Parens separate.
1933
Makes professional debut in the chorus of the Cotton Club.
1935
Leaves Cotton Club to join Noble Sissle’s Orchestra billed as Helen Horne.
1936
March 11, release of first recordings with Noble Sissle’s band on Decca; Sings on “That What Love Means to Me” and “I Take to You;” Broadway debut on October 6 in play, Dance with Your Gods.
1937
Marries Louis Jordan Jones, Pittsburgh politician; Daughter Gail born on December 21, 1937.
1938
Film debut in The Duke Is Tops with Duke Ellington and his orchestra.
1939
Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds of 1939 opens on Broadway on February 11.
1940
Son, Edwin Fletcher born; Separates from husband;Joins Charlie Barnet’s band.
1941
Records with Barnet for Bluebird label; Quits band to create home for children and because of racial problems singing with white band; begins singing as Helen Horne at Barney Josephson’s Café Society downtown in March accompanied by Teddy Wilson, radio work with Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street; Records with Henry Levine and the Dixieland Jazz Group, Artie Shaw, and Teddy Wilson; Moves to Los Angeles for club engagement.
1942
Records for RCA Records; opens at the Little Troc nightclub in LA in February; Signs with MGM and begins prerecordings for Panama Hattie; Moves to Mocambo nightclub; Appears in Cabin in the Sky; November 26 return to New York for engagement at the Café Lounge in the Savoy-Plaza Hotel
1943
Cabin in the Sky, Stormy Weather, As Thousands Cheer open.
1944
Swing Fever and Two Girls and a Sailor open; Recordings with Horace Henderson and his orchestra; Divorces husband.
1946
Quits RCA Records and signs with Black and White label; Appears on MGM’s soundtrack of Till the Clouds Roll By, the first soundtrack recording.
1947
Signs with MGM Records; Appears in London, France, and Belgium; Falls in love and marries Lennie Hayton in December (a secret for 2 ½ years).
1950
The Duchess of Idaho released marking end of MGM contract; name appears in Red Channels as sympathizer to Communists in the performing arts; Publishes first autobiography, In Person; Begins annual Vegas appearances at Sands Hotel; major work in Europe otherwise.
1955
Resigns with RCA; first LP, It’s Love.
1956
Back to MGM for Meet Me in Las Vegas.
1957
February 20th release of Lena Horne Live at the Waldorf Astoria; First and last Broadway musical, Jamaica opens on October 31.
1958
Give the Lady What She Wants released to great acclaim.
1959
RCA releases Porgy and Bess LP with Horne and Belefonte though Horne sues to have it not released; Songs by Burke and Van Heusen released.
1960
Second autobiography, Lena, is published.
1961
Lena at the Sands released; Lena Horne in her Nine O’Clock Revue closes in New Haven before Broadway.
1962
Lena on the Blue Side released.
1963
Lena… Lovely and Alive released; RCA contract not renewed; Appears with Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi; March to Washington with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on August 28; Signs with Charter Records and releases two LPs, Lena Sings Your Requests and Goes Latin. Signs with 20th Century Fox records.
1964
Here’s Lena Now released.
1965
Signs with United Artists Records; Feelin’ Good and Lena in Hollywood released.
1966
Lena Soul released; End of contract with United Artists.
1969
Television acting debut in Death of a Gunfighter; NBC special Monsanto Presents Lena Horne, her first United States produced television special; Appears with Harry Belafonte at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas.
1970
Skye Records recording of Lena and Gabor released; Special Harry and Lena broadcast on ABC March 22 with soundtrack album on RCA; Father dies April 18; Buddah signs her and released Lena and Gabor album as Watch What Happens!; son dies September 12.
1971
Lennie Hayton dies April 24.
1974
Appears on Broadway October 30 with Tony Bennett.
1975
Signs yet again with RCA; Lena and Michel (Legrand) issued.
1976
Lena, a New Album released.
1978
Film, The Wiz, opens directed by son-in-law Sidney Lumet and starring Horne as Glinda the Good Witch; West Coast production of Pal Joey closes before Broadway.
1980
Farewell tour begun in June.
1981
Lena Horne: A Lady and Her Music opens at Broadway’s Nederlander Theatre on May 12.
1984
Finishes national and international tour of show.
1984
Three Cherries Records releases The Men in My Life.
1993
Appears at JVC Jazz Festival tribute to Billy Strayhorn.
1994
Blue Note Records releases We’ll Be Together Again based on Strayhorn tribute; Appears on Sinatra’s Duets album; Hosts segment on That’s Entertainment III; Appears at Carnegie Hall
1995
Releases An Evening with Lena Horne on Blue Note.
1997
80th Birthday celebration at JVC Jazz Festival.
1998
New album on Blue Note, Being Myself.
2000
Records three songs on Classic Ellington on Blue Note.
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Recordings
Music by Gershwin, 2/19/1934 (15 minutes, courtesy J. Fred MacDonald)
George Gershwin, Louis Katzman and orchestra
The 3 part PBS Series
Own the DVD