Lena Horne. Born June 30, 1917. Brooklyn, NY.
When I was a kid in the 1980’s, Lena Horne was this woman who everyone in my family revered because she looked so fabulous in her 60’s and 70’s. She also physically looks like the Higgins and Jones women on my mom’s side–who also age just as well! I remember seeing her as Glenda the Good Witch in The Wiz, and her appearances on The Cosby Show and A Different World.Of course, I knew that “Stormy Weather” was her signature song. I remember my grandfather always bragging about the fact that Lena was the first Black “pin-up girl” they could have to display when he was in the Navy during WWII.
I came to better appreciate Horne’s career and talent after seeing an A&E produced show and CD An Evening with Lena Horne: Live at the Supper Club, and PBS produced video in 1996 called “Lena Horne: In Her Own Voice.” The latter led me to read her autobiography entitled Lena.
Most people dismiss her as a cafe-au-lait Hollywood glamour girl with a so-so voice who got over because of her light complexion, and pretty face. Lena actually got into the business because her mother (herself an actress) was more interested in Lena’s career as a performer than Lena herself was. Also, Lena is the first to admit that she was first able to get work because of her looks more than her talent, but it ws Billie Holiday who told her to sing anyway dammit, you have kids to take care of.
But I, and many critics, also think Lena got better with time. By the 1950’s Lena had developed a style that was all her own. It was sassy, irreverent, and her live performances were full of an undeniable power she commanded on stage. She says that alot of her style of singing by the 1950’s and 1960’s, sometimes biting down hard and spitting out the words like nails, was due to the fact that se was so angry about having to come thru the back door of these clubs and venues and sing for white people that she interpretted the songs with a ferocity. But her anger was often mis-interpreted as her playing the sex-kitten.
She was also the bff and muse of black gay composer Billy Strayhorn, who wrote songs like “Something to Live For“and “Maybe” especially for Horne. She said in her autobiography that she loved Billy so much and would have married him had he been straight.
Lena spent much of her early career hyper-concerned about what others thought (and said) about her voice, whether she was too black or not black enough depending on whom you asked, and spent a lot of time trying to please everybody. She was also blacklisted in the 1950’s due to her political beliefs and her loyalty to other lefties like Paul Robeson.
By the time she gets to 1981, when her Broadway retrospective “A Lady and Her Music” opens, Lena, in her early 60s, has clearly stopped trying to please anyone but herself in her work, and the result is that you are entirely pleased with her self-assurance. On PBS show The NewsHour’s piece celebrating her her 80th birthday, she said
“My identity is very clear to me now, I am a black woman, I’m not alone, I’m free. I no longer, I say I’m free because I no longer have to be a credit, I don’t have to be a symbol to anybody; I don’t have to be a first to anybody. I don’t have to be an imitation of a white woman that Hollywood sort of hoped I’d become. I’m me, and I’m like nobody else. “
She has continued to record into this new millineum, but is not making any public appearances anymore. I love you Lena, and appreciate all that you have contributed to the world of entertainment.
For a complete biography, visit her Wikipedia Page.
NPR also has a new piece about Horne’s 90th birthday.
Here are videos from her Tony Award speech and performance of “If You Believe” from the Wiz, and as I posted last week, my favorite, “Yesterday When I was Young.”