Harlem chanteuse, learned from Cotton Club greats, became international jazz superstar and pinup girl.
b. Lena Mary Calhoun Horne, 30 June 1917, Brooklyn, New York City, New York, USA, d.
9 May 2010, New York City, New York, USA. Horne was a dynamic performer, of striking appearance and elegant style.
The daughter of an actress and a hotel operator, she was brought up mainly by her paternal grandmother, Cora Calhoun Horne. She made her professional debut at the age of 16 as a singer in the chorus at Harlem’s Cotton Club, learning from Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway and Harold Arlen, the composer of a future big hit, ‘Stormy Weather.’ From 1935-36 she was featured vocalist with the all-black Noble Sissle’s Society Orchestra (the same Noble Sissle who, with Eubie Blake, wrote several hit songs including ‘Shuffle Along’ and ‘I’m Just Wild About Harry’) and later toured with the top swing band of Charlie Barnet, singing numbers such as ‘Good For Nothin’ Joe’ and ‘You’re My Thrill.’ Sometimes, when Barnet’s Band played Southern towns, Horne had to stay in the band bus.
She made her Broadway debut in 1934 as ‘A Quadroon Girl’ in Dance with Your Gods, and also appeared in Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds Of 1939, in which she sang Mitchell Parish and Sammy Fain’s ‘You’re So Indifferent’ - but only for the show’s run of nine performances. After a spell at the Café Society Downtown in New York, Horne moved to Hollywood’s Little Troc Club and was spotted by Roger Edens, musical supervisor for MGM Pictures and former accompanist for Ethel Merman, who introduced her to producer Arthur Freed. In her first film for MGM, Panama Hattie (1942), which starred Merman, Horne sang Cole Porter’s ‘Just One of Those Things’ and a rhumba number called ‘The Spring.’ To make her skin appear lighter on film, the studio used a special makeup called ‘Light Egyptian.’ Horne referred to herself as ‘a sepia Hedy Lamarr.’ Her next two films, Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather, both made in 1943, are generally regarded as her best.
In the remainder of her 40s and 50s movie musicals (which included Thousands Cheer, Swing Fever, Broadway Rhythm, Two Girls and a Sailor, Ziegfeld Follies, Till the Clouds Roll By, Words and Music, Duchess of Idaho and Meet Me in Las Vegas), she merely performed guest shots that were easily removable, without spoiling the plot, for the benefit of distributors in the Southern states. Horne’s 40s record hits included her theme song, ‘Stormy Weather,’ and another Arlen song, ‘As Long as I Live,’ plus ‘‘Deed I Do’ (Walter Hirsch and Fred Rose). She also recorded with several big swing era names such as Artie Shaw, Calloway and Teddy Wilson.
During World War II, she became the pinup girl for many thousands of black GIs and refused to appear on US tours unless black soldiers were admitted to the audience. In 1947 she married pianist, arranger and conductor Lennie Hayton, who also became her manager and mentor until his death in 1971.
For a time during the 50s Horne was blacklisted, probably for her constant involvement with the civil rights movement, but particularly for her friendship with alleged Communist sympathizer Paul Robeson. Ironically, she was at the peak of her powers at that time, and although she was unable to appear much on television and in films, she continued to make records and appear in nightclubs, which were regarded as her special forte.
Evidence of that was displayed on Lena Horne at the Waldorf Astoria. The material on this classic album ranged from the sultry ‘Mood Indigo’ right through to the novelty ‘New Fangled Tango.’ Lena at the Sands featured a medley of songs by Rodgers & Hammerstein, Jule Styne and E.Y.
‘Yip’ Harburg. Other US Top 30 chart albums included Give the Lady What She Wants and Porgy and Bess, with Harry Belafonte.
Horne also made the US Top 20 singles charts in 1955 with ‘Love Me or Leave Me,’ written by Gus Kahn and Walter Donaldson for Ruth Etting to sing in the 1928 Broadway show Whoopee. In 1957 Horne had her first starring role on Broadway when she played Savannah, opposite Ricardo Montalban, in the Arlen/Harburg musical Jamaica. In the 60s, besides the usual round of television shows and records, she appeared in a dramatic role, with Richard Widmark, in Death of a Gunfighter (1969).
After Hayton’s death in 1971 she worked less, but did feature in The Wiz, an all-black film version of The Wizard of Oz starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson, and in 1979 she received an honorary doctorate degree from Harvard University. In May 1981, she opened on Broadway in her own autobiographical show, Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music.
It ran at the Nederland Theatre to full houses for 14 months, a Broadway record for a one-woman show. Horne received several awards, including a special Tony Award for ‘Distinguished Achievement in the Theatre,’ Drama Desk Award, New York Drama Critics’ Special Award, New York City’s Handel Medallion, Dance Theatre of Harlem’s Emergence Award, two Grammy Awards and the NAACP Springarn Award.
She took the show to London in 1984, where it was also acclaimed. In 1993, after not having sung in public for several years, Horne agreed to perform the songs of Billy Strayhorn at the US JVC Jazz Festival. She included several of the same composer’s songs on her 1994 album We’ll Be Together Again, and, in the same year, surprised and delighted her fans by appearing in concert at Carnegie Hall.
In 1996 she won a Grammy for the best vocal jazz performance on her album An Evening with Lena Horne. In 1998, she sang a superb version of ‘Stormy Weather’ on US television’s top-rated Rosie O’Donnell Show, and introduced what was said to be her 40th album, Being Myself.
Horne retired from music following the release of this album, but continued to make the occasional guest appearance. One further album, Seasons of a Life, appeared on Blue Note in 2006, but it encompassed earlier sessions from the mid- to late '90s.
In May 2010, Horne died at the age of 92. ~ William Ruhlmann.