Singing in the Changes



LENA HORNE 1917-2010

Some things are impossible to deny. One of those was that Lena Horne was beautiful, another was her talent as an actress and singer, the third was that she was black. Horne once quipped that what the MGM Studios knew about black people, they'd gleaned from the Tarzan films, and she flatly refused to pretend to be Latin American so that her movies might fare better in the Southern States. It is hard to believe that scenes containing black actors were routinely chopped from films before they were shown there. A fitting testament to this spirited woman and her bravery in the face of stupid prejudice is that the world has moved on somewhat, and has all but forgotten these sins; now a black man resides in the White House.

Lena Mary Calhoun Horne was born in Brooklyn in 1917. She was raised by her grandmother Cora, an early suffragette and campaigner for the rights of black Americans, but it was her mother who got her involved in show business, first in the chorus line of the Cotton Club in Harlem and then as a singer in Noble Sissle's Society Orchestra, with whom she made her recording debut.

Horne married Louis Jones in 1938, but despite two children, the relationship floundered by 1940, and she returned to her singing career, becoming one of the earliest black singers in a white band. In Greenwich Village, she caused a stir at the Cafe Society, which led to her being asked to appear at the Little Troc in Hollywood. It was inevitable, given her looks, that she'd be spotted, and when MGM's musical supervisor Roger Edens got her an audition, a seven year contract was the result.

Her debut came in the 1942 vehicle Panama Hattie in which she sang the Cole Porter number "Just One of Those Things." Horne refused to pretend to be anything but black, which marginalized her into cameo or specialty roles in mainstream films from 1943 to 45, such as Thousands Cheer, Ziegfeld Follies and Till Clouds Roll By. In the 1943 film version of the black cast Broadway musical Cabin in the Sky, she became Georgia Brown, primed by Satan to seduce a respectable married man. This proved, just as her cabaret work had, that black women could be glamorous, sexy, and seductive, and didn't just have to be maids, mammies, or prostitutes.

Horne became the object of much desire amongst black GIs, especially after her second black cast smash, Stormy Weather, which contained the title song that would become her signature tune. She also resolutely refused to perform to segregated gatherings of soldiers and POWs. The black troops were usually seated behind the German prisoners.

In 1947 Horne upset the apples on both sides of the race cart when she married Lennie Hayton in Paris, mixed marriages being illegal in much of the U.S. at the time. He was one of MGM's top musical directors, who'd won an Oscar for On the Town. She was bitterly disappointed not to get the part of the chanteuse in the remake of Showboat playing a girl who passes for white. Her inclusion would have resulted in her being excised in order to sell the picture in the South.

Horne's friendship with Paul Robeson compounded her woes in the early '50s, and she was effectively blacklisted during McCarthyism, but worked, mostly abroad, as a singer of poise and sophistication, winning three Grammys in 1959, 1961, and 1962 for her RCA albums Porgy & Bess, Lena at the Sands, and Lena...Lovely & Alive. She published her best-selling autobiography Lena in 1965. Horne worked with Eleanor Roosevelt on anti-lynching laws, and was an articulate and forthright exponent of the black cause.

Less volatile than Eartha Kitt, her more reserved methods didn't stop her acting career from being stalled. Subsequently, she made only a scattering of film appearances. There was the 1969 western Death of a Gunfighter, and she featured briefly in the The Wiz, a 1978 version of the Broadway success, and in 1993 she voiced That's Entertainment III, the lavish appraisal of the MGM musical genre. Horne's triumphs continued to be on the stage.

Her 1981 The Lady and Her Music ran for 14 months on Broadway, becoming the most successful one-woman show in the history of American theater, and in 1984 she brought it to further acclaim to the Adelphi Theatre in London. After this she faded from view. In 1993 Horne stepped back into the limelight at the JVC Jazz Festival in New York, in a tribute to Duke Ellington's collaborator Billy Strayhorn, and her contribution "Embraceable You" was considered one of the few highlights on the Frank Sinatra Duets II album. The following year she released her first record in over a decade, We'll Be Together.

Her final release, Being Myself, appeared in 1998, the year PBS broadcast the television special Lena Horne: In Her Own Voice. After this, she effectively retired, although she did contribute vocals to the Simon Rattle project Classic Ellington in 2000. Horne's dual legacy lies as much in the doors she pushed open for others as in the sublime artistry of her singing. She once said, "I wouldn't trade my life for anything, because being black made me understand." It also had that impact on a lot of other people as well.