Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b 30 June 1917, Brooklyn, NY; d 9 May 2010, NYC) Singer, dancer, actress. First appeared on stage at six; turned pro at the Cotton Club '34, toured and recorded with Noble Sissle '35-6. She became the latest of a string of stars to headline in Lew Leslie's productions: he had presented the great Florence Mills, who never recorded, for whom Duke Ellington wrote 'Black Beauty'; then Ethel Waters appeared in Plantation Review (1924), Mabel Mercer in Blackbirds of 1927, Aida Ward and Adelaide Hall in Blackbirds of 1928-9, Waters again in 1930, Valaida Snow in 1934-5, Lavaida Carter in 1936-7 (Valaida's sister), and Lena Horne in Blackbirds of 1939.
      She toured with Charlie Barnet '40-41 and became a great favourite in clubs. Like Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, she recorded with Teddy Wilson's small groups in the '30s ('Out Of Nowhere', 'Prisoner Of Love', etc) though Holiday made most of the records, Ella, Lena And Billie on CBS was a selection. She also recorded with Barnet and Artie Shaw. When she sang 'Fine And Mellow' in a show at Carnegie Hall '41 Holiday was upset; Horne did exactly the right thing: she called at the club where Billie was working and asked permission to sing it, which was granted. She was a great singing actress, getting inside a song as few others did.
      She was not the first black performer under contract to a major studio; MGM had signed Nina Mae McKinney in 1929. But when that studio signed Lena Horne, she was still ahead of her time, making films Panama Hattie '42; Cabin In The Sky, Stormy Weather (lent to 20th- Century Fox), Thousands Cheer, I Dood It and Swing Fever, all in '43; Broadway Rhythm and Two Girls And A Sailor '44, Ziegfeld Follies and Till The Clouds Roll By '46, Words And Music '48, Duchess Of Idaho '50, Meet Me In Las Vegas '56, a straight dramatic role in Death of a Gunfighter '69 (opposite Richard Widmark), and as Glinda in The Wiz '78. The MGM contract had ended in 1950, and it was common knowledge that her songs were cut from the films when they were shown in the south. During WWII she made a fuss about the way black soldiers were treated and was cut out of USA tours.
      Her great friend and mentor had been Billy Strayhorn. She later described him as the only man she ever loved, but he was gay. Her accompanists included Horace Henderson and Lenny Hayton; she married Hayton in Paris '47 and they kept it a secret for some years, because he was white. European tours included a successful show at the London Palladium; she appeared on Broadway in Jamaica '57-9 (Holiday went to see her and renewed the friendship). She lost out on a starring role in Broadway show Destry Rides Again '59 because Andy Griffith, already signed as Destry, would not play opposite a black.
      At first she and Hayton suffered a certain amount of inconvenience as an interracial couple in Hollywood (their neighbor Humphrey Bogart was a champion), but for the most part she was able to rise above racism in her professional life; her combination of sheer class and huge talent kept her at the top of the supper club circuit. Though she had always been outspoken and hung out with controversial people like Paul Robeson, she made a lot of TV appearances, and in fact was more accepted on TV in the 1950s than almost any other black entertainer. Later she was very active in the Civil Rights movement. Her one-woman Broadway show The Lady And Her Music was a triumph '81 (two-CD set on Qwest): on the eve of her 65th birthday she remained one of the most glamorous women and best-loved entertainers in the world. But privately she had a volatile personality and held a lot of bitterness, claiming as she grew older that she had become calmer and more accepting. 
      She published autobiographies In Person: Lena Horne '50 and Lena '66. Hayton died in 1971, her son Teddy (b 1940) died of kidney failure the same year. Her distinguished family had entered the black bourgeoisie in the decade 1867-77, an era when America might have gone color-blind if Congress hadn't sold out to racist elements in the South; The Hornes -- An American Family, by her daughter, Gail Lumet Buckley (b 1937), was published in 1986.
      Her albums included At The Waldorf-Astoria '57, Give The Lady What She Wants '58, Porgy And Bess (with Harry Belafonte) '59, Lena On The Blue Side '62, Lena, Lovely And Alive '63 with Marty Paich (reissued on CD by Frech Sound), all chart hits; also It's Love, Lena: A New Album ('76; arranged by Robert Farnon), all on RCA; Lena and Gabor '70 with Gabor Szabo reissued as Watch What Happens on DCC Jazz CD; I Feel So Smoochie on Lion; Here's Lena Now! on 20th-Century Fox; Lena Goes Latin '63 on DRG; The One And Only on Polydor; Standing Room Only on Accord; Stormy Weather on Stanyan; Lena In Hollywood on Liberty; compilations A Date With Fletcher Henderson ('44 tracks) on Sunbeam, Stormy Weather: The Legendary Lena Horne ('41-58) on Bluebird; many more.
      Some may have thought the '81 Broadway show was her swan song, but she recorded The Men In My Life '88 on Three Cherries with Sammy Davis Jr and Joe Williams; she made a guest appearance '93 at a tribute to Strayhorn, released We'll Be Together Again May '94 on Blue Note (with guest Johnny Mathis), then took on Carnegie Hall in September with a band including pianist Mike Renzi, Rodney Jones on guitar, Donald Harrison on tenor sax; An Evening With Lena Horne on Blue Note was recorded the same month at NYC's Supper Club. And she had become perhaps a better jazz singer than ever.
      James Gavin published biography Stormy Weather in 2009, one of the best books of its kind.