When Lena Horne died two years ago, David Patrick Stearns remembered her career. Originally published May 2010 on Obit-Mag.com.
She didn’t mind being introduced as “the beautiful Lena Horne,” even if that moniker barely hinted at the talent behind the face. But in later years, the veteran singer/actress/civil rights activist did mind being called “the still-beautiful Lena Horne” – understandably, although it was a small price to pay for one of the great Indian summer careers of modern show business.
Lena Horne, who died Monday at age 92, strode through several significant eras of African American history in the United States. The Brooklyn-born singer started in the chorus of Harlem’s fabled Cotton Club alongside such legends as Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn; she became the first African American star of MGM musicals and, during her 1960s civil rights activities, she met with John F. Kennedy days before his assassination. Though she announced her retirement in 1980, a year later she embarked on a limited, six-week Broadway engagement in a show titled Lena Horne, the Lady and her Music, which brought her a Tony Award, was extended indefinitely, and yielded a tour of dozens of cities and a successful London run. The show also codified a Broadway genre – the autobiographical one-woman show, which many have imitated, though without her success.
After all, she had stories to tell, so many that she didn’t have to reveal a lot of personal secrets to be fascinating. Her voice was one of the most distinctive in popular music, but not because it was imposing. It was actually as slim as her figure and as light as her mocha-colored skin. But the woman behind the voice delivered plenty of expressive kicks. Like many song stylists of her period, she was something of a secret jazz singer – much like Jo Stafford – not given to the improvisational flights of Ella Fitzgerald, yet possessing an imagination that effortlessly remade everything she sang.
Such qualities were apparent over the years she performed her one-woman show. Early on, the music was recorded live, but after singing those songs for years on Broadway and on tour, she defied the conventional wisdom that the only way to survive for so long, night after night, is to perform with strict uniformity. Horne morphed the music constantly, finding different musical ways to deliver the same emotional message.
Such was the journey she enjoyed throughout her long life: She was always unmistakably Lena Horne, never running out of new ways to express what that meant. She had to. Though her African/European/Native American heritage gave her a look that stood apart from any number of show-biz hopefuls, her MGM films, prestigious as they were, never gave her starring roles. Her movies compartmentalized her appearance on film to allow easy excision for screenings in the deep South. That meant she could only truly star in all-black films such as Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather, the title song of which became the first of her many musical signatures. One of her biggest career disappointments was the casting of the 1951 film Show Boat, a musical in which she longed to play a performer who is black but passing for white; Miss Julie is found out by authorities and the discovery spirals her downward into alcoholism. The role was Oscar material; instead, it went to Ava Gardner.
The movie musical was in decline anyway, and Horne's politics limited her opportunities within the Hollywood mainstream. Besides, she was better showcased in prestigious nightclub engagements, from Café Society to the Waldorf Astoria. She was also a best-selling recording artist for RCA and starred in the 1958 Broadway musical Jamaica, which was originally written for her occasional colleague and political soulmate, Harry Belafonte. Whatever was implied by Horne’s marriage to a white man – one of MGM’s top music directors, Lennie Hayton – she put herself at the forefront of civil rights activism with her ardent support of Martin Luther King. The coiffed hairdos that made her look like a sun-tanned Elizabeth Taylor gave way to Afros and darker makeup that left nobody guessing about her heritage. For all of her class and elegance, Horne was angry. Even her Christmas album, Merry from Lena, has an underlying edge that says something other than happy holidays.
The emotional intensity she was said to achieve only later in The Lady and her Music is quite apparent in a series of late-1960s albums, starting with “Feelin’ Good.” Here she shows an emotional depth that kept her in step with the times and enhanced her talent; in contrast, many of her stylistic contemporaries tried unconvincingly to update their repertoires. Horne was never a chart-topper, but she had a consistently strong following. Like Tony Bennett (one of her favorite collaborators), she leaves a body of recordings that’s true to herself and the nature of her talent. Unlike Bennett, however, she changed recording companies often, from RCA to United Artists to Blue Note, with a lot of smaller, independent labels in between. As a result, the full range of her singing career may never be comprehensively documented.
Because of her politics she was blacklisted in Hollywood, which further fractured her spotty film presence. (Cabin in the Sky was famous for what was cut: her singing "Ain't It the Truth" in a bubble bath.) In any case, her presence often seemed too big for the movie screen: Playing the good witch to Diana Ross and Michael Jackson in the 1978 film of The Wiz, Horne seems too exaggerated to ring true, though in her defense, the film flatters none of its cast.
In concert, Horne could’ve sung longer and more frequently after her Lady and her Music years. During the mid-1990s, she handily eclipsed herself in a series of high-profile New York concerts, one of which is preserved on DVD, featuring her penetrating rendition of “Yesterday When I was Young.” For all the double-entendres of her Tony Award speech, the older Horne was concerned with singing age-appropriate music and she talked about the difficulties of galvanizing herself to be onstage. Health was no doubt the deciding factor: She had been fitted with a pacemaker. Nonetheless, she recorded Classic Ellington, conducted by Simon Rattle, as late as 2000.
Lena Horne’s career has remarkably few might-have-beens. Even the Show Boat film wasn’t much of a loss. Though Horne would seem to have been born to play Miss Julie – and she was convinced of it herself – the film was over-produced, hasn't stood the test of time very well and would've demanded that she play a loser rejected from the white establishment, a stereotype that’s best laid to rest.
Horne was not a loser, and portraying that kind of tragedy might have been beyond her. She knew the pain of living: her rendition of “Yesterday when I was Young” becomes an existential confrontation with death. And her version of “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man of Mine” in the 1946 Jerome Kern biopic Till the Clouds Roll By remains unrivaled for its originality: Horne transforms the Show Boat song from an upbeat production number with tragic undertones into a slow-tempo confession from which she wrings every possible emotional gradation. It’s still a ballad of helpless love, but the woman who sings it is far from helpless.
Click Here for More from Obit-Mag.com