NiteLife Person of the Week: Lena Horne on the 100th Anniversary of Her Birth

BY ROB LESTER**** How lucky we were to have Lena Horne in our lifetime.  She was born on the last day of June—100 years ago— and passed away in 2010.  When Broadway met cabaret, it met Lena. Sixty years ago, she starred on Broadway in Jamaica, which was about the tropical island life (not about the neighborhood in Queens of the same name, reached by taking the E train to the last stop!), and it had a score by Harold Arlen and E.Y. “Yip” Harburg.  One song, “Napoleon,” was about how fleeting fame is, that people who once had power and/or glory in their day might be less remembered than things they were named after.  (“Napoleon’s a pastry, Caesar is a salad..”  Broadway welcomed her back years later in her electrifying autobiographical look back at her journey with the hugely successful (almost) one-person show. Nightclubs were a big part of her work, as she was a magnetic performer best experienced visually as well as with your ears, though her recordings are quite wonderful and a lot of the sizzle and attitude come through. Live albums are especially satisfying, such as the one from the aforementioned Broadway concert, really capturing this Lady and Her Music, and earlier ones at the Waldorf-Astoria and the Sands, and, late in the game, a recording from The Supper Club.  B

ut the many studio albums still in print are exciting, too, and allow us to focus on her vocals without the happy distraction of the acknowledged beauty and command of her physical presence.  I’ll always recall a summer in my earliest days of record collecting when I was living away from home with the contents of one suitcase that included half a dozen albums, one of which was Lena’s albums, and how the back’s paper had been pasted on upside down. I played it so much that I think every nuance of her savvy phrasing is still locked in my brain.  

Film and television appearances are also part of her legacy.  She was a remarkable talent whose career and life had roadblocks caused by the racism of the times in her earlier days.  An example of that is the numerous movie assignments for MGM where she sang in stand-alone song segments that were set up to be easily excised when the films were shown in the South where movies with integrated casts were not welcomed.  But she did have opportunities where enlightened directors were in charge, such as Vincente Minnelli who directed a black cast in Cabin in the Sky.  

Years later, she memorably graced the film version of The Wiz as a Good Witch who came in at the end to deliver the major highlight, a powerful “Believe in Yourself” (our picture at the start of this article).   TV appearances, happily, were many.  She was a frequent guest on variety shows, with a memorable two-person special where she shared the stage and some songs with Harry Belafonte (who is still with us and turned 90 earlier this year), the originally intended star of of Jamaica.  

Friend of cabaret James Gavin’s biography of Miss Horne, Stormy Weather, is named after the song that became her signature, although it was originally the property of film co-star Ethel Waters.  Other books explored her remarkable life, too, including one that surveyed the whole family history, by her daughter Gail Lumet Buckley.  Lena will be long remembered and her influence on other singers has been apparent, with Barbra Streisand and Barbara Fasano two clear examples.  And some not named Barb(a)ra, and not necessarily female– Johnny Mathis has often mentioned her style as something he admired, and you can hear it in his earliest albums.  

On the 100th anniversary of Lena Horne’s birth, let’s toast her as NiteLifeExchange’s Person of the Week, and be thankful for her talents and for breaking down some of those racial barriers, and for her great example as a strong woman and classy human being.