Monday, May 10, 2010

RIP: Lena Horne (1917-2010)

(I know that my father in law, Noel, 84, who had his own jazz radio program at age 17, will be mourning the loss of one of jazz's greats.  This one's for you, Noel).

Jazz legend Lena Horne died in hospital yesterday aged 92.

Miss Horne was renowned as much for her striking beauty and magnetic sex appeal as for her sultry voice and talent. Her African-American background inspired a lifetime of civil rights activism.

Some moments:

- Born in 1917, from age 16 she sang in the chorus of the Cotton Club (a famous night club in Harlem that featured the greatest black singers and performers but generally denied admission to black customers). Having become a nightclub performer, she then moved to Hollywood where bit parts in small films led to roles in Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather. However, the Red Scare in Hollywood and her activist views caused her to be blacklisted.

- Horne returned to her roots as a nightclub performer as well as performing on television. She also released albums that were well received. Tragedy struck in 1970s-1971 when her husband, son and father died within a period of twelve months. In March 1980 she announced her retirement but the next year starred in a one woman show, Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music. That show ran for more than three hundred performances on Broadway, and was awarded numerous awards. Thereafter she recorded sporadically but no longer made public appearances.

- From an early age she was an activist for equal rights for African-Americans, yet at the same time not being under any misapprehensions as to her acceptance within white society at the time:
“I was unique in that I was a kind of black that white people could accept. I was their daydream. I had the worst kind of acceptance because it was never for how great I was or what I contributed. It was because of the way I looked.”
Some civil rights moments:

She was one of the first black performers to sing with a major white band.

She was the first black performer to sing in the Copacabana nightclub and one of the first to be offered a Hollywood contract. Her film parts were usually filmed in such a way that they could be cut from the films for showing in the South without affecting the storyline.
“I was always battling the system to try to get to be with my people. Finally, I wouldn’t work for places that kept us out…It was a damn fight everywhere I was, everywhere I worked, in New York, in Hollywood, all over the world.”

“I don’t have to be an imitation of a white woman that Hollywood sort of hoped I’d become. I'm me and I’m like nobody else.”
During World War 2, when entertaining the troops for the USO, she refused to perform "for segregated audiences or to groups in which German POWs were seated in front of African American servicemen", according to her Kennedy Centre biography.

Being black, she was not allowed to stay in the hotels in which she was performing.  According to one biography:
In 1940 Horne joined Charlie Barnet's orchestra. Barnet was one of the first white bandleaders to hire African-Americans. Horne stayed with Barnet for only a year, however. The problems of traveling in a segregated country proved too much for her. She was unable to stay in the same hotels as the rest of the band, she wasn't allowed to use the dressing rooms at theatres, and she wasn't allowed to sit on stage with the band in between numbers.
She was at an NAACP rally with civil rights activist Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi the weekend before Evers was assassinated. She also met President John F Kennedy at the White House two days before he was assassinated.

Horne was at the March on Washington in 1963 where Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.

Horne spoke and performed on behalf of the NAACP, SNCC and the National Council of Negro Women, as well as working with Eleanor Roosevelt to pass anti-lynching laws.


Sit back and listen to some beautiful Lena Horne classic melodies by clicking on the following 3 links, the final link being an interview with her in 1997 when she was aged 80.

Stormy Weather (1943):

Mad About The Boy (1943):

The Man I Love (1941):

Interview with Rosie O’Donnell (1997):

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