05/10/10

Lena Horne Dies at 92

Jazz singer and musical actress straddled worlds of Hollywood, Broadway and jazz

Singer and musical actress Lena Horne died on Sunday night at the New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center. She was 92.

Horne is survived by her daughter, Gail Lumet Buckley. Both her husband and son died in 1971.

Born Lena Mary Calhoun Horne in Brooklyn on June 30, 1917, Horne was raised in a middle-class yet tumultuous household. She got her start in show business as one of the light-skinned dancers at the famous Cotton Club in Harlem. Her talents as a singer however got her out of the chorus line and she was soon singing at Barney Josephson’s Café Society and other clubs in New York and later in Los Angeles. It was at the nightclub The Little Troc in Los Angeles that Horne attracted the attention of Hollywood people, who were drawn to her remarkable combination of stunning beauty and musical gifts.

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Lena Horne, New York 1994
By Carol Friedman
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Lena Horne album

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Horne straddled the worlds of Hollywood and jazz for many years, but although she was the first black performer to be signed to a contract by a major Hollywood studio (MGM), she rarely got an opportunity for any major speaking roles. Instead she often appeared in the background or doing musical interludes. Her first appearance in an MGM movie was in “Panama Hattie” (1942), in which she sang “Just One of Those Things,” by Cole Porter. Horne went on to appear in over a dozen musicals during the ‘40s.

In the ensuing years, convinced that she had been underused and then later blacklisted by Hollywood, Horne had a very hot and cold relationship with film and television, making occasional appearances, but never becoming the screen star she (and many) knew that she could have been.

Her musical career continued apace. During a musical career spanning over five decades, Horne released over 30 albums for Capitol, RCA and other labels. Her last three recordings were made for the Blue Note label: We’ll Be Together Again (1994), An Evening with Lena Horne (1994) and Being Myself (1998). In a statement released by Blue Note Records, the longtime label head Bruce Lundvall said about Horne: "She was of the great jazz singers, right up there with Sarah and Ella. It was such an honor to have her on Blue Note to make her final recordings. She was a joy to work with."

Although not a pure jazz singer along the lines of Vaughan or Fitzgerald, Horne always considered herself a jazz artist. In many ways the quintessential cabaret and nightclub performer, she even won a Tony for her one-woman show.on Broadway.

Throughout her life, Horne was an outspoken advocate for Civil Rights, not only commenting publicly about discrimination whenever she encountered it, but also making numerous appearances on behalf of the Civil Rights movement.

As reviewed and featured in a Hearing Voices column by Christopher Loudon, Horne was the subject of a recent biography by James Gavin, who also authored a biography on Chet Baker. In Stormy Weather, Gavin attempts to explain the bitterness underlying Horne’s professional and personal relationships, while documenting her sizable contribution to American culture in the 20th century.

Aljean Harmetz wrote a comprehensive and well-written obituary of Horne for the New York Times.

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