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WICN Artist of the Month, March ’24: Lena Horne

Written by on March 1, 2024

by Doug Hall, Contributing Writer

During the height of the Civil Rights Movement in the late ‘50s and ‘60s, many Black musicians participated in the marches, demonstrations, and political activities of the times, lending their voices and stature to this seminal era in America. In particular, Black female vocalists Billie Holiday and Nina Simone were both defiant in their political statements in songs (Holiday’s Strange Fruit and Nina Simone’s Mississippi Goddam are potent examples) and revealing their “nothing to hide” public lifestyles. However, in the area of entertainment and crossover appeals to white audiences, a significant credit is due to dancer, nightclub entertainer, singer, and Hollywood actress Lena Horne – the first celebrity entertainer to break the color barrier in major motion picture film and television. During Horne’s early career, there was still no Black representation in Hollywood film roles outside of those of stereotypical servility, but her persistence, determination, and talent forced a gradual change to more scripted and stand-alone straight roles for African-American actors.

Musically, as a singer and performer, Horne is also acknowledged, with nods from many Black jazz performers and entertainers including Joe Williams, Abbey Lincoln, Diahann Carroll, Cicely Tyson, Flip Wilson, and Alicia Keys, as the first non-white female singer universally recognized as both sexy and elegant, becoming an uncompromising, self-determined artist in mainstream music.

Horne’s early musical career would lead to a groundbreaking opportunity in Hollywood movies through a series of smaller roles. Before that moment, in the early 1930s, she began performing in the chorus line at the Cotton Club in Harlem, at just sixteen years of age. Horne mixed with a hotbed of top jazz and entertainment performers of this period, as well as an audience stacked with music business clientele and less legitimate talent-seekers. Her featured role as a dancer in the Cotton Club Parade brought her into a mentorship with the then-current starring jazz singer and integral figure in the Harlem Renaissance period, Adelaide Hall.

Performing in the epicenter of Harlem’s bandleaders, Horne would meet Duke Ellington and singer Billie Holiday and subsequently get spotted by Cab Callaway and in short order, made her debut screen appearance as a dancer in Cab Calloway’s Jitterbug Party (1935). She would then make an important career-changing shift in direction with jazz saxophonist, arranger, and bandleader Charlie Barnett in 1940-41. Touring with Barnett’s swing orchestra, she would become one of the first African-Americans to cross the music business color divide, traveling and performing with an all-white band. Under segregation laws, particularly in the South, Horne would not be allowed front door entrance or access to restaurants, and, by her own account, was often sleeping in the bus when no hotel room for her could be found.

Disliking life on the road and the constant demands of touring, Horne left Barnett’s band and became a featured singer in New York City’s Greenwich Village, at Café Society – the city’s only truly integrated jazz club. It was an immersion into a musical and intellectual community, as she reflected on in her PBS American Masters biography series, “I began to thrive, I was introduced to great writers and painters, actors, and intellectuals. People like Langston Hughes, and Orson Welles, Billie Holiday, Art Tatum, Duke Ellington.”

A politically important intersection and pre-Civil Rights friendship would develop at this same time. Horne met Paul Robeson, a Black actor and intellectual who openly supported socialism and advocated for racial justice, economic fairness, and civil liberties in the liberal organization Progressive Citizens of America. In a direct conversation, Robeson would ignite Horne: “He said, ‘Look, you’re a Negro and that is the whole basis of what you feel and it’s the basis of what you will become.’ And he gave me an identity – he grounded me.” Robeson’s outspoken nature would spark the fire kept inside her, according to Horne in the aforementioned American Masters series. This became a turning point in her political activism, and Horne would go on to join the Council for African Affairs and the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee.

She would headline as a singer in Harlem nightclubs for most of the late ‘30s and then make her  TV debut as the featured vocalist on NBC’s popular jazz series The Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street, produced in 1941. Moving on to an opportunity on the West Coast to perform at the Café Trocadero, she suddenly landed in the center of the burgeoning motion picture industry in Los Angeles.

Horne would also make a personal and political statement early in her career, touring during this same period with the USO on the West Coast and in the South. She refused to play to a segregated enlisted audience, where Black servicemen were seated behind both white US servicemen and German POWs. She instead performed for Black servicemen, who were still seated behind German POWs, defiantly walking out into the audience to stand in front of the Black section, with her back to the POWs. After MGM pulled her from the tour, she paid for her travel to continue entertaining Black troops stationed in the U.S.

Stormy Weather would become Horne’s signature song, performed countless times over her career, both solo or as a duet. A 1933 song written by Harold Arlen with lyrics by Ted Koehler, Stormy Weather was first performed at Harlem’s Cotton Club by Ethel Waters. When Horne performed this timeless love ballad, she made it her own when it was featured in the 1943 film of the same name. In a KUVO radio station review of past artists performing this legendary song, Horne remains at the top:

“This tune has been performed by a wide variety of artists, including Frank Sinatra, Reigning Sound, Clodagh Rodgers and most famously by Lena Horne and Billie Holiday. Horne’s version finished at #30 on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Songs survey of top tunes in American cinema.”

At eighteen, Horne moved back to her uncle’s home in Pittsburgh and was heavily influenced musically during this period by a neighborhood concentration of prominent Black artists, known as “The Hill,” which included what would become her seminal musical association with Billy Strayhorn, Ellington’s silent partner in composition, arrangements, and lyricism. Later in her professional life, Horne would attribute Strayhorn’s significant mark on her song arrangement style.

With legitimate roles in a variety of low-budget movies to her credit, Horne would make the leap to Hollywood, contracted with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, performing scripted roles in Panama Hattie (1942), which Horne later referred to as “window dressing,” though prominent singing roles later developed for Stormy Weather (1943) and Cabin in the Sky (1943), with an all-Black cast. Additionally, her powerful range and passionate voice in these two films came to the attention of MGM film executives. During the 1940s, Horne grew to become the highest-paid Black actor in the United States of this era. Promoted by the NAACP to break the color barrier, she received strong family support as well. A telling conversation between her father and executives at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer speaks to the confrontation Horne and her father necessitated, demanding non-degrading roles in film:

“Horne’s father accompanied her to an early meeting with MGM boss Louis B. Mayer. On being told his daughter could play a film role as a maid, he informed the mogul that he could afford to hire his own maids and didn’t need to have his offspring playing one.”

Stormy Weather and particularly Cabin in the Sky, along with Horne’s breakthrough casting, would include her first significant singing roles in film, which featured other Black entertainers, specifically Ethel Waters, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington. Her renditions of Deed I Do and As Long as I Live, and Cole Porter‘s Just One of Those Things became instant classics. Later, Horne would also become the first Black person elected to serve on the Screen Actors Guild’s Board of Directors.

With the advent of the “Red Scare” atmosphere in America in the ‘50s and the communist witch hunt led by Senator Joseph McCarthy, both Lena Horne and Paul Robeson were blacklisted along with many other actors, screenwriters, TV actors, and major entertainment figures. Horne would not receive a film or television role for 7 years as a result and instead returned to a successful career in nightclub performing in North America and Europe, featuring a more intimate and interpretive singing style which brought significant commercial exposure and rising record sales. Horne became a top-drawer talent and recording artist, including stints in Las Vegas. Her 2010 obituary published by The Guardian summarizes this accomplished and productive period:

“Several highly regarded Horne albums, including Lena Horne at the Waldorf Astoria (1957) and Lena Horne at the Sands (1961), emerged from this period, as did a Top 20 US chart hit with Love Me Or Leave Me in 1955, and the classic 1959 album Porgy and Bess, which partnered her with Harry Belafonte. Horne also took a leading Broadway role for the first time in 1957, when she played opposite Ricardo Montalbán in Arlen and Yip Harburg’s musical Jamaica.”

Returning to her passionate commitment to Civil Rights and the growing movement across the country including highly publicized demonstrations, marches, sit-ins at lunch counters, and other passive resistance methods led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Horne would take on an active and outspoken stance. In the 1963 March on Washington, she both performed and spoke as a member of the NAACP. Before the March in August 1963, Horne happened to be at a rally in Jackson, Mississippi with NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers the weekend before he was assassinated. After the assassination, Horne stated publicly: “Nobody Black or white who believes in democracy can stand aside now; everybody’s got to stand up and be counted.” She also began to appear regularly at rallies organized by the National Council for Negro Women. During this same period, she worked with former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in attempts to pass anti-lynching laws.

Alongside Horne’s very active and public activities and involvement with the Civil Rights Movement, she was successfully transitioning to the enormous popularity of the 1960s and 1970s television variety shows, making multiple appearances and drawing a significant audience. Horne became a regular guest star on Perry Como’s Kraft Music Hall, The Ed Sullivan Show, The Dean Martin Show, and the Bell Telephone Hour. In the ‘70s, she also starred alongside Harry Belafonte and Tony Bennett for two TV specials and subsequently toured with Bennett in the U.S. and the U.K. Horne’s featured guest performances drew strong ratings and opened doors for other non-white entertainers in the television industry, including comedian Flip Wilson, who hosted his own successful variety show from 1970-74.

A sudden tragic loss of immediate family members in 1970 and 1971 caused Horne to retreat from public life, until a featured role in the 1978 all-Black remake of The Wizard of Oz, called The Wiz, in which she starred along with Diana Ross and Michael Jackson.

Rebounding in the 1980s with regular live performances and recordings, her autobiographical one-woman show, Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music, opened on Broadway in 1981, which ran for over a year and then toured internationally. It brought her a raft of prizes, including a Tony award and two Grammys.

Horne’s final public performance was at Carnegie Hall in 1996, which garnered her another Grammy Award for best vocal jazz performance on the album An Evening with Lena Horne.

In many venues of entertainment, she not only transcended racial barriers but led to opening opportunities for other Black musicians and entertainers.  In an interview for the PBS American Masters series, legendary jazz singer Joe Williams spoke of his personal impression, as well as his respect for Horne, “She’s like a diamond – one of a kind. Beauty, dignity, and fire – she gives you life, makes you live it.”

In her final interview, at the close of her career, she stated her own epitaph:

“My identity is very clear to me now. I am a Black woman, I’m not alone, I’m free. I no longer have to be a credit, I don’t have to be a symbol to anybody, I don’t have to be a first to anybody. 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.”

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