Singer and Actress Lena Horne, 92, Dies

Monday, May 10, 2010

Lena Horne died Sunday night at the age of 92.

You might say she was born 50 years too soon. She was too black for Hollywood, and too light-skinned for the kids in her Brooklyn neighborhood who teased her for her fair complexion. But she was more than a pretty face and a graceful figure. She had a voice that took her to the Cotton Club at age 16 and then to NBC to replace Dinah Shore with the Chamber Music Society Jazz Series. A rich, voluptuous sound with light, delicate high notes, a voice that seduced the country when she sang title song in the movie "Stormy Weather."

It was a voice that earned her roles in a string of movie musicals from MGM. At one point, she was asked to sing a tune made famous by her idol, Billie Holliday. Lena Horne refused, saying no one should sing any of Holliday's songs. And then Horne says Lady Day gave her some good advice. "Lena, you have children, don't you .... take care of yourself and your children," Holliday said.

Her sultry, honey-coated voice didn't save her from the ugliness of prejudice. Her songs in movies were generally designed to be stand-alone solos, so they could be edited out when they played in the South and in later years she talked during her concerts about being forced to use makeup to darken her skin so that movie audiences could immediately identify her as a black woman.

The role that Lena Horne was born to play, Julie in "Show Boat," the beautiful, light-skinned singer with African-American roots, the role that she sang in "Till the Clouds Roll By" in 1946, was given to Ava Gardner to play, a white actress whose singing voice was overdubbed by someone else in the film.

She was the first black performer to get a long-term contract from a major Hollywood studio, and she appeared in a long string of MGM films but never got a leading role. Her bubble bath scene in the all-black "Cabin in the Sky" was edited out because it was considered too risque. Lena Horne tired of Hollywood years before she was blacklisted in the 1950s for her political views. Instead, she went back to the nightclubs that had made her famous as a young singer. Horne's live album from the Waldorf-Astoria became the largest selling record by a female arts in RCA-Victor's history. And she was a familiar face on TV, appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Andy Williams Show, even Sesame Street.

Lena Horne refused to sing for segregated audiences of soldiers during World War II, she worked with Eleanor Roosevelt to pass anti-lynching laws, she spoke at a rally with Medgar Evers before he was killed. And at age 80, she said this, "My identity is very clear to me now. I am a black woman. 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."

Lena Horne, like nobody else. A voice dripping with honeyed beauty and passion, a graceful personality that smiled through adversity and a strong woman who made her own way in a world where she didn't fit on either side of the color line. Horne died Sunday at a hospital in New York. She was 92.

Click above to hear a clip of Lena Horne singing "Summertime," or below to see a clip of Horne in the movie "Stormy Weather."

Celeste Headlee is the cohost of WNYC's national morning news program The Takeaway.


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Comments [4]

shadeed ahmad

Lena Horne was a rainbow of class and humanity that enlivened the world' perception of what an artist can do beyond entertaining the selfish whims of the status quo. She gave a strong pulse to class and multi-dimensional beauty. Many of humanity are wrestling with trying to be as strong as Lena Horne was in elevating humanity, finally. The tussle should be easier with proper rememberance of her. She was a fighter to her last breath, for she was ever vigilant to the fact that life and freedoms are always under attack by those who want to elevate themselves at the expense of others servitude and cowardice. Rest in peace, Lena Horne. I feel blessed to have lived on this planet with you. You were a blessing to us all whether we realize it or not. You were a guardian of peace and justice, and you were so beautiful. May GOD Bless you with no more "stormy weather." Sincerely, Shadeed R. Ahmad (5-22-10)

May. 22 2010 07:37 AM
Kenneth Bennett Lane from Lake Hiawatha. NJ

Since my early childhood I have loved hearing her heart-felt velvety-timbred voice interpret a wide range of music formats and viewed her elegant beauty. As a man, I can sense her sensuous message in the love songs and her humanity when social issues are subtextual. No other artist male or female has achieved her long time excellence and refusal to compromise to political pressures. She is a role model for all of us. R.I.P. Lena Horne. We all love you, and thanks to your recorded film and discs, CDs, and tapes we will be entertained and inspired for many many years to come.

May. 15 2010 03:03 AM
LyMartin E. Chattman

"A Great Inspiration To Me"
LyMartin (NatureBoy)

May. 10 2010 08:17 PM

Very nice. That is certainly one of the all time great blues songs. Lena Horn made it popular and sung it with warmth and sincerity. You get tired or less inspired when she sings it. Very pretty. Thank you, Bill

May. 10 2010 09:03 AM

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