EXPIRED: 05/09/10 – Lena Horne, 92, always said she would retire when she dropped dead and she did so on Mother’s Day 2010, 76 long years after she started performing at Harlem’s Cotton Club. I think she deserves the rest.
Born in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, Horne was a mixture of African, European, and Native American descent. Hollywood loved her voice, but not her skin color. So they gave her a contract to sing in the movies – off screen.
Horne attended Girls High School, an all-girls public high school in Brooklyn, but dropped out without earning a diploma.
In the fall of 1933, Horne joined the chorus line of the Cotton Club in New York City. A few years later she joined Noble Sissle’s Orchestra, with which she toured. But she disliked the travel and left the band to replace singer Dinah Shore on NBC’s popular jazz series The Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street.
It was during a 1943 club engagement in Hollywood that talent scouts approached Horne to work in pictures. She chose Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the most prestigious studio in the world, and became the first African American performer to sign a long-term contract with a major Hollywood studio.
She made her debut with MGM in 1942’s Panama Hattie, and performed the title song of Stormy Weather. She appeared in a number of MGM musicals, most notably Cabin in the Sky, but was never featured in a leading role because of her ethnicity and the fact that films featuring her had to be re-edited for showing in states where theaters would not show films with African American performers. As a result, most of Horne’s film appearances were stand-alone sequences that had no bearing on the rest of the film, so editing caused no disruption to the storyline.
Due to the Red Scare and her progressive political views, Horne found herself blacklisted in the 50’s and unable to get work in Hollywood.
Returning to her roots as a nightclub performer, Horne took part in the March on Washington in August 1963, and continued to work as a performer, both in nightclubs as well as television, including The Muppet Show, Sesame Street, Sanford and Son, The Cosby Show and A Different World. Horne announced her retirement in March 1980, but the next year starred in a one woman show, Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music, which ran for more than three hundred performances on Broadway, and earned her numerous awards and accolades. Horne recorded sporadically following the show, but no longer made public appearances.
Finally, in 1998, at the age of 81, Horne released another studio album, entitled Being Myself. Thereafter, Horne essentially retired from performing and largely retreated from public view, though she did return to the recording studio in 2000 to contribute vocal tracks on Simon Rattle’s Classic Ellington album.
In 2007, Horne was portrayed by Leslie Uggams as the older Lena and Nikki Crawford as the younger Lena in the stage musical Stormy Weather staged at the Pasadena Playhouse in California.