With that dazzling face and smooth, enticing voice, Lena Horne – wearing a glamorous, diaphanous gown – seduced audiences with her unforgettable film rendition of “Stormy Weather” in the 1942 movie of the same name. It has become the song most associated with Horne, the Grammy®-winning chanteuse whose long career has had its share of dark clouds.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1917, Lena Horne was raised in a middle-class African-American community. Her mother, an actress, was often out of town, and her father abandoned the family when she was three, so her grandparents took care of her during her formative years. By 1933, Horne had become a member of the chorus line at Harlem’s famed Cotton Club. Songwriters Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler were supplying music for the Cotton Club, and in 1933 they composed “Stormy Weather” for the club. Originally intended for Cab Calloway, it was first performed there by Ethel Waters but would eventually become one of Horne’s signature songs.
Horne toured with jazz orchestras and for a time was a regular soloist on the radio variety show The Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street – a jazz-centered broadcast with a mock-pompous title. She began to appear in musical movies such as The Duke Is Tops (1938) and Boogie Woogie Dream (1941) and was eventually offered a contract from MGM. Her performance in Stormy Weather (1942) made her famous, and the following year she had a role in Cabin in the Sky, which originally featured a sexy sequence with Horne singing in a bubble bath, filmed from above. The delicious number was deemed too provocative for the final cut, and sadly even Horne’s less controversial scenes were often deleted for theaters that would not show African Americans on the screen. Other films in which Horne appeared include Ziegfeld Follies (1946), Till the Clouds Roll By (1946), Duchess of Idaho (1950), and Meet Me in Las Vegas (1956). Her film career took a blow when she was blacklisted during the anti-Communist witch hunts; her name was cleared in 1957. Politically involved, Horne has for years been a courageous and outspoken champion for civil rights and equality.
Although Horne had appeared on Broadway in two short-lived shows, Dance With Your Gods (1934) and Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds of 1939, it was only in 1957 that she starred in a bona fide Broadway musical, Jamaica – a Calypso comedy, critical of American commercialism, by Harold Arlen and E. Y. Harburg. She played opposite Ricardo Montalban, with Ossie Davis as Cicero and Alvin Ailey as the lead dancer. Horne earned a Tony® nomination for her work, and the musical enjoyed 555 performances as well as an original cast recording on RCA, which issued many of Horne’s solo records in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. Also issued by RCA was a recording of selections from Porgy and Bess with Horne and Harry Belafonte.
She returned to Broadway for Tony & Lena Sing (1974), a series of special duo performances with Tony Bennett, and Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music (1981), for which she won a Tony® Special Award as well as the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Actress in a Musical. Later film credits include The Wiz (1978) and That’s Entertainment! III (1994).
Lena Horne died at ninety-two in a New York hospital on May 9, 2010.