Lena Horne, the velvet-voiced chanteuse who went from Cotton Club chorus girl to singing and movie star, famed for her interpretation of “Stormy Weather,” died Sunday in New York. She was 92.
Renowned for her signature silky singing style that seamlessly fused rhythm and blues and jazz, she had a career that encompassed films, radio, TV, records and nightclubs.
Her 1981 Broadway triumph, “Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music,” captured all the strength, anger and vivacity that typified her career, which spanned more than six decades. The show ran 333 performances and brought her a special Tony, a Drama Desk Award and two Grammys.
She was born Lena Calhoun Horney in Brooklyn to a prominent family — her grandmother was a notable member of the NAACP, and her grandfather the first black member of the Brooklyn Board of Education. At age 16, she gave up on her ambitions of being a teacher to help her ailing mother, landing a spot as a chorus girl at the Cotton Club. She joined Noble Sissle’s orchestra, touring the country under the name Helena Horne.
In 1937, she tried to leave show business by settling down in Pittsburgh to marry Louis Jones, with whom she had two children, Gail and Edwin. But she soon returned to performing, making her screen debut in an all-black film, “The Duke Is Tops,” in 1938.
The following year, she was back on Broadway briefly in the revue “Blackbirds of 1939.” After separating from Jones in 1940, Horne joined the Charlie Barnet orchestra, becoming one of the first black performers to tour with a major white band. With Barnet, she recorded the hit “Good for Nothing Joe” and the popular “Haunted Town.”
Her stint at New York’s Cafe Society Downtown established her as a major solo performer, leading to a recording and radio career. In 1942, she appeared at the Little Troc nightclub in Hollywood, which brought her to the attention of MGM staff composer Roger Edens; a contract offer came from the studio.
Her first film role was a small one in Cole Porter’s “Panama Hattie” in 1942; a year later, she was top-billed in the all-black musical “Cabin in the Sky.” Variety dubbed the performance “a definite click, both vocally and dramatically.”
Horne’s best-known film was “Stormy Weather,” a loosely constructed biography of the legendary dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. The title song became her trademark.
But the love affair with Hollywood was brief, as Horne objected to the roles as maids and prostitutes that she was being offered. She agreed to appear only as a singer in films such as “I Dood It,” “Thousands Cheer,” “Broadway Rhythm” and “Ziegfeld Follies.” In 1946’s “As the Clouds Roll By,” a musical biopic of Jerome Kern, Horne appeared as the mulatto girl Julie, the memorable character from Kern’s “Showboat.” But when it came time to remake “Showboat,” in 1951, MGM turned her down in favor of Ava Gardner, whose singing voice was dubbed and who wore “Light Egyptian” makeup, a blend created especially for Horne by Max Factor.
Her last two films under her MGM contract were “Words and Music” in 1948 and “Duchess of Idaho” in 1950. Throughout, she was wowing audiences at the Savoy-Plaza Hotel and the Copacabana in New York and was named the season’s top nightclub attraction in 1948 by Life magazine. In 1947, she met and married musical director Lennie Hayton while performing in Paris.
During the 1950s, her friendship with Paul Robeson, an avowed Communist, led to her being listed in anti-Communist publications such as Red Channels and Counterattack. Horne had some difficulty finding work during that period but gradually overcame the obstacle.
In 1956, she appeared in the film “Meet Me in Las Vegas” and signed a long-term contract with RCA Records. “Lena Horne at the Waldorf Astoria” became the biggest recording by a female performer in the label’s history. Horne also made an impact on TV, guesting on the shows of Ed Sullivan, Steve Allen and Perry Como and starring in her own specials.
She returned to Broadway in a Harold Arlen/E.Y. Harburg 1957 musical “Jamaica,” which ran more than a year.
In the 1960s, Horne traveled extensively all over the South and became one of the most visible voices of the civil rights movement.
In the early ’70s, she endured the deaths of her father; her husband, Hayton; and her son, Edwin. She returned to performing in 1974, appearing with Tony Bennett in “Tony and Lena” at the Minskoff Theater. She made her final screen appearance as Glinda the Good Witch in the film version of Broadway musical “The Wiz” in 1974.
Horne was honored by the Kennedy Center in 1984 and received a lifetime achievement award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences in 1998.
She is survived by her daughter Gail and five grandchildren.
(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)