June 30 would be the 100th birthday of Lena Horne, who had it all: looks, charm, and a singing voice that was noted for its “expressiveness and dramatic intensity,” as Variety once wrote. Hollywood needed her, but she didn’t need Hollywood. The racial barriers were too strong. When MGM signed her in 1942, she was already a successful singer; the studio starred her in two all-black musicals, “Cabin in the Sky” and “Stormy Weather” (which became one of her signature songs). After that, MGM gave her solos in musicals like “Ziegfeld Follies” and “Till the Clouds Roll By.” Her songs were extraneous to the plot; that way, her sequences could be cut for movie theaters that refused to screen films with blacks in prominent roles. Horne continued to have a successful career in nightclubs, records, Broadway and TV well into the 1990s, and she fought for civil rights and equality until her death in 2010, at age 92.
Horne was born in New York in 1917 and debuted at the Cotton Club when she was only 16. She was first mentioned in Variety’s 1935 piece about “The Cotton Club Revue” at the Apollo. She then toured as a singer with Noble Sissle’s orchestra and gained fans via records and radio; in 1940, she sang with Charlie Barnet’s orchestra, becoming one of the first blacks to sing with a white band.
During WWII, she traveled for the USO, but refused to perform for segregated audiences; since the Army wouldn’t allow integration of its soldiers, she sang for a group of black soldiers mixed with German POWs.
In 1942, she appeared at the Little Troc on Sunset Strip, where she was seen by an MGM rep; she was quickly signed by the studio and appeared as a singer in the musical “Panama Hattie.”
In the 1950s, she worked on behalf of civil rights, and was blacklisted because of her friendship with activists like Paul Robeson. The public didn’t care. She drew big audiences in concerts around the world, and her 1957 album “Lena Horne at the Waldorf-Astoria” became the best selling album by a female vocalist in RCA history.
She worked in TV variety shows like “The Ed Sullivan Show,” “Kraft Music Hall,” “Hollywood Palace.” One of her last film appearances was in “The Wiz” (1978), directed by Sidney Lumet, who at that time was her son-in-law. The reviews for the musical were mixed, but there was almost universal acclaim for Horne, who played Glinda.
In 1980, at age 63, she opened a one-woman show in Detroit, the start of a 26-city tour that she thought would be her farewell tour. But the performances were such a hit that she took the show to Broadway in 1981. “Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music” enjoyed a long N.Y. run, followed by other U.S. and overseas dates.
In reviewing the 1981 album, Variety wrote “Horne’s extraordinary musical talent has been on nightly display in one of the most highly acclaimed shows now running on Broadway. This recording succeeds in capturing her exquisite vocal craftsmanship in all its expansive, vibrant glory.”