To say that Lena Horne was simply a jazz singer would do a great disservice to her legacy. From the ‘30s well into the ‘70s and beyond, Lena Horne was an entertainment powerhouse, recording jazz standards and starring in movies, television shows, and Broadway revues. She used her influence across media to champion Civil Rights, and was one of the most politically outspoken celebrities of the ‘50s.
Horne was born on June 30, 1917 in Brooklyn to a well-to-do family. Her mother and father divorced when she was young, and Horne spent her early years traveling with her mother, a stage performer. Until the age of 12, when she and her mother would move back to New York, Horne traveled around the country, living with different family members.
After dropping out of school at age 16, she joined the chorus line of Harlem’s world-famous Cotton Club. There, she rubbed elbows with the most notable singers of the time, including Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington. While at the Cotton Club, she struck up a lifelong friendship with Adelaide Hall, a singer and a mainstay of the Harlem jazz scene, who considered herself a mentor to Horne.
Horne left the Cotton Club around age 18, and went to live with her father in Pittsburgh, where she got married, only to leave her husband and father shortly after to move back to New York and join the Noble Sissle Society Orchestra. It was during her time with the Orchestra that Horne gained recognition for her elegant, sultry singing voice. She recorded her first song with them, which led to touring opportunities, a residency at Café Society in New York, and a spot on NBC’s jazz radio program, The Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street.
While in New York, she was discovered by Felix Young, the manager of the popular Cafe Trocadero in Los Angeles. He asked her to perform for his musical revue on Sunset Strip. Horne agreed, and within weeks of moving to Los Angeles, she signed a long-term contract with the film powerhouse Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, making her the first black woman to do so. As Horne’s fame grew, her race would become more of an issue. In New York, she had gained notoriety as one of the first people of color to integrate into mostly white bands and nightclubs. But as she began her film career, she had difficulty landing substantial roles due to her skin color.
Nevertheless, she received widespread acclaim for bit parts in 1942’s Panama Hattie, 1943’s Cabin in the Sky, and 1943’s Stormy Weather. The title song for the latter, “Stormy Weather,” became her biggest hit. “Deed As I Do” and a cover of Cole Porter’s “Just One of Those Things” were also chart-toppers, and by the end of 1943, she was named one of the highest paid black entertainers of the time.
By the end of the ‘40s, Horne used her wealth and fame to draw attention to the rampant discrimination in Hollywood and beyond. She refused to be cast in stereotypical roles in movies, and sued nightclubs and restaurants for denying her service. As a member of the Progressive Citizens of America, she was blacklisted during the Red Scare of the ‘50s.
She laid low for most of the ‘50s, appearing in just a few movies and focusing on her career as a nightclub singer instead. She had a brief residency at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, as well as the Waldorf-Astoria in New York. While in New York, Horne recorded the 1957 album, Lena Horne at the Waldorf-Astoria, which become the best selling album by a woman for her record label, RCA Victor.
Horne’s fame skyrocketed once more in the ‘60s. In addition to appearing in movies and recording music, she spent much of her time appearing on TV variety shows, including The Ed Sullivan Show, The Dean Martin Show, The Judy Garland Show, and others. She also returned to political activism. Horne marched on Washington and around the country as a representative of the National Council for Negro Women.
After her husband and father died within the same year, Horne retreated from the public eye for most of the ‘70s. In 1981, she returned to the stage with a one-woman show on Broadway, Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music, which garnered her a Tony Award and a newfound recognition for her influence on American culture.
Horne spent the rest of her life singing and appearing in movies and on TV. She recorded a number of hits and toured well in the ‘90s, when she was nearly 80 years old. She died at age 92 on May 9, 2010. Lena Horne will be remembered for her smooth, soulful delivery of jazz standards, her magnetic charm, and her strong stance on human rights. She used her immense talent to make her life -- and many others’ -- much more meaningful.