Lena Horne was one of the most significant jazz and pop musicians of the 20th century. Her influence on music and popular culture is immense, having broken many social and entertainment barriers in order to achieve her goals. Her body of work stretches nearly seven decades, performing from the 1930s into the 2000s. She was an incredible singer, songwriter, dancer, civil rights activist and actress, who left an indelible impression on the music industry and society as a whole. In this essay, her life and career will be examined, as well as the importance of her civil rights activism and the significance of her status as the first contracted, black major studio performer in the music and entertainment industry.
Born in Brooklyn in 1917, Lena Horne spent her childhood in relatively good means for a black family, spending her childhood training her voice and her acting skills. Growing up later in Georgia and then Pittsburgh, she listened to Billy Eckstine and Billy Strayhorn for her inspiration. Her rise to fame started when she became part of the Cotton Club chorus line in New York City, in 1933. Working her way up to Noble Sissle’s Orchestra as a singer and dancer, she sang at the Cafe Society in New York City after the end of her tours with Sissle. All throughout the late 1930s and early 1940s, she was a prominent nightclub revue headliner and jazz vocalist, performing for the NBC show The Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin.
Her talents soon expanded to Hollywood; after a couple of small movies caught the attention of talent scouts, as well as her nightclub performances, she signed on to work for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, becoming the first African-American to sign a contract with a big Hollywood studio. This was a significant barrier to break; Horne became the first black movie star in Hollywood. Never before had an African-American been allowed to portray themselves with dignity (if at all), particularly on the silver screen. Horne’s beauty and musical talent made her the perfect candidate to break through and be the first. She appeared in the films Panama Hattie (1942), Stormy Weather (1943) and Cabin in the Sky (1943) performing musical numbers, though many of her sequences had to be cut out in states that did not allow blacks to perform on screen.
Her relationship with MGM slowed in the 1950s, as Horne became increasingly bitter about the short shrift she was getting from Hollywood. As a result, she poured herself into the nightclub scene, making her name as one of the biggest nightclub performers in that era. Headlining at clubs all around the country and abroad, she released an album called Lena Horne at the Waldorf-Astoria, which turned into RCA-Victor’s biggest selling record from a female artist. Acting in Broadway musicals, she received a Tony nomination for Best Actress for her role in Jamaica in 1958.
In addition to her nightclub and Broadway career, Horne was a fixture on many late-night and primetime variety shows as a singer. She would appear on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Dean Martin Show, and The Andy Williams Show, among others. She even got her own television specials, costarring big names like Tony Bennett and Harry Belafonte. Guest starring on The Muppet Show, Sanford and Son, and others, Horne established herself as a household name in her niche of nightclub jazz music performance.
Later on, Horne started her own one-woman show, called Lena Horne: The Lady and her Music, which opened in 1982 and ran for 333 performances on Broadway. The show granted her a Tony award, and the cast recording received two Grammys. This show demonstrated the apex of her career – the performance is still considered to be the longest-running solo show in the history of Broadway. A tour de force of fantastic music, the show showcases the essence of what makes Horne a formidable singer – tremendous sensitivity, powerful music, and that clear, angelic voice.
Later in life, Horne spent much of the 1990s in the recording studio laying down tracks for her albums, including the Billy Strayhorn-Duke Ellington tribute album We’ll Be Together Again. She also recorded a duet with Frank Sinatra on his album Duets II. After the release of her 1998 studio album Being Myself, Horne disappeared from the world of performance, retiring quietly until her death in 2010.
Lena Horne, throughout her life, was a civil rights activist in addition to her career as a performer. During her tours with the USO, she refused to perform for crowds that positions German POWs in front of African-American soldiers, or those squadrons and platoons that were segregated. In this way, she used her pull as leverage to advocate for integration in the armed forces and beyond. Working hard to secure equal rights for blacks, she became an important figure in the Civil Rights Movement, working with Paul Robeson and attending NAACP rallies. She marched on Washington and helped to pass anti-lynching legislation, with the help of Eleanor Roosevelt. Having such leftist views put her on the blacklist during the McCarthy investigations; the Red Scare marked her as a Communist sympathizer, forbidding her from getting work in Hollywood during that time. These accomplishments make her an important social and political figure, apart from simply being a vital component of the music industry.
The breaking of barriers was the essence of Lena Horne’s life, both in her personal life and in the music and entertainment industry. Being the first black woman – if not the first African-American altogether – to sign major record label deals and movie deals with Hollywood studios makes her a pioneer for minority performers. Her bravery and courage, not to mention her dedication, managed to make her a fixture in the entertainment industry throughout the 20th century. She succeeded in a plethora of fields in show business, from television to nightclubs to plays and films. Her vast collection of Tonys and Grammys demonstrate the power and majesty of her hard work and wonderful voice. Not only was she a fantastic singer, she was an innovator and rule-changer, paving the way for African-Americans to succeed in the music industry. She showed young black men and women that they, too, could become famous singers and movie stars – she also showed this to the rest of the world.
Gavin, James. Stormy Weather: The Life of Lena Horne. Atria, 2009. Print.
Horne, Lena and Schickel, Richard. Lena. Doubleday, 1965. Print.