Lena Horne, who was the first black performer to be signed to a long-term contract by a major Hollywood studio and who went on to achieve international fame as a singer, died on Sunday night at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York. She was 92 and lived in Manhattan.
Her death was announced by her son-in-law, Kevin Buckley.
Ms. Horne might have become a major movie star, but she was born 50 years too early, and languished at MGM in the 1940s because of the color of her skin, although she was so light-skinned that, when she was a child, other black children had taunted her, accusing her of having a “white daddy.”
Ms. Horne was stuffed into one “all-star” musical after another — “Thousands Cheer” (1943), “Broadway Rhythm” (1944), “Two Girls and a Sailor” (1944), “Ziegfeld Follies” (1946), “Words and Music” (1948) — to sing a song or two that could easily be snipped from the movie when it played in the South, where the idea of an African-American performer in anything but a subservient role in a movie with an otherwise all-white cast was unthinkable.
My first experience of Lena Horne was in 1978, when she played Glinda in The Wiz. I was in elementary school then, and for some reason the entire school went on a field trip to see this movie. (I think it was because it had a predominantly African American student body, and maybe school officials thought it would be good for us to see a movie with a predominantly African American cast.) She had, of course had an incredible career by then. And while The Wiz was not exactly a critical or commercial success, Horne provided some of its best moments when she sand “If You Believe.”
Not long after that I was captivated by Horne’s one woman Broadway show, Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music. Of course, I didn’t see it on Broadway. It was aired on PBS, and I remember setting the VCR to record it. It was one video tape I watched over and over again. What struck me wasn’t Horne’s technical skill or range as a singer, but what she managed within the limitations of her voice, much like Billie Holiday — but where Holiday’s strength was her knack for improvisation, Horne’s was how she conveyed the lyrics and infused a song with a personal warmth.
By then, I’d learned much more about her career. So, I was very familiar with “Stormy Weather,” when she performed it in her Broadway show. It was another moment I’d never forget, but it was still her finale reprise of “If You Believe” that grabbed me.
I’m not sure why that song stuck with me the way it did. Maybe it was just the message that a skinny, black, effeminate, nonathletic, black proto-gay boy growing up in the south, during the Reagan era needed to hear. And maybe Lena Horne was just the person to deliver it. Anyway, I took it to heart, as I grabbed onto anything that offered hope at that point.
It’s one of the first songs I learned when I learned to sing. It’s now part of the bed time “set list” so I still sing it to Parker and Dylan at bedtime on occasion. And I think it will make its way onto the “set list” tonight. Thanks to Ms. Horne.