Lena Horne

Lena Horne

(1917-2010)

DJ Name: DJ Lena on Me

On Wednesday, Americans switched on their TVs and watched as Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th president of the United States. But though Joe’s German Shepherd, Major, is the first rescue dog to raise his right paw and take the woof of office, Joe’s inauguration follows in the footsteps of decades of televised inaugural tradition. When Harry S. Truman, the 33rd president, took the oath of office for the second time in 1949, he became the first to showcase the momentous occasion on live TV. Over one million people showed up to watch the event in person, but the night before was the real party when Truman hosted a gala that featured — for the first time ever — Black performance artists Lena Horne, Dorothy Maynor and Lionel Hampton. Lena spent her whole life working to prove her singing and acting skills, but she hit roadblock after roadblock because of her skin color. However, her talent didn’t go unnoticed, and Lena’s long life eventually led her down the road toward fame — thus paving the way for artists such as Beyonce to slay the stage at Obama’s inaugurations. 

While we take a look back at Lena’s life and career, she asks that you shuffle up this playlist that she allegedly curated to inspire her own songwriting and pump up her pomp and circumstance:

Lena Horne was born on June 30, 1917, in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, (what up, Jay Z!) and was allegedly a descendant of the John C. Calhoun fam (a slavery-defending politician from South Carolina who served as VP under John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson in the early 1800s. Yikes!). Lena’s family, however, had a mix of African, Native American and European roots, and her well-educated parents were firmly situated in the upper middle class. Her dad, Teddy, who left the family and moved to Pennsylvania when Lena was three, was a banker but mostly a professional gambler, and her mom, Edna, was an actress with a Black theater troupe and she was often traveling for work. As a result, Lena was mostly raised by her grandparents, Cora and Edwin, who were some of the OG members of the NAACP. Due to their involvement, Lena was the cover girl for the organization’s monthly bulletin when she was two years old, otherwise known as frontin’ on the front page as a toddler.

She also traveled with her mother at times, staying with friends and family all over the country. At one point, when her mom’s acting troupe was performing in Florida, they had to flee from the small town they were staying in after a lynching occurred. Her mom later remarried, and Lena was sent back to her grandparents and she attended Washington High School in Atlanta and later the Girls High School in Brooklyn. As a political and civil rights activist, Grandpa Carl encouraged li’l Lena to also get involved and join the NAACP. 

Lena’s bouncing around from school to school came to an end when she was 16 when she dropped out and began performing at the Cotton Club in Harlem. At the time, the club had a Black program that was aimed at a wealthy white clientele, and there were a lot of demands and pressure placed on Lena. When her stepfather suggested to Cotton Club managers that perhaps Lena could dance AND sing, he was assaulted and thrown out of the club. In 1934, she made her Broadway debut in a production of “Dance with the Gods.” After that success, she started performing as the principal vocalist with the all-Black Noble Sissle Society Orchestra, using the name Helena Horne (not DJ Lena on Me? Hmmmm). A couple years later, she joined the Charlie Barnet Orchestra, a well-known white swing band that was one of the first to integrate. While integrating his band was a big step forward, Lena still faced prejudices and was never allowed to socialize with other bandmates after their shows. It wasn’t long before she quit the tour entirely.

Amidst the twists and turns of her fledgling musical career, Lena briefly abandoned her path toward the silver screen and stage performances to wife up temporarily in Pittsburgh. At 19 years old, she married Louis Jones and gave birth to two children, Gail and Teddy. However, Lena found her way back to the show biz after just a few years of domesticity when they divorced in 1944.

She then returned to living full-time in the Big Apple, where she worked at the Cafe Society nightclub in Greenwich Village. After wowing the left-liberal audience of Cafe Society, she moved cross-country to Los Angeles to perform at the Little Troc Club, which was a sister location to the upscale nightclub on Sunset Strip called Cafe Trocadero. She was unknown at that point, especially in L.A., but the owner took a chance and booked her and soon her performances were selling out quickly. During one of her performances, Roger Edens, a music supervisor at MGM Studios, noticed her talent and brought her into the studio as a potential singer and actor. 

Lena described herself as a “window dressing” after her bit role in her first MGM film, “Panama Hattie,” in 1942, in which she sang two songs and had her skin lightened. But 1943 proved Lena could be the whole gosh darn house and not just the window dressing (is that the right metaphor?), when she performed in two big movies “Stormy Weather” and “Cabin in the Sky.” Though “Stormy Weather” had basically no plot, Lena stole the screen with her singing and dancing prowess and the movie’s theme song became her own theme song. Our theme song is “WAP,” duh. In “Cabin in the Sky,” she played the “brazen, sexy handmaiden of the devil,” and umm, hello where is the remake of this movie the world so desperately needs right now? Sometimes, her scenes and bits of her performances were deleted from final versions due to racial prejudices, but in “Cabin in the Sky” one of her scenes was deleted because it featured her singing and sudsing up in a bathtub and was considered too risque. Alas, just give the people what they want, MGM.

In her early MGM years, Lena was pruned and primped by actor and comedian Kay Thompson, and Lena’s starpower glowed brighter. She was sent around the country to promote MGM movies, and the soundtrack records for “Stormy Weather,” “‘Deed I Do” and “As Long as I Live” were all major hits for her throughout the 1940s. 

In 1947, Lena said “let’s give domesticity another chance,” and married Lennie Hayton, a white pianist and arranger. Their interracial marriage was taboo, so their nuptials were kept a secret for three years and they relocated to Paris for a little while. Their public marriage announcement was met with the backlash Lena had feared, from both Black and white people, but Lena swerved on them haters and told the world that she didn’t see him as white, she saw him as a man who was kind to her. Their 24-year-long marriage was a very practical one, in which each’s connections brought further fame and fortune for the other. On January 19, 1949, Lena became one of the first African Americans to perform at a presidential inauguration. 

Then-President-Elect Harry S. Truman swooned at her hit “Stormy Weather” when she sang it on his inauguration eve as onlookers listened and watched from their seats at the gala. Unfortunately, because we’re now creeping into the Cold War era, many of her performing partners and contacts, such as Paul Robeson, were blacklisted after Joseph McCarthy went on his witch hunt of the entertainment industry in the 1950s. It affected Lena, too, and, though she was still able to sing at nightclubs, she was unable to perform on film or TV for seven years because of her involvement with the Council for African Affairs and the Hollywood Independent Citizens Committee to the Arts, Science and Professions as both were labeled as #CommunistClubs. 

Lena weathered the storm (movie pun intended) during those years that she was labeled a communist and worked to have her name cleared by convincing Ed Sullivan of CBS and Roy Brewer, AKA the toughest anti-commie in Hollywood, that she was innocent. Eventually, Lena wrote a letter to Roy Brewer to clear her name after her failed communication with Sullivan, and in said letter she stated, “If at anytime I have said or done anything that might have been construed as being sympathetic toward communism, I hope the following will help to refute this misconception.” Brewer was ~moved~ by her letter, and sent it along to top executives in their Hollywood offices as well as to J. Edgar Hoover’s assistant. And before long, Lena was back in business, twirling, singing and collecting standing ovations on the air and on the stage. 

Lena didn’t let a few communist clouds cast a shadow upon her creativity during her time blacklisted. She released several albums throughout the 1950s including “Lena Horne at the Waldorf Astoria” in 1957 and “Lena Horne at the Sands” in 1961. She also skyrocketed to the the number one spot on the “Today’s Top Hits” chart with her bop “Love Me Or Leave Me” in 1955 (which, half a century or so later inspired JoJo’s “Leave”, obviously #samenergy). Toward the end of the ‘50s, Horne, with her silky voice and smooth dance moves, scored a leading role on the Broadway stage of Arlen and Yip Harburg’s musical, “Jamaica,” from 1957-1959. Her performance earned her a Tony nomination. 

As the 1960s approached, Lena took part and became a leader in the Civil Rights movement. She performed at many protests and NAACP rallies as well as gatherings of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the National Council of Negro Women. Lena used her talents to catapult civil unrest into a national spotlight, but her work didn’t stop there. She participated in the March on Washington, and worked with Eleanor Roosevelt, earlier on in her life, to pass anti-lynching laws. She even visited with President Kennedy with leaders from the Democratic National Committee two days before he was assassinated. The NAACP awarded Lena the Spingarn Medal in 1983, which is awarded annually to recognize outstanding achievement. She was referred to as an artist humanitarian and living symbol of excellence. Her name lives on a list alongside W.E.B. Dubois, A. Philip Randolph, fellow Historic Shuffler Harry T. Moore, Jackie Robinson, Martin Luther King, Jr., Maya Angelou and many more trailblazers who were honored with this award by the NAACP because they “made the highest achievement during the preceding year or years in any honorable field.” The award was founded to draw attention to African-American achievement as well as to inspire younger members of the Black community to strive to sing on the stage of an Inaugural Gala for the President like Lena Horne. 

Lena recorded new music and performed in many roles as the years went on. She released albums like “Feelin’ Good” in 1965 and “Lena in Hollywood” in 1966. She was cast alongside Richard Widmark in “Death of a Gunfighter” in 1969 and later on returned to the big screen as Glinda the Good Witch in “The Wiz” and she reminded long lost Dorothy that, “Home is knowing. Knowing your mind, knowing your heart, knowing your courage. If we know ourselves, we’re always home, anywhere” (we’re not crying, you’re crying). Unfortunately, she faced a stint of sadness in her life in the early 1970s when over the course of a year, her father died, her husband passed away from a heart attack and her son died of a kidney ailment. She spent many years in mourning, though she still found time for the stage by participating in performances with the likes of Tony Bennett. 

A decade later, Lena found herself under the spotlight of the Broadway stage again with her own one-woman show called “Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music.” This show had a 14-month run in the Big Apple then toured around the U.S. and abroad. It won her a Drama Desk Award, a ~special~ Tony, two Grammys and a feature on critically acclaimed blog Historic Shuffle. In her wholesome Tony acceptance speech, Lena said, “I want to say thank you to Emmy and Camille for continuing to let my light shine. I am, indeed, a SZA stan.” JK. She actually said, “Sometimes you have to wait 50 years, sometimes it comes in a year….I’m just so happy that I’m getting all of these flowers before I lose my teeth. But I think my song will probably say it better, *play video*.” 

Lena performed what would be one of her final concerts in 1994 at New York’s Supper Club. It was recorded and released in 1995 as “An Evening with Lena Horne: Live at the Supper Club,” which eventually won her another Grammy. This time it was for Best Jazz Vocal Album. We’d have our supper with Lena any day, too. For the rest of her life, Lena faded out of the spotlight, occasionally resurfacing for a few performances such as on The Rosie O’Donnell show. She’d always blow away her audience with the emotional journey her singing and lyrics would invite them on. Lena received the Kennedy Center Honors award in 1984 as well as a lifetime achievement award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences in 1998. As she reflected on her life at the age of 80, she said: 

My identity is very clear to me now. I am a black woman, I’m not alone, I’m free. I no longer have to be a credit, I don’t have to be a symbol to anybody, I don’t have to be a first to anybody. I don’t have to be an imitation of a white woman that Hollywood sort of hoped I’d become. I’m me, and I’m like nobody else. 

Lena Horne passed away in New York City, right across the East River from her Brooklyn home, on May 9, 2010 due to heart failure. Her timeless performances began to break down many barriers that people of color face in the entertainment industry. She never played a maid because, as her father said, he could hire her a maid. The spotlight shone bright on Lena’s talent, and in return she shone it right back on racial injustice and paved the way for performers of color to follow in her footsteps on their own paths to stardom that features Grammys, Tonys and Historic Shuffle features galore. 

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