Lena Horne is in the studio, putting together the songs for a new album. Graying hair tucked beneath a black cap, a silk scarf around her neck, a large pair of horn-rimmed glasses propped on her nose, she works through the material with producer/guitarist Rodney Jones. After some concentrated work on this and that, trying to find the most compatible musical settings, it’s time for a break. Horne leaves the studio for a few minutes. But Jones and keyboardist Mike Renzi decide to go over another tune--a new arrangement with a tricky modulation.
“Wouldn’t it be great if she could do this?” Jones says as he runs through the complicated chord sequence.
A few minutes later, Horne walks back into the room, listens for a moment and asks, “Hey, what’s that you’re playing?”
“Well, something really tricky,” says Jones.
“OK,” counters Horne, “let’s try it.”
And, without a whisper of a problem, she sings it perfectly the first time through.
Her voice is smooth, almost caressing, with its warm timbre and seductive drawl--honey and bourbon with a teasing trace of lemon. And her musical skills are so solid that she is capable--now at 80--of quickly moving past the technique and into the music.
“She always looks for the gold, for the creative experience,” says Jones. “It’s fascinating to listen to her, to work with her and see how her body language, every part of her, becomes what she sings. She’s playing for keeps, and she’s singing from her heart.”
Horne has been “singing from her heart” for six decades, since she made her first recordings in the early ‘40s.(More than two dozen Horne albums are currently available on CD.) Since then, she also has starred in films, television, stage and cabaret in a career that has been marked by jagged peaks of success, achievement and loss.
The first African American actor to be featured on the cover of a major magazine (Motion Picture), she appeared in her early films only in rigidly proscribed roles reflecting the segregated U.S. society of the ‘40s. Praised for her beauty, she was viciously condemned when she married a white man.
Always atypical, never easily definable or predictable, either as an artist or as a personality, Horne nonetheless belongs in the pantheon of great female musical artists that includes Ethel Waters, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Carmen McRae.
“Oh, please,” comments Horne, who has a far more modest view of her skills. “I’m really not Miss Pretentious. I’m just a survivor. Just being myself.”
An apropos description, since “Being Myself” is also the title of Horne’s latest album on Blue Note Records, her first studio date in four years, scheduled for release on Tuesday. And with a contract already signed for a follow-up album, it’s clear that, although she will be 81 on June 30, she’s not ready to sing any swan songs.
To the contrary, in fact. Her 1995 live album “An Evening With Lena Horne” (Blue Note) received a Grammy for best jazz vocal performance; last year she celebrated her 80th birthday with a performance at Avery Fisher Hall in New York; and she’s been heard lately singing in Gap television ads.
And through it all, there is the smoothly purring, subtly intense, instantly recognizable sound that has made her one of the legendary divas of American popular music.
“I’ve worked with a lot of the great ladies of song,” says Jones, “and I find that Lena, more than any of them, really gets into the lyric, and into the emotion of the song. She finds the points that resonate with her own experience. When she sings about heartache, she’s singing it from something she’s experienced. When she sings about joy, it’s the same thing, and you feel the soaring quality in her music.”
Horne, typically, prefers to give the credit to her players.
“Oh, well,” she says, “everything I know musically has come from musicians, starting with Lennie [a reference to her late husband, famed arranger Lennie Hayton] and going on older and longer. And the musicians continue to teach me so much.”
And she’s learned it well, with--despite her modesty--a great deal of hard work.
“When she did her Carnegie Hall concert a few years ago, she rehearsed for about a full month, every single day,” recalls Bruce Lundvall, Blue Note’s president. “I wished that every artist on this label could have been in the audience. Because Lena did everything right. She sang great, she looked great, she moved great, what she said to the audience was terrific. It was a consummate example of a well-prepared performer in action.”
The new album reflects the same type of meticulous concern for detail (see review, Page 90).
The recording offers a selection of material that ranges across the past and present of popular music. There are standards such as “Autumn in New York” and “Willow Weep for Me,” as well as newer items such as “Some of My Best Friends Are the Blues.”
“The older I get,” says Horne, “the more I’m apt to rely on the words of the songs. These are mostly songs I’ve done before, but they’re all beautiful. And, of course, I knew many of the people who wrote them--like Cole Porter and ‘It’s All Right With Me.’ And ‘Sleeping Bee’ [from the 1954 musical ‘House of Flowers’] because I knew Truman Capote and I loved his work. And I’ve loved “Willow Weep for Me” since I first heard Billie Holiday sing it.”
Interestingly, despite Horne’s early recordings with jazz musicians, she was initially seen as a beauty and actress, only secondarily as a jazz artist, and not in the same context as contemporaries Holiday, Fitzgerald and Vaughan.
“I think essentially I was supposed to be a sort of, hopefully, a jazz singer,” she says, “only because I came along in the era when jazz was very popular.”
She recalls that when she was urged to move more firmly into the jazz orbit, she felt uncomfortable with the blues and went to Holiday for advice.
“You know what Billie told me?” says Horne. “She said, ‘You’ve got two babies, right? You’ve got to pay your rent? OK, sing the song.’ ” Despite the advice, her early singing was pop-based, and she has never sung with the blues and gospel inflections typical of most jazz vocal styles. Nonetheless, she sings with a superb sense of phrasing and a subtle, insinuated swing that invest everything she does with the spirit of jazz.
But it is Horne’s life experience that ultimately makes her music such a uniquely personal expression. Her 1981 Broadway show, “Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music,” won two Grammys, a Tony and a New York Drama Critics Circle Award. Newsweek, describing her performance, wrote that “by simply being herself, Lena Horne is a revelation.” And the new album continues on the same pathway.
“Somebody said my singing is different,” adds Horne, “and that the way I sing a certain song now is not the way I used to do it. But I think that’s just become I’ve been through so many stages in life that have made me find different things in songs.”
It’s been a long, strange trip for Horne, whose six-decade-plus career has traversed nearly every aspect of the entertainment world--and, more specifically, of the African American experience within that world.
Born in 1917 in Brooklyn, she spent her early years living with her grandparents. Her mother, an actress, and her father, a hotel operator, divorced when she was 3. For years thereafter, as her parents focused on their own lives, Horne was sent to various families and friends, occasionally returning to the only refuge she knew, her grandparents’ home. And it was her well-educated grandmother, an early civil rights activist, who became her primary influence, rather than her mother, whom Horne recalls “flitting from place to place in search of a life in the theater.”
In the early ‘30s, because of the Depression, she says, her mother and stepfather couldn’t find work, but her mother did find a position for Horne at the Cotton Club in Harlem--taking her out of school to do so. The venue was a remarkable place, situated uptown, but open only to white audiences. And, although she could neither sing nor dance particularly well, Horne became a member of the chorus line at the age of 16.
“It was a real lesson for me,” she says, “because they were professional, they did things correctly and I saw a lot of big stars. Of course, I wasn’t much of a dancer, just cute and young, but I didn’t have to be any more than that.”
While she was there, she gained her first understanding, and immediate respect, for the extraordinary artists who appeared at the Cotton Club in the late ‘30s: Jimmie Lunceford, Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway among them.
Despite the attractions of working at the Cotton Club, however, Horne found it difficult to escape the enmeshment with her mother, who now had projected all her frustrated show business ambitions onto her daughter, and vigorously attempted to control her every move.
“My mother sat there every night,” she recalls, “and didn’t let me be around the customers, or the musicians, or the other people in the show.” As a result, she adds, “I’ve spent most of my life trying to not be like my mother.”
But the caged feeling Horne was experiencing at the Cotton Club soon drove her to take action.
“I finally ran away from that,” she says, “and jumped from the frying pan into the fire, literally running away and marrying the first man I met. So there you go.”
Two children later, the marriage to Louis Jones--who, she says, was a man with “political aspirations"--ended and Horne’s career kicked into high gear.
She worked with the Noble Sissle Orchestra and recorded with Charlie Barnet, Artie Shaw and Teddy Wilson before becoming friends with Holiday during engagements at the old Cafe Society in New York City’s Greenwich Village--one of the first Manhattan clubs, outside Harlem, to welcome mixed white and black audiences.
In the early ‘40s, she screen-tested for MGM, soon finding herself in Louis B. Mayer’s office, with her father along for protection. Her father’s insistence that Horne not be cast as a maid or a domestic played a significant role in establishing Horne as the first African American woman to become a glamorous presence in mainstream pictures.
It was, however, an odd film career at best. Although she appeared in such classic musicals as “Ziegfeld Follies,” “As Thousands Cheer” and “ ‘Til the Clouds Roll By,” her numbers were usually done in a fashion that allowed them to be deleted from distribution in the then-Jim Crow South. She rarely had the opportunity to play roles except in all-black pictures such as “Stormy Weather” (which produced one of her signature songs in the title number) and “Cabin in the Sky.”
Even so, by the ‘40s she had become a highly visible entertainer and a much-noted beauty.
“I was a pin-up girl,” she says, “for the soldiers--both black and white.”
She recalls one curious spinoff from that cross-racial popularity.
“When I first went to Hollywood,” says Horne, “I had this mole growing on my leg, and I was sent by MGM to this plastic surgeon to have it removed. And the surgeon said, ‘I’m so happy to finally meet you. I have people that come in here, and they want your nose or Billy Eckstine’s.’ And when I told that to Billy, we just howled.”
Although Horne married Hayton in 1947, the announcement of the marriage was withheld until 1950. Even so, the reaction was negative. Neither Hollywood, nor almost any other American community for that matter, was particularly receptive to mixed-race marriages in the ‘40s and ‘50s.
The year 1947 was to become an even more momentous one for Horne when, with hundreds of others, she was blacklisted as a result of the hearings by the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Although Horne says she pointed out that she belonged to the same organizations that Mrs. Franklin Roosevelt belonged to, the association with the hearings made it impossible for her to get work in films or on the then-burgeoning television musical variety shows for the next seven years.
She spent most of that period (she seemed to move off the blacklist in 1955) working in nightclubs and concert halls, becoming one of RCA Victor’s best-selling female artists in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and starring in Broadway shows such as the musical “Jamaica.”
In the ‘60s, she found herself irrevocably drawn to the civil rights struggle and became an active participant, touring the South, giving speeches, placing her career on the line.
Then, in the early ‘70s, personal tragedy was added to the mix as her father, husband and son all passed away within a span of 18 months.
Despite the problems and the pain of these years, Horne experienced the decades as a kind of personal epiphany in which the disparate aspects of her persona finally came together: the elegant beauty, the underappreciated talent, the angry activist, the dedicated artist.
“My identity is very clear to me now,” Horne said recently in a PBS biographical special. “I’m a black woman. I’m not alone. I’m free . . . I’m me. And I’m like nobody else.”
“Yes, I remember saying that,” she recalls. “And it’s true. I think that in my head I’m much clearer now, and emotionally I’m much clearer than I’ve ever been before. I know the boundaries now in terms of what has happened and what can happen. I still have the same feelings, but I’ve blended them out a little better than I did in the past.”
She declines, in fact, to describe herself as an “activist,” finding the label both pretentious and incomplete.
“I think just being, just existing, all of us, is pretty active,” she says. “And you can be an activist if something stirs you up which should be in the norm but isn’t.
“I’m still stirred up by the things I see, by the realization that a lot of what I felt before didn’t accomplish very much. Or let’s say I wanted it to accomplish more than it has. But I find the anger less debilitating now than it used to be, because I’ve learned how to deal with a lot of it.”
Which is not to say that the anger over the personal affronts she experienced during her Hollywood years, the anger over the social ills she came to grips with in the ‘60s, or the anger over what she views as the still imperfect condition of civil and human rights have ever completely dissipated.
“Oh, hell, no,” says Horne. “But let’s say my anger now flows like a smooth river. No white water anymore. The anger is turned to where it’s supposed to go. It’s something that I realize is there, and I face it. But it’s become more incidental because I’m also trying to learn to sing a little better with whatever time is left.”
Horne has no immediate plans to present her singing in any more live venues. But television is still a possibility, and Horne, according to Lundvall, is still impulsive enough to decide to do a one-nighter somewhere if the circumstances are right. In the meantime, she’s content to work in the studio, to further explore the feelings of personal and creative serenity that she now experiences.
Recalling the ordeal with her mother at the Cotton Club, and the difficult days in Hollywood, she says, “I was sat on so long, you know, about being a certain kind of person and a performer,” she says. “And I’m a lot freer now. So I do have some real music, some blues, buried in me, and maybe a little of it’s finally coming out, thank God.
“What it really comes down to is connected to how I got the title for my new album. Somebody asked me, ‘Well, what are you doing with it?’ and I said, ‘I don’t know, I’m just being myself.’
“And that’s it,” concludes Horne. “I’m not a hip-hop singer, I’m not a gospel singer, unfortunately, and I’m not a trendy singer. I’ll never sing like Aretha Franklin, even though I always wanted to sound like her. So just ‘being myself’ seems like the perfect description for what I’m doing and for where I am--right here and right now.”