Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Lena Horne

Jazz singer and film actress Lena Horne was born on this day in 1917, into an upper middle class black family in Brooklyn. When she was 16 she joined the chorus line at the Cotton Club in Harlem, and within the year became a featured performer. She sang with Charlie Barnet's big band in 1940-41, but disliked the travel required and soon began singing on the NBC radio network out of New York.

In 1942 she headed to the West Coast, where she signed a long term contract with MGM. She was 25. Her contract stipulated that she would not perform in stereotyped roles, making parts hard to come by. Features that included black and white performers were already banned from some states, making her career prospects problematic. The same difficulty presented itself when she performed with bands, especially bands comprised of white and black musicians; she and Billie Holiday both sang with Artie Shaw's band during this period. Her mixture of African American, Caucasian and Native American ancestry didn't make it any easier for her to get the part of the mixed race heroine Julie in MGM's 1951 filming of Showboat; the part went to her friend Ava Gardner, who modeled her performance on Horne's recordings of the songs.

In the sixties and seventies Lena Horne became a perennial guest star on television variety shows, and a popular night club performer. Then in 1981, at age 63, she opened a one-woman show on Broadway. It ran for 333 performances; the longest running solo show in Broadway history. She won her fourth Grammy in 1996, at age 79. Lena Horne appears five times in A Book of Ages.

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