In the peculiar algebra of prejudice that framed race relations in the United States over much of the last century, it was often said that a black entertainer had to be twice as good to earn even half the acclaim of a white one. If that seems like hyperbole, consider the career of Lena Horne, who died Sunday at 92.
A singer of spectacular skill and insight, an actress of considerable presence and charisma, a breathtaking beauty, Horne was blessed with qualities that should have guaranteed stardom of the highest order. But because she came up in the segregated society of prewar America, Horne's star never shone as brightly as, from today's perspective, it should have.
Don't take that to mean she suffered in obscurity - far from it. After making her name in her home city of New York, Horne became an international sensation after heading to Hollywood and starring in the 1943 hits Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather. She was featured in Time, Life and Newsweek, broke the "colour barrier" by singing with Artie Shaw's enormously popular big band, and played the biggest nightclubs and theatres.
She was a star all right, but a star whose movie roles were restricted so as not to offend the sensibilities of bigoted audiences, one whose artistic opportunities were often determined by the prejudices of others. Although she was lucky enough to have been, as she acidly put it, "a kind of black that white people could accept," she was also realistic enough to recognize that such luck would only take her so far.
But where her friend and contemporary Billie Holiday was worn down by such injustice, Horne chose to rise above it. Despite being a fervent civil-rights activist and proud member of the NAACP, Horne's artistic identity transcended race and class. Her singing, although clearly inflected by jazz and blues, had more in common with the subtle theatricality of Frank Sinatra than with the overtly swinging style of Ella Fitzgerald. She had an instantly identifiable sound, and offered commanding performances of everything from Harold Arlen's bluesy Stormy Weather to Michel Legrand's timeless Watch What Happens.
Even more astonishing was that her gifts seemed inexhaustible. In 1981, at 64, she returned to Broadway more than two decades after her success in Arlen's Jamaica, and wowed audiences with the undiminished power of her singing; far from appealing to nostalgia, Horne found herself "discovered" by theatregoers who hadn't even been born when Cabin in the Sky came out. She made her last album in 1998, and was, as one critic put it, "perhaps a better jazz singer than ever." Clearly, Horne understood that there's no better revenge than a life well lived.
Five essential albums
Over the course of her career, Lena Horne recorded dozens of albums. Few were big hits - Porgy and Bess, which she recorded with Harry Belafonte in 1959, was the only album to crack Billboard's Top 20 - but there were gems scattered throughout. Here are some of the best.
The Classic Lena Horne, RCA, 2001 Drawing from two decades of recordings, this compilation includes all the classics: Stormy Weather, How Long Has This Been Going On and Love Me or Leave Me. Probably the best single overview of her early work.
Watch What Happens, DCC, 1970 Originally released as Lena & Gabor, this collaboration with guitarist Gabor Szabo finds Horne offering everything from a jazzy, guitar-based rendering of My Mood is You to a surprisingly funky take on the Beatles' Rocky Raccoon.
Lena: A New Album, RCA, 1976 A gorgeous, large-scale jazz session, this album evokes the orchestral lushness of Horne's early work while emphasizing the jazzy subtlety of her later recordings. She takes total command of Someone to Watch Over Me, and deftly plays off Phil Woods's alto saxophone on I've Got the World on a String.
Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music, Qwest, 1981 This is the show that remade her reputation, and it's not hard to understand why. Not only does Horne have an effortless command of the material, her contrasting versions of Stormy Weather show off her astonishing emotional range. A milestone performance.
An Evening with Lena Horne, Blue Note, 1995 Recorded live at the Supper Club in New York, this standards-heavy set shows how little age managed to slow Horne down. Still a powerhouse at age 77, she sizzles through Just One of Those Things and sounds as sassy as ever in Do Nothing 'Til You Hear from Me.