AP NEWS
Related topics

Lena Horne Talk of ‘Stormy Weather’

July 2, 1998

NEW YORK (AP) _ When she was young, Lena Horne couldn’t quite cut the song ``Stormy Weather.″

``I couldn’t do it worth a toot,″ she says.

But life taught her to deliver it with such smoldering ease that it became her signature song.

Now Miss Horne, who turned 81 June 30, slips comfortably into the verses about love and the misery of it.

``But I’m at ease with the misery. So that’s the way I sing this song,″ she says, her dark eyes smiling above smooth, high cheekbones.

On a recent sunny day in Manhattan, the first after two weeks of rain, she gives her own weather report, playfully riding her musical war-horse: ``Many days this past week there has been no sun _ stormy weather ...,″ she sings in a melting oboe of a voice, which still sounds youthful _ or rather, ageless.

``Stormy Weather″ has become a touchstone of her life.

``It’s me, now,″ she says. ``It’s from all the years of musicians I’ve been with, the two husbands I’ve had, from different people who’ve been important in my life. They all go into the song.″

The woman who has torched the world’s stages for six decades has just recorded a new album of songs including ``Autumn in New York,″ ``After You″ and ``Some of My Best Friends Are the Blues.″

As she plays with the soaring phrases of Cole Porter and George Gershwin, her fresh take on the old tunes turns cabaret sensuality into the sublime.

But Miss Horne would really rather sound like Aretha Franklin.

``I want to be Aretha. I want to sing like she does. She sings so gloriously,″ Miss Horne says. ``I always loved Aretha Franklin _ her freedom.″ Still, she thinks she sings better now than she did when she was 40 or 50. ``It’s easier for me to sing now, because I swallowed whatever the frog was in my throat.″

Miss Horne’s own talent was crowned this spring with an honorary doctorate of humane letters from Yale University.

She is the picture of elegance as she sits in the Park Avenue offices of Blue Note Records. Her short haircut, simple pearls and black pants perfectly jibe with the minimalist decor. ``I think Blue Note wanted a den grandmother, you know,″ she says, laughing.

The title of her latest album, ``Being Myself,″ is rooted in a battle she says she’s waged most of her life: to dare to be herself.

She was 16 when she landed a job as a chorus-line dancer at Harlem’s Cotton Club in the 1930s, then broke into the nightclub and Hollywood scenes as a kind of singing pinup girl. Some accused the black singer of trying to ``pass″ into white culture with her cafe-au-lait complexion, and a film studio even invented a makeup for her called ``Light Egyptian.″

To her, it was a matter of survival.

Her father, a Brooklyn bar owner whom she remembers as ``a hoodlum in the numbers racket,″ had divorced her mother when Lena was 3. For several years, she lived with ``people all over the South who were kind enough to take me in,″ then with her mother and grandmother in New York.

``My priorities were always very simple, I never wanted to be _ I guess now it’s called a star. I just wanted to sing GOOD,″ she says.

At first, singing was merely a job. ``I never had aspirations about singing until I found out that I could make a little money,″ she says. Then she decided to learn and hone her craft, turning especially to the musicians she was with who taught her new ways to feel and think about a song.

The road to stardom, though, was paved with injustice. Miss Horne may have smiled under the spotlights, but she seethed with anger because her audiences were white; black people were not allowed in the Cotton Club or most other places she played at that time.

For years, she kept quiet. ``I tried to be polite _ it was such a drag! So when I got older and said, `Oh, I don’t give a damn if they get mad,′ I began to sing better.″

Miss Horne developed a classy act that combined earthiness and elegance. She seduced both club and concert hall audiences with her husky, velvet sound, brilliant smile and infectious joie de vivre.

In her mid-20s, she signed with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, appearing in movie musicals like the 1943 ``Cabin in the Sky″ and, the same year, ``Stormy Weather.″

She rose in the entertainment industry with the help of her second husband, MGM music director Lennie Hayton, who was white. Married in Paris in 1947, they faced angry reactions to their mixed union from some in Hollywood.

By then, Miss Horne was finding her voice as a moral force, too.

In 1945, as she performed in a show at an Army base, she noticed something peculiar and especially offensive: white European prisoners of war were seated at the front of the audience while black soldiers were forced to sit in back. That was the last straw, she says.

She plunged into politics, fighting for equality. Along the way, she befriended actor and singer Paul Robeson and, in the 1950s, she was blacklisted with him during Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist ``witch hunts.″

By the 1960s, she was one of the most visible celebrities defending civil rights. She even threw a lamp at a patron who had hurled an ethnic slur in a Beverly Hills restaurant.

The next decade brought tragedy and her biggest artistic breakthrough.

In 1970 and ’71, Miss Horne suffered the deaths of her father, her husband and her son. She secluded herself, comforted by her daughter, Gail Lumet. A friend, comedian Alan King, spent months trying to persuade her to return to the stage. When she finally did, she exploded with an artistry that surprised her.

In 1981, her Broadway show, ``The Lady and Her Music,″ won a Tony award, and the show’s recording won her the first of three Grammys.

``For the first time, I enjoyed listening to myself and seeing what effect it had on the audience,″ she says of her song-and-dance performance at age 65. ``They showed me the way, and I began to like it.″

The show featured her hit songs, including ``Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,″ ``Surrey With the Fringe on Top″ and ``Love Me or Leave Me.″

She would never again keep her emotions at arm’s length, ``a woman the audience can’t reach and therefore can’t hurt,″ as Miss Horne once described herself.

She credits her anger with peeling away the veil from her vocal strength. ``My skin has grown around me,″ she says. ``Being black made me understand.″

In fact, her skin became a pleasure.

``I have so few things that are really mine. One is my color. I love my color _ not because I’m black, but I like my color, the color of me.″

She lives alone in Manhattan, and enjoys her private life, including her 3-year-old great-grandson.

And now there’s only one big challenge left: age.

``I don’t have as much energy. It makes me so mad, because I go to get up off the chair, and my butt feels heavy,″ she says with a laugh. ``And I can’t get up as quickly as I used to. And my knees are a little slow. Age is crap, you know?″

But it won’t keep her from recording another album this year.

``Old age made me sing.″

AP RADIO
Update hourly