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Artist Profile: Jazz Singer Lena Horne


Jazz Singer Lena Horne
Courtesy of Blue Note Records

June 30th, 1917 in Brooklyn, New York


May 9th, 2010 in New York, New York

Singer, Actor, Symbol of Black Pride

Jazz singer Lena Horne was primarily known for being one of the first black performers to be signed with a major film studio in Hollywood, and for her elegant and alluring big screen persona. Her expressive singing voice earned her musical roles in white movies in the 1940s, when it was still illegal for some theaters to screen films with black actors. Horne learned to sing jazz with help from Billy Strayhorn, and used her prestige to bring attention to the struggle for equal rights for blacks.

Born in 1917 to an educated upper-middle-class black family in Brooklyn, New York, Lena Horne began her performance career at 16 as a chorus girl in Harlem’s Cotton Club.

By age 19, she was married and living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where she befriended Billy Strayhorn, an ambitious black composer who would go on to become Duke Ellington’s esteemed collaborator. By her own account, Strayhorn taught her the basics of music, and helped her develop her vocal style.

After her first marriage dissolved, Horne moved to Hollywood in 1941 to pursue a career as a nightclub singer. The following year, she signed a contract with MGM studios, and in 1943 she achieved her first taste of fame after singing “Stormy Weather” in an all-black movie musical of the same name. She was one of the first black performers to sign a multi-year contract with a Hollywood studio.

As a result, the N.A.A.C.P. regarded her as an icon in the battle for elevated status for blacks in show business. She also became popular among servicemen, and she went on several U.S.O. tours during World War II.

Horne believed that her fame was due in part to the fact that she was light-skinned, and therefore the kind of black person that didn’t threaten whites. However, once she was in the public eye, she used it to further the cause of civil rights.

During her stint with the U.S.O., she refused to sing at bases where she felt black soldiers were mistreated. She joined Martin Luther King on the March on Washington in 1963, and spoke that year at a rally led by Medger Evers, another civil rights leader.

Throughout the following decades, Lena Horne continued to sing at nightclubs and to act in films. In 1981 she won a Tony award for her one-woman musical “Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music.” She died on May 9th, 2010 at age 92.

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