Lena Horne Was A Trailblazer In Music And Culture

Legendary singer and actress Lena Horne passed away today. She was 92 years old. In the 1940s, Horne was one of the first black performers hired to sing with a major white band, the first to play the Copacabana nightclub in New York City and she was among a handful of black performers to have a contract with MGM- a major Hollywood studio.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Now we remember a legend. Jazz singer and actress Lena Horne died yesterday in New York at the age of 92. Here's a clip of her a few years back talking to talk show host Rosie O'Donnell.

(Soundbite of, "The Rosie O'Donnell Show")

Ms. LENA HORNE (Jazz singer, actress): They kept on saying well, you've got to sing the blues. Sing a song. Sing one of those Billie Holiday songs. I went to Kelly's Stable where she was working and I went up to her room and I said, Miss Holiday, I come here to tell you that they keep asking me to sing your songs and I don't want to do it because I can't do them. And she said, young lady, you have children, don't you? I said yes. I have two children. She says you have to pay your rent. You don't have a husband. And she said you have expenses. She said do anything they ask you to do and take care of yourself and your children.

MARTIN: Joining me now to talk about Lena Horne and why she will be missed so much is Joel Dreyfus. He's managing editor of the online magazine the TheRoot.com. It covers issues of particular interest to African-Americans and among others. Joel Dreyfus joins us from NPR's bureau in New York.

Welcome, Joel. Thanks for joining us once again.

Mr. JOEL DREYFUS (Managing editor, TheRoot.com): Well, thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Joel obviously, this woman is an icon to so many. But there are many people who will have no idea about what, who she was and why she matters. So is there a figure today who you can describe what might be an analogy to her and just in terms of the impact she had?

Mr. DREYFUS: It's hard to say because I think the circumstances are so different. You know, the most important thing to know about Lena Horne is that she was probably born at the wrong time. Here was a young beautiful woman who could sing, who could dance, who could act and Hollywood didn't know what to do with her.

You know, she had a career as a singer a fairly successful career as a singer - cabaret singer, headlined at Las Vegas. In the 1950s and '60s she was very often seen on television, appearing in television shows, even had her own TV special at one point. But the overarching effect of her life or impact on her life was limited opportunity because of race, because of the state of apartheid that existed in entertainment industry in this country.

MARTIN: You're saying given the level of talent that she had she should have been able to do what?

Mr. DREYFUS: She should've been Lana Turner, Ava Gardner, Betty Grable, you know, any of the stars in the '40s. When she was signed to a contract she was the first black actor to receive a long-term contract with a Hollywood studio I think a seven-year contract. And then but, they didn't know what to do with her. They would put her in films where she would sing a song, lean against she used to say herself, you know, she'd lean against a pillar, wear a flowing dress and sing a tune, and that way they could easily clip it out of the film before it was sent to distribution in the South where the audiences were presumed not be able to tolerate seeing a black person except as a maid or some buffoon role that was the common practice in Hollywood.

MARTIN: She was quoted as saying, "I was unique in that I was the kind of black that white people could accept. I was their daydream." What does that mean?

Mr. DREYFUS: She was light-skinned. She had very, if you could say, Caucasian features. She was very beautiful. She had a lot of elegance and class. She came from an upper middle class family. Her parents were involved in the NAACP. She lived in Bedford-Stuyvesant in New York and then in Pittsburgh and then in Harlem. So she had a lot of stature, of dignity. I think the most important thing about her was, in fact, that she maintained this kind of dignified role at a time when it was very difficult for a black entertainer to maintain that kind of image.

MARTIN: She married her conductor and bandleader Lennie Hayton. They kept the marriage secret for a long time. Why is that?

Mr. DREYFUS: They married in Paris and then they kept it secret for several years because it wasn't acceptable. Don't forget that in many states in the United States it was actually illegal until the early 1970s to be interracial marriages were not allowed or were not permitted by law. And again, in the world of Hollywood, it was something that was frowned upon. And so, you know, again, she had to keep it secret. You have to keep remembering the era that Lena Horne came up in.

MARTIN: Did she ever find her voice as it were? Did she ever have the chance to come into the fullness of what she wanted for herself as opposed to what people wanted for her and what people projected on to her?

Mr. DREYFUS: I think that I used to say that, you know, for a long time African-Americans had a sort of monopoly on shattered dreams, you know, and Lena Horne came up in that era. I think she grew comfortable with the roles that she ended up having. She said herself that toward the end of her life, I think, in an interview she said I'm who I am. I'm not a symbol. I'm not a token, you know. But I think that there's no doubt that there's a lot that she missed having. Probably the most fulfilling artistic part of her career was her singing. She recorded often. She did a number of very good albums.

There's some critics who would say that she didn't have a great voice but she was a great interpreter. She had this sort of velvety voice that gave off a kind of Southern drawl when she spoke or sang, and she was definitely a great interpreter. In fact, her early career was as a cabaret singer performing around New York in some of the top clubs.

MARTIN: A great lady. She'll be missed.

Lena Horne was 92 years old. She is survived by her daughter Gail Buckley.

Joe Dreyfus is managing editor of TheRoot.com and he was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York.

Joel, thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. DREYFUS: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: You can read more about Lena Horne's life and legacy by going to our website. Just go to npr.org.

(Soundbite of song, "I've Got The World On A String")

Ms. HORNE: (Singing) I feel I've got the world on a string.

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