DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
Lena Horne is 90 years old today. We'd like to celebrate that milestone now with a little music.
(Soundbite of song, "Stormy Weather")
Ms. LENA HORNE (Jazz Singer): (Singing) Don't know why there's no sun up in the sky. Stormy weather since my man and I ain't together. Keeps raining all the time. Life is bare...
ELLIOTT: Ms. Horne's career can be documented not in years but in eras. She got her start as a teenager in the early 1930s as a chorus girl in New York's famous Cotton Club. She became a popular jazz singer in nightclubs and on Broadway, knocking down racial barriers as she went. But on tour, she was often denied a hotel room even in New York City because of her race.
(Soundbite of song "Stormy Weather")
Ms. HORNE: (Singing) This misery is just too much for me. Can't go on.
ELLIOTT: By the early '40s, Lena Horne was in Hollywood with a major studio contract. She refused to play mammies and maids and other roles she thought were demeaning to black women, instead she was cast in lavish production sequences - always the picture of elegance.
Still, her scenes were usually restricted to a song or two so they could be cut when the films were shown in white theaters in the South. Lena Horne persevered in show business and she became an outspoken civil rights activist.
In 1980 at the age of 63, Lena Horne launched a one-woman Broadway show called "Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music."
(Soundbite of Broadway musicale, "Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music")
Ms. HORNE: (Singing) From this moment on, you saw me dealt on this two for two dare - from this moment on. From this lucky day, no more loose songs, only (unintelligible) songs from this moment on. Oh, you've got the love I need so much. Got the skin I like to touch. Got the arms to hold me tight. Got the sweet lips to kiss me goodnight. From this moment on...
ELLIOTT: She continued to sing and record and perform on television into her 80s. But these days, Ms. Horne no longer makes public appearance. Her daughter, author Gail Buckley, says she is one million percent retired, living in New York and doing well, given her age.
Lena Horne is marking her 90th birthday with a small group of family and friends and a chocolate cake. Happy birthday, Lena Horne.
(Soundbite of song, "Ain't It The Truth")
Ms. HORNE: (Singing) Life is short, short, brother. Ain't it the truth. And there is no other. Ain't it the truth. If you don't love living you're slightly uncouth. Ain't it the dignified truth. Said that gals DuBarry. Ain't it the truth. Life is cash and carry. Ain't it the truth. You've got to shake it down or stir it up with vermouth. Ain't it the dignified truth. Love is a rippling brook. Man needs a fish to cook. You got to bait your hook. Rise and shine and cast your line.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.