Lena is the Best: Lena Horne’s album Stormy Weather, featuring “Summertime,” “Mad About the Boy,” “Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home,” with “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top” and “What’s Right for You (Is Right for Me)”

By Daniel Garrett

Lena Horne, Stormy Weather
Orchestra conducted by Lennie Hayton
Producers: E.O. Walker, and Joe Carlton, Dennis Farnon,
Henri Rene, Dick Peirce
Reissue Producer Barry Feldman
RCA Victor, 1957; RCA Victor/BMG, 2002

“I’m free.  I no longer have to be a ‘credit.’  I don’t have to be a symbol to anybody; I don’t have to be a first to anybody…I’m me, and I’m like nobody else.”
—Lena Horne, at age 80

Miss Lena Horne’s Stormy Weather is a recording of popular music—mostly, the American songbook—that has an exuberance that is charming, an intensity that is moving, and a sophistication that is impressive.  It is excellent.  It is fun.  “Tomorrow Mountain,” with horns and congas, is a fast song of fantasy, and in it Horne’s voice is bright, crisp, feminine, southern, as she sings of how it “rains Chanel No. 5” and describes “diamond bushes.”  Her emphatic energy, her embrace—though cheery, even gloriously so—of that Duke Ellington composition, could be read as a rebuke to ordinary life; and the song and her singing certainly constitute a call to imagination and to pleasure.  Horne’s ballad singing is passionate: with long, shaped, wailing notes, “Out of This World” is dramatic, eloquent.  Her personality is vivid, and notes golden, in the orchestral, bluesy jazz of the Gershwin-Heyward “Summertime,” a composition that never knew more elegance or energy.  Whereas Miss Mahalia Jackson’s interpretation of “Summertime” was spiritual, Horne’s voice here is secular and social, confidently so.  One of the most charming, most sensual, performances is of the British songwriter Noel Coward’s song “Mad About the Boy,” about attraction to a memorable young man, whom the narrator thinks of when among other people, haunted by a spell that is a mixture of misery and joy: Horne’s enunciation is precise, articulation forceful, and feeling intense.  Good times are welcomed, following bad times, in “Ridin’ On the Moon.”  The title song—“Stormy Weather,” written by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler—in which a romantic break-up changes the atmosphere of a life is given big band treatment.  Throughout the album Stormy Weather is marvelous singing: if Miss Ethel Waters was Lena Horne’s antecedent, the woman who contributed unique aspects of reflection and restraint to popular singing, allowing for more subtle intimacy and intensity, Barbra Streisand and Diana Ross may be considered only two of Horne’s descendants.


There are as many ways to sing a song as there is imagination; and Horne’s singing is alive, full of modern personality.  The arrangement of “Baby, Won’t You Please Come Home,” written by Charles Warfield and Clarence Williams, has fine detail, with piano and muted horn, but it is Horne’s simmering sound—with its desire and joy—that is most remarkable.  Eroticism is near the core, if not at the very core, of Horne’s singing: it is a sound that brushes past social barriers to touch the private aspect of an individual.  It is a form of rebellion and of self-affirmation.  However, it is not crude or vulgar—it is a sensibility above what Madonna, Janet Jackson, Mariah Carey, Beyonce, or Rihanna are inclined to do.  There is a similar hunger—charming, confident, sensual—in Arlen and Mercer’s “Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home,” in which Horne declares, “I’m going where a welcome mat is, no matter where that is.”  (Miss Streisand’s version of the song is more about disappointed restlessness, whereas this is about sensual hunger.)  Of course, women are expected to sing sad songs, and Horne gratifies that expectation with the near-masochistic devotion of the jazz ballad “I’ll Be Around,” yet Horne’s tone is more accepting and practical than sad.  The narrator in “I Wonder What Became of Me” is not happy, but the song—lush and somber, reflective—is largely pleasant.  “Our love affair was too hot not to cool down,” sings Horne, as she embodies completely the cool, jaunty, acceptance of a love affair’s end in the cosmopolitan American Cole Porter’s “Just One of Those Things.”

Miss Lena Horne was one of the great entertainers of the twentieth century.  I can recall hearing her name often when I was a boy in the American south, and after I saw her in the western film Death of a Gunfighter (1969), her face haunted me; and I recall as well the excitement she inspired in New York with the 1980s Broadway presentation The Lady and Her Music, the vinyl recording of which I loved (I still remember her saying that she did not want sweet, hard life to pass her by)—and I regret not seeing her at The Supper Club in Manhattan in the 1990s, but I had tickets to see Jeff Buckley around the same time and thought I should not be greedy—I was wrong.  The life and work of the Brooklyn-born Lena Mary Calhoun Horne (June 30, 1917 – May 9, 2010), the daughter of Teddy and Edna Horne, two willfully free spirits in the Negro bourgeoisie, encompassed much of the promise and frustrations of the century for an American woman, particularly for an African-American woman: little Lena Horne was featured in the October 1919 issue of an NAACP branch bulletin as the organization’s youngest member, and she was reared by a performer mother in a series of towns, including Brooklyn and Miami, before taking to the stage herself.  Sometimes the young Lena Horne had lived with her grandparents, who included a suffragette grandmother, Cora Calhoun Horne, or with a friend of her mother; and the instability of Lena Horne’s early life may have produced insecurity, but she was interested in becoming a performer.  Lena Horne was a chorus dancer at age sixteen in the Cotton Club in Harlem, where backstage conditions were rough; and she was given a dancing part on Broadway (Dance with Your Gods), before becoming a singer with the Noble Sissle Society Orchestra in 1935 and the Charlie Barnet band in 1940.  As a colored singer in Barnet’s white band, Horne suffered differential treatment from hotels and restaurants.  Horne, who became friends with singer Billie Holiday and composer Billy Strayhorn, performed at Café Society Downtown and the Savoy Plaza Hotel, and was considered the highest paid African-American entertainer.  Horne signed a seven-year contract for films in 1942 with Metro Goldwyn Mayer, which had signed Nina Mae McKinney years before; and Horne was presented in the top clubs and magazines (Life, Newsweek, Time), and was in the motion pictures Swing Fever, Cabin in the Sky, and Stormy Weather in 1943.  “I can get a maid for my daughter.  I don’t want her in the movies playing maids,” Horne’s father was quoted as saying of the roles that colored women were usually offered.  It was reported that the glamorous Horne received $1,000 a week from MGM, $1,500 for each appearance on radio, and $6,500 a week in nightclubs (Liberty, 1945).

Yet Miss Lena Horne’s light skin sometimes produced confusion and complication—in black-and-white celluloid films, she could be mistaken for white, something that was a problem in a segregated society (her presence could be controversial if perceived as a white woman when with blacks, or as a black woman when with whites).  Horne’s cameo performance of songs in musicals—Thousands Cheer, Broadway Rhythm, Two Girls and a Sailor, and Ziegfeld Follies—were frequently edited out of films when shown in the American south.  Horne gave credit to her adoption by black American general infantrymen as a significant basis of her fame; and she traveled to Army camps to entertain troops, but when she criticized how the black soldiers were treated, the USO refused to present her—and she financed her own trips to the camps.  (Horne also sued hotels and restaurants that refused to treat her fairly.)  Composer Jerome Kern wanted the performer Horne to appear as Julie, a mulatto girl who marries a white man, in the mid-1940s Broadway revival of his musical Show Boat, but after her refusal to be in a Broadway production of St. Louis Woman that MGM had an interest in, Horne, apparently, was not permitted the Kern show.  Yet Horne briefly appeared as Julie in a Kern-tribute film Till the Clouds Roll By (1946).  Years later—in 1951—the role of Julie that Horne coveted was given to Ava Gardner when a film of Show Boat was made.  Despite Lena Horne’s acclaim and success, particularly in Europe, especially in Paris and London, Horne, who sang at the inaugural ball of the American president Harry Truman, faced difficulties in America due to gender and skin color and politics.  Her affiliation with progressive groups such as W.E.B. DuBois and Paul Robeson’s Council on African Affairs, and the Hollywood Independent Citizens Committee, and the Joint Anti-Fascist Committee, was dangerous during the anti-Communist witch-hunt.  It is hard to know how much work, if any, she may have lost due to the blacklist.

Miss Lena Horne signed with RCA Victor in 1956, and the next year released the bestselling Lena Horne at the WaldorfAstoria.  In the late 1950s, Lena Horne became more active on television, being featured on many variety programs, and Horne was also in the Broadway play Jamaica, but the civil rights movement increasingly won her attention.  She had an affinity for Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, and, surprisingly and especially, Malcolm X.  Lena Horne participated in the movement for social change as a member of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority and the National Council for Negro Women.  She was given her own television entertainment specials in the mid-1960s; and was by then a living legend.  However, the popular music was changing, moving away from the American songbook that was her specialty, toward new songs in which rhythm was often more significant than melody.  Horne appeared as white actor Richard Widmark’s paramour in the 1969 film Death of a Gunfighter, and live and on television, and in the late 1970s film The Wiz as Glinda the Good Witch, co-starring with Diana Ross and Michael Jackson.

Lena Horne’s most popular and significant production may have been the autobiographical theatrical production The Lady and Her Music, for which she won a Tony award, and a Grammy for the sound recording of the show, with which she toured North America and the United Kingdom.  Barbra Streisand visited Lena Horne backstage, as did many other famed attendees.  When Diana Ross was interviewed by Andy Warhol for the October 1981 Interview magazine, Miss Ross said, Lena is the best.  Lena Horne was honored in 1984 at the Kennedy Center, and returned to music with the albums The Men in My Life (1988), We’ll Be Together Again (1993), Being Myself (1998), and Seasons of a Life (2006).  In the mid-1990s Horne won another Grammy for a recording of a concert at The Supper Club.  She was celebrated at the JVC Jazz Festival in 1997, receiving the Ella Award for Lifetime Achievement.

Lena Horne’s life and work have been documented by her daughter Gail Lumet Buckley (The Hornes), a girl who, with her brother Edwin, was the offspring of Horne’s 1937 marriage to Louis Jones, a marriage that lasted only a few years; however, Horne would marry composer-arranger Lennie Hayton in 1947, a childless marriage that lasted until Hayton’s death in 1971.  Lena Horne, who said she married Jones to escape show business and Hayton for his professional and social connections, would claim composer, mentor, and (homosexual) friend Billy Strayhorn as the man she loved most.  James Gavin has written about Lena Horne too (Stormy Weather), as have James Haskins and Kathleen Benson (Lena), and Leslie Palmer (Lena Horne), as well as publications such as The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times.  Lena Horne lived quietly in New York during her last years.

Lena Horne was a beautiful and very intelligent woman with a defiant spirit, but her music recordings are the foundation of her legacy; and when Lena Horne’s album Stormy Weather was released anew, it contained bonus songs, among them another version of “Stormy Weather” and “A Cock-Eyed Optimist” and “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top.”  Horne’s voice has a darker quality on the second version of “Stormy Weather”—the song has more of the blues in it, more intensity.  Her reading of “Come Runnin’” is bright-sounding, high-spirited, sensual.  With congas and horns, and a sharp vocal performance, “From This Moment On” is incisive.  The happily broad perspective of “A Cock-Eyed Optimist” feels personally hopeful.  “I Have Dreamed” is a tender ballad, sure and slightly wistful.  In the charming, rhythmic, strong “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” one perceives Lena Horne’s strength, but it is not a rude strength; rather, Lena Horne’s strength is rooted in confidence, intelligence, sensuality.  The focused “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” a song of pleasant rumination, is very appealing for its concentration of energy.  Horne’s singing is clipped, suggestive, and sexy in “What’s Right for You (Is Right for Me),” as she is intently seductive; and “Sweet Thing” is more sensuous reverie.  “That Old Feeling” is acceptance of love as a lasting thing, something the singer may not have found enough of in life—like most artists, her possibilities usually were more perfectly articulated and fulfilled in her art.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today.  “Social attitudes tend to be important for the power of their influence, rather than for the value of their insight or perception,” says Daniel Garrett, who has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader.  He has an internet log, “The Art Notes of a Solitary Walker,” focused on visual art.