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Friday Fierceness: Ms Lena Horne | Manolo for the Big Girl

Friday Fierceness: Ms Lena Horne

It’s always seemed unfair to me that the definitive version of Lena Horne‘s signature song “Stormy Weather” wasn’t recorded by Lena Horne. I knew Stormy Weather was associated with Horne from her movie of the same name, but to me, The Great Recording had always been Etta James‘ version off her seminal 1961 release At Last!.

A few days ago I sent out an email to a whole mess of music writer friends –either critics or musicians– and asked them who cut the definitive recording of Stormy Weather. Out of two dozen, only two said Lena Horne. Number one with a bullet was Etta James, followed by Dinah Washington, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. Interestingly, no one mentioned Ethel Waters, for whom the song was written in 1933.

Lena Horne wasn’t a truly great actress, her voice was wonderful but nothing compared to Ella or Billie or Dinah. What she had was passion. She was ferocious in a wonderful, wild way that seemed to simmer just below the surface, as if a thin veneer of sequins and self control was the only thing keeping her from eviscerating you with her teeth, not because she was wicked, but because that’s just what wild things do.

For whatever her shortcomings were as a vocalist –and often said she hated to sing– her energy in a cabaret or theater setting was legendary. I remember watching her at the Kennedy Center when she reprised her Broadway hit, Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music…she must’ve been about 70 at the time and shook down practically to the floor in her slinky floor-length gown.

“Yeah, Lena” she purred “but can you get back up?”

So today we celebrate Lena Horne, actress, cabaret star, civil rights activist, fascinating multi-faceted woman and ultimate Fierceness.

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–“Don’t be afraid to feel as angry or as loving as you can, because when you feel nothing, it’s just death. ”

–“I’m not alone, 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.”

Lena Horne publicity still

–“Always be smarter than the people who hire you.” (editor’s note: unless the people who hire you happen to be the lovely and handsome Manolo. Gosh you’re looking dapper today, Boss!)

–“It’s not the load that breaks you down: It’s the way that you carry it.”

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–“You have to be taught to be second class; you’re not born that way.”

–“I really do hate to sing.”

Lena Horne publicity still

–“I was unique in that I was a kind of black that white people could accept. I was their daydream. I had the worst kind of acceptance because it was never for how great I was or what I contributed. It was because of the way I looked.”

–“It’s ill-becoming for an old broad to sing about how bad she wants it. But occasionally we do.”

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5 Responses to “Friday Fierceness: Ms Lena Horne”

  1. Kate H May 14, 2010 at 3:38 pm #

    Thank you so much for this post. When I was in college, I bought the book “Jazz Seen” only for this absolutely fierce photo of Lena Horne, which I tore out of the book and hung above my bed (who better to watch over you while you sleep?) She was in a white dress on a dark stage and she was standing with her arms thrown out wide, her head thrown back and her mouth wide open singing and smiling in that very Lena way. It was this incredible combo of beauty and strength and vivaciousness and joy and it just seemed like it capture the total essence of her. She’s such an inspiration and I’m just not sure what we’re going to do with out her.

  2. emmme May 14, 2010 at 4:50 pm #

    I was never a true fan of Ms. Lena–as a kid, her teeth frightened me (so many!) and people on TV like Bill Cosby always talked about what a great beauty she was, but she only looked very white to me. But as I got older, I really liked her interviews. She was so sharp, intelligent, and irreverent, especially when people fawned over her. That fierceness, that swagger–not cocky, but a manner that said, of course I’m all that, aren’t you?–finally won me over.
    That quote about “the worst sort of acceptance” is electric with hurt. It had to be incredibly difficult to keep faith in herself and not buy into that type of race casting, on both professional and personal levels.

  3. Plumcake May 14, 2010 at 5:05 pm #

    @Emmme: When she would star across from darker costars, the studio actually darkened her skin. In fact, Ben Nye developed a foundation color just for that purpose called “Dark Egyptian” (it’s still sold today) which was used for decades in the film industry to paint white actors darker so they wouldn’t have to hire black actors.

  4. Fat Heffalump May 15, 2010 at 1:38 am #

    Ahh Lena, she was such a magnificent woman. She will be missed.

  5. Mrsbug May 17, 2010 at 1:31 pm #

    Wow, those quotes. She really knew what was what. And who she was. Oh, that we could be so personally centered as she seemed to be.