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.
–“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.”
–“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.”
–“You have to be taught to be second class; you’re not born that way.”
–“I really do hate to sing.”
–“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.”