Monday, May 10, 2010

Lena Horne – R.I.P.

Lena Horne, one of the first black actors to achieve a contract from a major Hollywood studio and not only one of the most beloved entertainers in the world but also an important civil rights activist, died on Sunday night at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York. She was 92 and lived in Manhattan.

Ms. Horne was a consummate star who appeared in many musicals in the thirties and forties including Stormy Weather, which yielded her a signature theme. By the 1950s, Ms. Horne began concentrating more on her singing career and only returned to film for 1969’s Death of a Gunfighter and as Glenda, the good witch, in 1978’s The Wiz. She then stormed Broadway in 1981 with the wildly popular Lena Horne: The Lady And Her Music and went onto record some of her best music for the Blue Note label in the 1990s.

I spoke with Ms. Horne several years ago about her performances with guitarist Gabor Szabo, whose musical journey I’ve chronicled at Gabor Szabo: Iconoclasm. I’ll never forget the day the phone rang at my day job and a voice said to me “Douglas Payne? Please hold for Lena Horne.” Like a stage entrance, it was an announcement that nearly demanded applause.

Since I didn’t even know she was going to call, I was completely unprepared for the conversation. So in my star-struck frenzy, I muttered and stuttered until I realized she was the friendliest, loveliest person you could ever want to talk with.

In late 1964, the Chico Hamilton group of which Gabor Szabo was then a part was in London backing Lena Horne at the Talk of the Town club and recording some striking music to Roman Polanski's film, Repulsion. Hamilton had performed behind Ms. Horne many times before, but this was the guitarist's first collaboration with Ms. Horne, a musical relationship which would elaborate and deepen in the coming years.

By the end of 1969, guitarist Szabo was teamed with the legendary singer for a classic performance in the album Lena & Gabor. The perennially popular and well-liked record proved to be an ideal showcase for Szabo, who is heard to be a gifted and most sensitive accompanist.

For Lena Horne, it was an opportunity to reach a younger audience with more contemporary material (by the Beatles, Michel LeGrand, Burt Bacharach and Harry Nilsson). While the two had performed on stage together in the past, this collection presented the first opportunity for record buyers to hear how special their collaboration was.

The following year, the two reunited on Ms. Horne's television special and were seen and heard again together on a 1973 episode of The Flip Wilson Show.

My conversation with Ms. Horne became more about her warm reminisces of Gabor Szabo and what she called “his soulful playing.” And when Lena Horne says that, she means it. You can feel it. She also had so many good memories that she would add to the conversation about so many of the other people she knew and worked with over the years. She was a delightful human being and I was so happy she sat and talked with me about her amazing life for a few minutes.

Obituaries: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times.

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