“I’m still finding things to think about when I sing this,” Lena
Horne said introducing the penultimate number of her smash
Broadway show Lena Horne: The Lady And Her Music. It was a
somber and intense moment in an otherwise raucous, brazen,
sprawling two hours of song classics and hilarious monologues.
“It’s taken me a long time to grow into it.” The song was her
signature, Stormy Weather, a song Horne inhabited for half a
century. In 1981, at age 64, Horne was surprisingly fiery and
ferocious, performing two hours’ of intense singing for 333
performances at the Nederland Theater on Broadway before touring
the United States, Canada, London and Stockholm.
Like most jaded New Yorkers, I rarely went to a Broadway play, even though I strolled past them regularly on my way to work. I was twenty years old in 1981, still pretty much a kid and focused on career goals and girls. But I was a huge fan of Quincy Jones. Jones, the great classic jazz trumpeter, had emerged over the years as an amazing and diverse music producer. His involvement with the soundtrack for the film The Wiz (which co-starred Horne) led to his involvement with Michael Jackson and Jackson’s groundbreaking release Off The Wall, which in turn led to the phenomena of Thriller. Horne’s Broadway show was long gone by the time I became obsessed with Jones’s production work. Jones had sprouted a mini-R&B empire with the likes of Jackson, James Ingram, Patti Austin and many others. And, so it came to pass one day that while browsing the record bins I found the double-disc Lady And Her Music. Not knowing much about Lena Horne, and assuming, rightfully, this was not the Jones-style R&B I was craving, I bought it on spec. I figured Jones, along with his then-partner master engineer Bruce Sweiden, would have done remarkable work with the music. I figured it would be grown-up music. I was right. And wrong.
Horne’s playfulness is simply disarming. While I expected a kind of dull recitation of things past, Horne took great delight in knowing much of what she was talking about simply sailed over the head of most of her audience. She was practically giddy during her many lengthy monologues, words she either knew absolutely by heart or that she simply improvised most every night. I expected to have some appreciation for the music while really vibing off Jones and Sweiden. I really did not expect to fall in love with Lena Horne. But I did. I was, what, 23, she was 64, and I was in love. She was simply amazing. And I looked for every opportunity to learn more about this amazing woman and experience her wonderful talent.
Lena Horne died last Sunday, May 9, 2010, at the New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York City of heart failure. I am greatly saddened by her loss. There are so many precious things we take for granted. Lena Horne was most certainly one of them. I cannot imagine a world without her in it. And, while I could and probably should write some long, detailed essay about her life and her meaning to the African American community, I thought it best to let her speak for herself. Click here to listen to an excerpt from The Lady And Her Music, and to remember just how amazing a person this woman was and how blessed we were to have known her..
Christopher J. Priest
16 May 2010
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