Lena Mary Calhoun Horne Hayton was born in 1917 in Brooklyn, New York. Her father abandoned the family when she was three and her mother, a travelling actress, took her on the road. Aged ten she lived with her uncle a school teacher for a couple of years before her mother took her back to NY. Lena then came under the watchful eye of her grandmother, Cora Calhoun Horne, an educated woman and socialist. Keen to support her ailing mother, 16 year old Lena joined a chorus line as a dancer at the Cotton Club in Harlem in 1933. She soon progressed to singing and joined the Noble Sissle Orchestra and toured extensively. Later she joined the Charlie Barnet Band singing swing. She was the first black featured artist to sing with a major white band. She stayed with the band from 1940 to 1941 but got tired of the constant travel and left to work at the night club Café Society in New York.
She became the featured female vocalist on the radio program The Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street (NBS). Lena replaced Dinah Shore in the popular program which was broadcast widely in the US. She left after only six months to headline a nightclub revue on the west coast.
There the good looking diva with the sultry voice was spotted by two Hollywood talent scouts. She was offered some small parts in a number of Hollywood movies including The Duke is Tops (1938) and Boogie Woogie Dream (1941).
She was the first black performer to sign a long-term contract with a major Hollywood studio (MGM) and featured prominently in Panama Hattie (1942); and Cabin in the Sky (1943).
Later the same year Lena was loaned to 20th Century-Fox to play the role of Selina Rogers in the all-black movie musical Stormy Weather (1943). The title song would become her signature tune.
Throughout her film career she met with hostile bigotry and much of her screen appearances edited out because she was black. She returned to singing in 1945 and appeared with the Billy (Mr B) Eckstine's Orchestra.
Back to films again she popped up in Duchess of Idaho (1950) and Meet Me in Las Vegas (1956) but increasingly she became disenchanted with Hollywood.
During the McArthur Years she was blacklisted and went back to singing for a living. Lena quickly established herself as one of the better known live performers of the era. Her recording career took off in 1957 with Lena Horne (Live) at the Waldorf-Astoria became the biggest selling record by a female artist in the history of the RCA-Victor label.
Throughout the 60s Lena was a prominent celebrity in the civil rights movement and had become a major television personality both as guest and host. Lena returned to films and appeared in Death of a Gunfighter (1969), and Glinda in The Wiz (1978).
She also co-hosted MGM’s retrospective That's Entertainment! III (1994).
She continued to work before eventually announcing her retired in 1981. However due to public demand she carried on working and recording well into her 80s. In 2010 the jazz diva died in New York City.
Worth a listen
Stormy Weather (1943)
The Lady Is a Tramp (1948)
Love Me or Leave Me (1955)
From this moment on (1957)
Mad about the boy (1957)
Just one of those things (1957)
I love Paris (1965)
On a wonderful day like today (1965)
Willow weep for me (1965)
I wanna be around (1965)