Pioneering singer, actress and dancer Lena Horne is credited as helping black actresses to gain more acceptance in Hollywood and was an important contributor to the Civil Rights Movement.
She was born in Brooklyn in 1917 and at the age of 16 became a dancer at the famous Cotton Club. But her singing was soon gaining attention and by the spring of 1934 she had a featured role in the Cotton Club Parade. She replaced Dinah Shore as featured vocalist on NBC’s popular jazz series ‘The Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street’. She became a regular nightclub performer across the States and was attracting Hollywood talent scouts to her shows. She chose MGM and became famous for her rendition of the title song in 1943′s ‘Stormy Weather‘. She appeared in many MGM musicals but was never featured in a leading role – she often appeared in stand-alone scenes that were easy to edit out for audiences who would object to the presence of a black actress. But she did direct two all-black movie musicals in 1943.
By the mid-1950s, she became disillusioned with Hollywood and focused on her nightclub singing career. She only appeared in two major films during the 1950s and was even blacklisted for her political views. But her 1957 live album ‘Lena Horne at the Waldorf Astoria‘ became the biggest-selling album ever on the RCA Victor label and Lena became a staple of TV variety shows and mainstream shows alike, finding herself on ‘The Muppet Show’, ‘Sesame Street’ and ‘The Cosby Show’ in the ’70s and ’80s.
The 1990s saw Lena focus on recording, particularly after the success of her 1993 appearance at a tribute to her friend Billy Strayhorn (Duke Ellington’s pianist and arranger). The album We’ll Be Together Again featured Ellington and Strayhorn’s material, while her appearance on Frank Sinatra‘s final album Duets II was considered a highlight of an under-performing album. Her 1995 live album won a Grammy Award for Best Vocal Jazz Album. Remarkably, at the age of 81, she made one further studio album, 1998′s Being Myself.
Lena is survived by her daughter, writer Gail Lumet Buckley.