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A Conversation with the Late Lena Horne

In celebration of Black History month, In Black America presents an encore presentation of "Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music," an extended interview with her that originally aired in March 1983.

Born on June 30, 1917, in Brooklyn, New York, Lena Horne became one of the most popular African American performers of the 1940s and 1950s. At the age of sixteen she was hired as a dancer in the chorus of Harlem’s famous Cotton Club. There she was introduced to the growing community of jazz performers, including Billie Holiday, Cab Calloway, and Duke Ellington. She also met Harold Arlen, who would write her biggest hit, “Stormy Weather.” For the next five years she performed in New York nightclubs, on Broadway, and touring with the Charlie Barnet Orchestra. Singing with Barnet’s primarily white swing band, Horne was one of the first African American women to successfully work on both sides of the color line.

Within a few years, she moved to Hollywood, where she played small parts in the movies. At this time, most African American actors were kept from more serious roles, and though she was beginning to achieve a high level of notoriety, the color barrier was still strong.Cabin In The Sky andStormy Weatherwere the only movies in which she played a character that was involved in the plot. Her elegant style and powerful voice were unlike any that had come before, and both the public and the executives in the entertainment industry began to take note. By the mid-'40s, Horne was the highest-paid African American actor in the country. Her renditions of “Deed I Do” and “As Long as I Live,” and Cole Porter’s “Just One Of Those Things” became instant classics. For the thousands of African American soldiers abroad during World War II, she was the premier pin-up girl.

In 1963, she participated in the March on Washington and performed at rallies throughout the country for the National Council for Negro Women. She followed that with a decade of international touring, recording, and acting on both television and the silver screen. Horne had found in her growing audience a renewed sense of purpose. All of this came crashing down when her father, son and husband died in a period of twelve months during the early 1970s. She retreated almost completely from public life. It was not until 1981 that she fully returned, making a triumphant comeback with a one-person show on Broadway. LENA HORNE: THE LADY AND HER MUSIC chronicled Horne’s early life and almost fifty years in show business. It ran for fourteen months and became the standard by which one-woman shows are judged.

Lena Horne died of heart failure on May 9, 2010, in New York City. She was 92.

John L. Hanson is the producer and host of the nationally syndicated radio series In Black America. It’s heard on home station KUT at 10 p.m. Tuesdays and 6:30 a.m. Sundays — and weekly on close to 20 stations across the country. The weekly podcast of IBA, the only nationally broadcast Black-oriented public affairs radio program, is one of KUT’s most popular podcasts.