best for last

The following will come as no surprise to you if you’ve been keeping up with this blog for the last year.  At least I think all of those Jim Henson posts were done last May… I have a hard time keeping track of this thing.

This is ‘fly in my soup’ guy, right?  Love him!

Circa 1976. A very special year.  Loving the color coordination.

Stahs in the sky!

the worst kind of acceptance

I’m going to try to get all of this Lena stuff out of my system today.  It’ll actually never be out of my system, but as far as blogging goes… you know what I mean.  I really enjoyed the following NPR blog post focusing on the racialization of Ms. Lena Horne.  I wonder how different things would have been for her if things would have been different.

Lena Horne: Of Race And Acceptance


In the reports of Lena Horne’s death that have emerged so far, much has been made of the fact that she was a black woman in an age of popular entertainment dominated by white faces. Her talent was obvious, but her skin hampered her attempts to become a major movie star, assigning her to bit parts that could be removed for Southern audiences.

Eventually, after the civil rights movement, Horne would be recognized as an entertainment icon. Her work as a jazz singer, theatre performer and television actress did much for that legacy, as well. But she also knew that the skin color that worked against her also worked for her. In the obituary that came over the AP wire, she is quoted as saying this:

“I was unique in that I was a kind of black that white people could accept,” she once said. “I was their daydream. I had the worst kind of acceptance, because it was never for how great I was or what I contributed. It was because of the way I looked.”

“A kind of black that white people could accept.” Think on that for a moment, and beyond the idea of being a light-skinned African-American. You could write the entire history of jazz through that lens.

Jazz’s early black stars (Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Nat “King” Cole, Billie Holiday and others) worked overtime to be somehow disarming, or mythologized, or otherwise acceptable to white bourgeois audiences. Meanwhile, the music they and all their colleagues were making was popularized by white musicians — Paul Whiteman, Benny Goodman, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, the Dorsey Brothers — sometimes well, sometimes drained of its swing energy. This continuing process is a big part of jazz’s transformation from scourge of society into America’s classical music.

Indeed, the entire cultural history of the U.S. in the 20th century could be viewed like that. Even today, where ethnic identity comes in many more shades, the middle-class white audience still plays arbiter and co-opter of what hits the mainstream. That’s admittedly a reductive viewpoint, ignoring the powerful experience of the art created, and perhaps it’s a bit cynical, too. But it would be true to Lena Horne’s experience, both marginalized and a trailblazer for who she, biologically, was.

So what’s to do about this? Can’t we just remember Horne as a great singer and actress, the woman who did “Stormy Weather,” and the person whose friendship with Billy Strayhorn brought out the best in both of them?

Sure, but I’d rather not do only that. For one, it negates how she stood up against demeaning portrayals in what roles she took, and how she spoke out strongly against discrimination throughout her career. By omitting all that from our narrative of her life, it allows even the most well-meaning of people to conveniently forget how racism profoundly shaped the creation, marketing and embrace of American art, and continues to do so today.

The New York Times‘ obituary has another illustrative quotation:

My identity is very clear to me now. I am a black woman. I’m free. I no longer have to be a ‘credit.’ I don’t have to be a symbol to anybody; I don’t have to be a first to anybody. I don’t have to be an imitation of a white woman that Hollywood sort of hoped I’d become. I’m me, and I’m like nobody else.

Lena Horne didn’t choose to be racialized based on her genetic assignment, but she was. Remarkably, she ran with it, using it as a source of strength and pride and artistic inspiration. That’s worth remembering, to0.

goodbye, lena

I am deeply saddened by the loss of the legendary Lena Horne.  I don’t think I have much  personal commentary at this moment.  I met Lena Horne once.  I was four or five.  My mom had a friend in Ms. Horne’s Broadway show.

She took me to see it.  We went backstage.  My mom says that with Lena and I it was love at first sight.  From what I can recall, I agree.  On my end anyway.  When I think back on that night the images that come up are all glowy and glittery with a hazy quality.  Almost like a dream.  Lena was truly magical.  She seemed to think I was as well.  Heck, when I was four or five I thought I was magical, too.  Or, should I say that I knew I was. That I hadn’t forgotten.  And nobody had tried to tell me otherwise yet.  I imagine now that Lena sprinkled some kind of fairy dust on me with a whisper never to forget who I am.  Not any part of it.  Especially not the magic.

I digress.

Needless to say I am extremely grateful to my mother and to Vondie and to Lena for that moment.  And also to Lena for breaking down barriers and speaking out against injustices and for paving the way for me to stand here today thinking these thoughts and trying to be a beacon for positive social change.

via The Huffington Post

Singer Dies At 92


NEW YORK — Lena Horne, the enchanting jazz singer and actress known for her plaintive, signature song “Stormy Weather” and for her triumph over the bigotry that allowed her to entertain white audiences but not socialize with them, has died. She was 92.

Horne died Sunday at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, said hospital spokeswoman Gloria Chin, who would not release details.

Quincy Jones, a longtime friend and collaborator, was among those mourning her death Monday. He called her a “pioneering groundbreaker.”

“Our friendship dated back more than 50 years and continued up until the last moment, her inner and outer beauty immediately bonding us forever,” said Jones, who noted that they worked together on the film “The Wiz” and a Grammy-winning live album.

“Lena Horne was a pioneering groundbreaker, making inroads into a world that had never before been explored by African-American women, and she did it on her own terms,” he added. “Our nation and the world has lost one of the great artistic icons of the 20th century. There will never be another like Lena Horne and I will miss her deeply.”

“I knew her from the time I was born, and whenever I needed anything she was there. She was funny, sophisticated and truly one of a kind. We lost an original. Thank you Lena,” Liza Minnelli said Monday. Her father, director Vincente Minnelli, brought Horne to Hollywood to star in “Cabin in the Sky,” in 1943.

Horne, whose striking beauty often overshadowed her talent and artistry, was remarkably candid about the underlying reason for her success: “I was unique in that I was a kind of black that white people could accept,” she once said. “I was their daydream. I had the worst kind of acceptance because it was never for how great I was or what I contributed. It was because of the way I looked.”

In the 1940s, Horne was one of the first black performers hired to sing with a major white band, to play the Copacabana nightclub in New York City and when she signed with MGM, she was among a handful of black actors to have a contract with a major Hollywood studio.

In 1943, MGM Studios loaned her to 20th Century-Fox to play the role of Selina Rogers in the all-black movie musical “Stormy Weather.” Her rendition of the title song became a major hit and her most famous tune.

Horne had an impressive musical range, from blues and jazz to the sophistication of Rodgers and Hart in such songs as “The Lady Is a Tramp” and “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.” In 1942’s “Panama Hattie,” her first movie with MGM, she sang Cole Porter’s “Just One of Those Things,” winning critical acclaim.

In her first big Broadway success, as the star of “Jamaica” in 1957, reviewer Richard Watts Jr. called her “one of the incomparable performers of our time.” Songwriter Buddy de Sylva dubbed her “the best female singer of songs.”

“It’s just a great loss,” said Janet Jackson in an interview on Monday. “She brought much joy into everyone’s lives – even the younger generations, younger than myself. She was such a great talent. She opened up such doors for artists like myself.”

Horne was perpetually frustrated with racism.

“I was always battling the system to try to get to be with my people. Finally, I wouldn’t work for places that kept us out. … It was a damn fight everywhere I was, every place I worked, in New York, in Hollywood, all over the world,” she said in Brian Lanker’s book “I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America.”

While at MGM, Horne starred in the all-black “Cabin in the Sky,” but in most movies, she appeared only in musical numbers that could be cut when shown in the South and she was denied major roles and speaking parts. Horne, who had appeared in the role of Julie in a “Show Boat” scene in a 1946 movie about Jerome Kern, seemed a logical choice for the 1951 movie, but the part went to a white actress, Ava Gardner, who did not sing.

“Metro’s cowardice deprived the musical (genre) of one of the great singing actresses,” film historian John Kobal wrote.

“She was a very angry woman,” said film critic-author-documentarian Richard Schickel, who worked with Horne on her 1965 autobiography.

“It’s something that shaped her life to a very high degree. She was a woman who had a very powerful desire to lead her own life, to not be cautious and to speak out. And she was a woman, also, who felt in her career that she had been held back by the issue of race. So she had a lot of anger and disappointment about that.”

Early in her career, Horne cultivated an aloof style out of self-preservation. Later, she embraced activism, breaking loose as a voice for civil rights and as an artist. In the last decades of her life, she rode a new wave of popularity as a revered icon of American popular music.

Her 1981 one-woman Broadway show, “Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music,” won a special Tony Award, and the accompanying album, produced by Jones, earned her two Grammy Awards. (Horne won another Grammy, in 1995 for “An Evening With Lena Horne.”) In it, the 64-year-old singer used two renditions – one straight and the other gut-wrenching – of “Stormy Weather” to give audiences a glimpse of the spiritual odyssey of her five-decade career.

Lena Mary Calhoun Horne was born in Brooklyn on June 30, 1917, to a leading family in black society. Her daughter, Gail Lumet Buckley, wrote in her 1986 book “The Hornes: An American Family” that among their relatives was Frank Horne, an adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

She was largely raised by her grandparents as her mother, Edna Horne, who pursued a career in show business and father Teddy Horne separated. Lena dropped out of high school at age 16 and joined the chorus line at the Cotton Club, the fabled Harlem night spot where the entertainers were black and the clientele white. She left the club in 1935 to tour with Noble Sissle’s orchestra, billed as Helena Horne, the name she continued using when she joined Charlie Barnet’s white orchestra in 1940.

A movie offer from MGM came when she headlined a show at the Little Troc nightclub with the Katherine Dunham dancers in 1942.

Her success led some blacks to accuse Horne of trying to “pass” in a white world with her light complexion. Max Factor even developed an “Egyptian” makeup shade especially for her. But she refused to go along with the studio’s efforts to portray her as an exotic Latina.

“I don’t have to be an imitation of a white woman that Hollywood sort of hoped I’d become,” Horne once said. “I’m me, and I’m like nobody else.”

Horne was only 2 when her grandmother, a prominent member of the Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, enrolled her in the NAACP. But she avoided activism until 1945 when she was entertaining at an Army base and saw German prisoners of war sitting up front while black American soldiers were consigned to the rear.

That pivotal moment channeled her anger into something useful.

She got involved in various social and political organizations and, partly because of a friendship with singer-actor-activist Paul Robeson, was blacklisted during the red-hunting McCarthy era.

By the 1960s, Horne was one of the most visible celebrities in the civil rights movement, once throwing a lamp at a customer who made a racial slur in a Beverly Hills restaurant and, in 1963, joining 250,000 others in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom when Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. Horne also spoke at a rally that year with another civil rights leader, Medgar Evers, just days before his assassination.

The next decade brought her first to a low point, then to a fresh burst of artistry. She appeared in her last movie in 1978, playing Glinda the Good in “The Wiz,” directed by her son-in-law, Sidney Lumet.

Horne had married MGM music director Lennie Hayton, a white man, in Paris in 1947 after her first overseas engagements in France and England. An earlier marriage to Louis J. Jones had ended in divorce in 1944 after producing daughter Gail and a son, Teddy.

“It was in Hollywood that Horne met her second husband, Lennie Hayton, who was also her musical mentor at MGM. He was also white. When the couple announced their marriage in 1950 — three years after it had actually occurred, they were confronted with angry rejection from the Hollywood community. Despite all the difficulties of a racially mixed marriage, their union flourished, lasting from 1947 until Hayton’s death in 1971.”

Her father, her son and Hayton all died in 1970 and 1971, and the grief-stricken singer secluded herself, refusing to perform or even see anyone but her closest friends. One of them, comedian Alan King, took months persuading her to return to the stage, with results that surprised her.

“I looked out and saw a family of brothers and sisters,” she said. “It was a long time, but when it came I truly began to live.”

And she discovered that time had mellowed her bitterness.

“I wouldn’t trade my life for anything,” she said, “because being black made me understand.”