In honor of Lena Horne, who passed away last Sunday at the age of 92, Philip Furia has reflected on her legacy. Furia is a professor in the Department of Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina Wilmington and the author with Laurie Patterson of The Songs of Hollywood.
I would never pretend to be an expert on Lena Horne, but my research prompts me to make a few observations on her career as a singer of popular songs. Perhaps the most striking thing about her stellar career is that Lena Horne, alone among the great singers of her era, never introduced a hit song. The songs she is associated with are the “standards” of what’s been termed The Great American Song Book. In the television obituaries, for example, she was heard singing the classic songs of Cole Porter, Ira and George Gershwin, and Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers. Even her signature song, “Stormy Weather,” was originally written by Ted Koehler and Harold Arlen for Ethel Waters in the 1933 Cotton Club Revue. (Waters, supposedly, always resented the fact that Lena Horne had co-opted “her” song).
One reason why Lena Horne’s song repertory was confined to the great standards is that for most of her career she worked in Hollywood films. In a few of these films, such as Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather (both 1943), she had a leading role, but in most of her other films she had cameo roles where she sang songs as “performances” in night clubs and other settings. Rather than have her render new, untried songs, Hollywood studios took the safer route of having her sing tried and tested standards. Hollywood’s practice of recycling old songs, in fact, is one reason these songs became “standards” instead of simply fading away as most popular songs do after their heyday. (It didn’t hurt, too, that the studios often owned these old songs and stood to profit from their renewed popularity.)
Lena Horne’s greatest opportunity to introduce new hit songs came in 1946 when she was offered the lead in the Broadway musical St. Louis Woman, where she would have introduced such songs as “Come Rain or Come Shine” by Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen. Horne, however, refused the lead because she felt that the show caricatured blacks—even though the book was written by two African-American playwrights. Without Horne, St. Louis Woman quickly folded, and the singer lost one of her few chances to introduce hit songs.