Our Song of the Week for this sesquicentennial weekend is "O Canada", which we posted a day early for Dominion Day itself. But this weekend marks the centenary of a long-lived American vocalist, and I thought we'd mark the occasion with a look at her signature song:
Lena Horne was born on June 30th 1917 into a middle-class black family in Brooklyn. Her father left in 1920, and her mother turned to acting, touring in all-black productions of white shows, in one of which - Madame X - her young daughter made her stage debut. For the next six decades, she was rarely off-stage. Even at the end, in 2010, she was busy working on a biopic in which, somewhat alarmingly, she was to be played by Whitney Houston (who barely outlived her). Miss Horne didn't record much in her last couple of years, but as late as the mid-Nineties she and Frank Sinatra combined on one of the true gems of his otherwise problematic Duets project - a lovely, warm, mature, heartfelt take on the Gershwins' "Embraceable You", a duet for two old friends grown comfortable in love.
Not that they were old friends: They'd spend most of the previous half-century being mutually antipathetic to each other - Lena Horne for complex reasons to do with Frank's relationship with Ava Gardner; Sinatra because he genuinely didn't care for her singing. "Take Lena Horne," he told Life in 1965, "a beautiful lady but really a mechanical singer. She gimmicks up a song, makes it too pat." He's not wrong, not in 1965. The other day, writing about Islam or Europe or something, I mentioned the old New Yorker cartoon of the glum-looking middle-aged guy coming out of a theatre whose marquee boasts the critical endorsement "Fun For Young And Old". That's the way I feel about Lena Horne: I like young Lena and I like old Lena, but, for my tastes, middle-aged Lena, Sixties and Seventies Lena, could get a bit aggressive with the material, almost as if she needed to wrestle every song into submission. On a TV medley with Sinatra, she does so much of her trademark eye-popping that Frank seems to shrivel alongside.
The middle years were more difficult than she had a right to expect for someone who did boffo biz in everything she was permitted to try: "Manhattan's quietly swank Savoy-Plaza was last week doing the biggest business in its history," reported Time in 1942. "The attraction was the face and sultry singing of a milk-chocolate Brooklyn girl, Lena Horne. Unlike most negro chanteuses, Miss Horne eschews the barrelhouse manner."
Indeed. But eschewing the barrelhouse only got you so far. "I hated those labels," she said. "Who the hell wants to be a 'chocolate chanteuse'?"
The song most associated with her was "Stormy Weather", a theme tune for her act and for her life. She wasn't the first to sing it, but she was around when it was first sung. It was 1933 and 16-year old Lena had been hired as a chorus girl at the Cotton Club, a favorite venue when white folks went slumming in Harlem. You'd be hard put to figure out why from that dreadful Francis Ford Coppola movie in the Eighties, but if you'd been there half-a-century earlier its appeal would have been a little more obvious - great bands like Duke Ellington's and great singers like Ethel Waters, and great new songs, mostly by white songwriters. In Harold Arlen, the Cotton Club had a composer with, in Ellington's words, a special affinity for "the Negro musical idiom". He became a friend of Lena Horne's for life, so "hip" (in Lena's words) that he'd have her over to his pad at a time when few other white New Yorkers did such things. His song "Ill Wind" was one of the first records she made. Arlen was, as Ethel Waters put it, "the Negro-est white man I ever knew". You don't hear it in "Over The Rainbow" or his other Wizard Of Oz songs, but you certainly hear it in "I Got A Right To Sing The Blues", "Come Rain Or Come Shine", "Blues In The Night" and hundreds of others. Arlen and his lyricist Ted Koehler had been commissioned to write the score for the latest edition of The Cotton Club Parade, due to open in April 1933 with Cab Calloway and his orchestra. So, a couple of months beforehand, they were at a party, chewing over the assignment, when the light bulb flashed and the boys got the idea for "Stormy Weather". It began with those three dramatic notes:
Harold called it "the front shout" of the song. Half an hour later, he and Koehler had finished the number and went to get a sandwich. And it was only while demonstrating the piece at the Cotton Club a few days later and seeing the reaction of the chorus and musicians that they began to get an inkling of what they'd created. Cab Calloway pulled out of the show and Duke Ellington came in, and Ethel Waters was invited to headline. She wasn't sure she wanted to do it - until she heard "Stormy Weather".
Yet, even though she loved the song and understood it would be a blockbuster uber-torch ballad, she knew enough to know what wasn't needed: Arlen and Koehler had come up with a great angle - a classic internalization-of-the-landscape metaphor - but they'd taken the "Stormy Weather" scenario a little too literally and clogged up the tune with a rain-pitter-patterin' effect that the singer figured they should dispense with. (What with "Ill Wind" and "When The Sun Comes Out", they were a very meteorologically minded songwriting team.) The boys conceded the point. She was right: Ethel was all the Waters the song needed. She'd just bust up with her husband and, as she remarked later, he didn't leave her with much but "he enabled me to do a helluva job on 'Stormy Weather'." The curtain went up and, instead of the usual semi-clad coffee-colored chorines, there was only a weary Waters under a lamp post almost as blue as she was:
Don't know why
There's no sun up in the sky
Since my man and I ain't together
Keeps raining all the time...
The Ellington band didn't hurt, and the Depression probably helped, too. (Today, when they do the stock market round-up on NPR's "Marketplace", a downturn is always accompanied by an instrumental recording of "Stormy Weather".) It's an amazingly confident opening, from that "front shout" to the octave leap on "wea-ther" to the very placement of the title. Arlen's friend George Gershwin told him: "You know you didn't repeat a phrase in the first eight bars?" "I never gave it a thought," said Harold. He gets even wilder in the second section, abandoning the traditional pop-song structure of eight-bar phrases, and adding a kind of bluesy echo, a sort of after-sigh:
Life is bare
Gloom and mis'ry everywhere
Just can't get my poor self together
I'm weary all the time
So weary all the time...
From the Cotton Club chorus, a teenage Lena watched and learned. Ethel Waters had encouraged her to sing, and she took lessons, determined not to be a coffee-colored chorine uptown or consigned to maids' roles on Broadway. (Her grandmother had signed her up for the NAACP at the age of two.) Watching Miss Waters blow the roof off every night, she came to understand the power of song. Arlen and Koehler were pop men, not blues men. But, almost perfectly poised between an eight-bar pop phrase and a twelve-bar blues, that second section of "Stormy Weather" is a classic example of how Arlen evoked blues form without actually writing in it. The release is really the key to the whole song. "Stormy Weather" is one of those numbers that risks trembling on the brink of parody, drowning in the self-pity that Arlen and Johnny Mercer skewered so well a decade later in "One For My Baby (And One More For The Road)". I dimly recall an old TV comedy sketch in which Dean Martin sings about life being bare with gloom and mis'ry everywhere while someone sits alongside howling with laughter. But what saves it is the middle section:
Since he went away
The blues walked in and met me
If he stays away
Old rocking chair will get me
All I do is pray
The Lord above will let me
Walk in the sun once more...
"Old rocking chair" is an allusion to Hoagy Carmichael's hit of a couple years earlier - ie, it's shorthand for resignation, for life being all but over in any active sense. But then that last line of the middle section climbs to a high d and sounds even higher, partly because of what Alec Wilder called Ted Koehler's "lucent" lyric. "The release has the flavor almost of gospel music," wrote Wilder. "The harmony is deliberately subdominant (C major) and tonic, nothing else." And by the time Koehler matches it with wanting the Lord to let me walk in the sun the song seems to be angling for a salvation far more transformative than merely bouncing back from a lost love.
It was a phenomenal success. A month after The Cotton Club Parade opened, Variety pronounced "Stormy Weather" "the biggest song hit of the last ten years". On the Continent, every black chanteuse embraced the song, among them my old friends Adelaide Hall and Elisabeth Welch, in recordings made in Copenhagen and Paris. It may have been conceived for Cab Calloway, but it has a female sensibility, and aside from Sinatra's various arrangements of the song (across 40 years) few male vocalists have had any long-term relationship with it (though Jeff Lynne of the Electric Light Orchestra gave it a go). But it was one woman in particular who planted the song in the repertoire, ten years after paying her dues in the Cotton Club chorus. Recognizing the power of the number, the publisher, Irving Mills, had refused to license it to Hollywood unless an entire feature film were built around it. He got his way with 20th Century Fox and the 1943 picture, Stormy Weather, starring Lena Horne.
By then, she'd sung with Noble Sissle's band, made her Broadway debut in Dance With Your Gods, and been signed by Charlie Barnet as the first black canary with a white orchestra. Along the way she'd made her first record of "Stormy Weather". That 1941 arrangement was characterized by the musicologist Will Friedwald as treating the number as "a sort of bridge between the musical worlds of high art (classical) and low (which at that time would have meant jazz and pop music)." In other words, Lena plays it as not just a pop song but something closer to an American art song, like a less meteorologically benign companion to Gershwin's "Summertime". Two years later, in the 20th Century Fox film, they run with the idea, and Lena Horne's torchy vocal, sung in a living room, leads out the window to a bunch of jitterbuggers sitting out the eponymous stormy weather under the arches of the el-train. They're not just any old jitterbuggers, but Katherine Dunham's modern dance company, and when Miss Dunham herself gazes skyward the scene dissolves to a self-consciously dreamy ballet in which the participants prance around various abstract attempts to symbolize cumulus, aided by the Fox wind machine. Lena Horne's vocal stands up better than most of what follows.
She recorded the song again very brassily in the Fifties and with a watery semi-rock backing in the Sixties, but the '41 and '43 versions remain my favorites. The voice is sweeter than it became in her post-Hollywood phase, but she's especially good on Ted Koehler's highly dramatic near-recitativo between the choruses:
I walk around
Heavy-hearted and sad
Night comes around
And I'm still feelin' bad
Rain pourin' down
Blinding ev'ry hope I had
This pitter 'n' patterin'
Beatin' 'n' spatterin'
Drivin' me mad
Love, love, love, love
Will be the end of me...
But it wasn't. It was the beginning of Lena Horne and a lifetime relationship with the song. Thirty-six years ago, in her one-woman Broadway show A Lady And Her Music, "Stormy Weather" provided her with both the First and Second Act finales. The first time round was a recreation of 1943: melodic, direct, true. "I'm still finding things to think about when I sing this," she said in Act Two, introducing the reprise. "It's taken me a lot of years to grow into it." And then she delivered "Stormy Weather" as she would like to have sung it had the studio bosses let her express herself as she wanted to: Melodramatic and melismatic, like a poor man's Aretha Franklin, and suffused in a strange kind of anger.
It took nine minutes from start to finish, but it was a bona fide showstopper, and a metaphor for the vicissitudes of her career: She had been the "radiantly beautiful sepia girl," as Brooks Atkinson wrote in The New York Times in 1939, deploying a word that clung to her in the early years. By the early Forties, she was "the nation's top Negro entertainer", and the highest paid, too. A "sepia Hedy Lamarr", she was the first black singer to be groomed for mainstream stardom in Hollywood. But, though she had her contract vetted by the NAACP, she wound up spending a decade doing self-contained speciality numbers that MGM could snip out when they released the films in the south, and the role she was born to play - Julie in Show Boat - she lost to Ava Gardner. The frustrations were understandable. Whether "Stormy Weather" could support them all was another matter.
There was a lot of anger in that Lady And Her Music stage biography, and a rather vulgar approach to songs like "Bewitched, Bothered And Bewildered", as if the 64-year old Miss Horne's idea of staying current was to talk dirty, like a singing "Golden Girl". I prefer the Lena of a decade later: her 1990s recording of "We'll Be Together Again" is just marvelous. And, as for "Stormy Weather", I think those studio bosses got it right in 1943. The song is what it is, and if you're going to add a lot of pseudo-soulful interpolations to Arlen and Koehler you'd better be certain they match the original.
In 1947, she wed Lennie Hayton, a white man and a big player in the MGM music department. The ceremony was in Paris, as it would have been illegal in California at that time. She married not out of love but because she thought he'd open doors. He didn't, not really. In the Sixties, she marched for civil rights, and in between guested on TV shows, duetting with Terry-Thomas on "Mad Dogs And Englishman" dressed as a memsahib of the Raj (Anglo-Indian maybe). She was "radiantly beautiful" into her eighties, and a bigger star, outlasting almost all her contemporaries, not only the big band songbirds but the anodyne blondes at 20th Century Fox. And say what you like but that angry one-woman show broke box-office records and won her a Tony, two Grammys and a Kennedy Center honor. Afterwards, she and Sinatra planned to make an album together - he'd sing some of her songs, she'd sing some of his, they'd do a few duets. Like a lot of projects, it got bogged down and never happened.
Much of her life was like that. Show Boat would have been a classic - Lena on the piano singing "Bill". But there's no point regretting the things that didn't happen when so much did. Listen to the vocals on her last recordings, for a Duke Ellington tribute in 2000 (with, of all people, Sir Simon Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra). Young Lena and old Lena were both peerless jazz-tinged interpreters of American song, and those performances will sound good for as long as we listen. As for the middle-aged mannerisms, Harold Arlen (a singer before he became a composer) would probably have been more indulgent. Years ago in New York, he got into a cab and heard the driver whistling "Stormy Weather". "Do you know who wrote that song?" he asked.
"Sure," said the cabbie. "Irving Berlin."
"Wrong," replied Harold. "But I'll give you two more guesses." The driver tried Richard Rodgers and Cole Porter. "No," said the composer. "Wrong again. I wrote that song."
"So who are you?" asked the cabbie.
"I'm Harold Arlen."
The driver pulled up, turned around and stared at his fare. "Who?"
As Jule Styne liked to say, "Without the rendition, there is no song." And without Lena Horne few cab drivers would be whistling "Stormy Weather" in the first place.
~A few weeks ago we launched The Mark Steyn Club. Membership isn't for everybody, and it doesn't affect access to Song of the Week and our other familiar content, but one thing it does give you is the right to gambol and frolic across our comments section. So, if you're a Club member and you have strong views on Lena Horne, then feel free to make some stormy weather of your own in the comments. For more on The Mark Steyn Club, see here.