Stormy Weather :: Cabaret show explores Lena Horne’s career
In 1982, I played a recording of Lena Horne singing "Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered" from Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music for a college friend of mine. In this recording, with Horne at her most feral, sexuality oozes from her every pore, especially on the line "...and worship the trousers that cling to him." My friend reacted with clear distaste, declaring it was unseemly for this sexagenarian to be so, well, sexual.
Fast forward 12 years, author/journalist James Gavin is interviewing the 76 year-old Horne for the New York Times, within which Horne contemplates this same recording, asking, "When they hear this album," she murmurs, "I wonder if they'll say, 'Why would an old broad like that be singing with passion?' But of course, they don't know that people will always have passion and romance inside them. We don't become empty shells just because we're older." Then, almost as an afterthought: "I had a very interesting life, really. It's not all music. But it comes out in the music."
Within those last three phrases lay Horne's ability to intrigue someone like Gavin to delve deeper, and delve he did, resulting in his detailed 2009 biography entitled Stormy Weather: the Life of Lena Horne. Is it possible to separate an artist from their art? Does art benefit or suffer from an artist expressing their feelings through their art? These are themes explored in Gavin's biography of Horne, and that will be further developed and demonstrated in a new cabaret show entitled Stormy Weather: The Life and Music of Lena Horne, being given its premiere at Scullers Jazz Club on Saturday, April 24, featuring San Francisco cabaret sensation Paula West, and Boston's own jazz legend Rebecca Parris singing songs associated with Horne's 5-decade career, with Gavin himself narrating. Following the Boston engagement, the show moves to Camden, Maine on Sunday and to Washington DC on May 5, 2010.
Anger kept her going
It is a life worth narrating. Horne was a Hollywood icon. Her beauty preceded her. The NAACP and Hollywood chose her to revolutionize the stereotypical black image onscreen. She was the queen of café society. Her one-woman show Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music ran on Broadway for over a year (Horne still holds the record for the longest-running solo performance on Broadway), and won a Tony Award and two Grammy Awards. She received a Kennedy Center Honor. Halle Berry, the first black woman to win a Best Actress Oscar in 2002, named Horne as one of only three black actresses Berry felt paved the way for her achievement. On paper, Horne’s career is a fairytale. Yet Horne remains to this day deeply self-critical and unhappy. Is it any wonder, then, that Horne’s dichotomy would intrigue Gavin enough with this to embark on the project of telling her life story?
"When you mention Lena Horne to anyone, the first thing they will say is ’She is so beautiful,’" remarks Gavin. "Her beauty was too overwhelming. It’s impossible for most people to overlook it." In Stormy Weather, Gavin writes that Horne was painfully aware that offers and opportunities came to her based on her looks, and not her singing or acting. "The thing that makes her so much fun to write about, is if you know her story, you can hear it all reflected in her singing," he explains. "She didn’t leave her baggage at home. Anger is read in her singing. Anger kept her going and it still does."
Story continues following page.
Watch Lena Horne sing her signature song "Stormy Weather" from the film Stormy Weather.
Watch Lena Horne sing "Stormy Weather" and "If You Believe" (from The Wiz).
From the Cotton Club to Hollywood
Her anger stemmed from a harsh life, born into a comfortable black middle class family, only to lose it all when her parents split. Though self-identified as black, her fair-skinned angular beauty was responsible for her wide appeal from the Cotton Club, and Broadway to Hollywood, all of which catered to a white audience. Derided by blacks for "passing", and mistreated by whites, Horne’s sense of isolation led to a stony exterior that cast an icy patina on her early performances.
Yet her fair-skinned good looks gave her access to places closed to most other black performers, only to be forced to enter by the back door. Later, Horne was passed over for the role of Julie, a mixed race riverboat chanteuse, in the 1951 MGM remake of Showboat, with the role given to another beauty, Ava Gardner, who was white, and not much of a singer. According to Horne, MGM directors told Gardner to listen to Horne’s recording of the part to understand how to sing it, adding insult to injury.
After decades of suppression, Horne’s anger burst forth, and her singing became fueled by rage, filled with an aggressive passion that attracted many, and intimidated others. Today, Horne lives in self-imposed seclusion on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, overlooking Central Park, stewing in anger and bitterness, while leaving a legacy of entertainment achievements, civil rights advances and stunning physical beauty in her wake.
Gavin exclaims, "Her survival mechanism must be amazing to be going so strong at 93 after four pacemakers. Fragile and sequestered away and yet she’s still there. When I interviewed her in 1994, she was talking a lot about wrapping it up, and 16 years later, she is still here."
While Gavin didn’t interview Horne for the book, he has two memorable brushes with Horne, his first in 1981, when he was just 17, approaching Horne for an autograph after seeing a performance of The Lady and Her Music, which resonated with the young gay writer in ways not yet fully understood. "I blubbered on about [Horne’s 11 o’clock number] "If You Believe" (which she sang in the film version of The Wiz) and the courage her show gave me," Gavin recalls, "and in a southern drawl, she said, ’I like to hear you say that because you are young.’ I couldn’t imagine that 30 years later I would be telling her story." But sooner than that, only 13 years later in 1994, the rapidly rising author/journalist garnered an interview with the already reclusive Horne, for the New York Times, no less.
Story continues following page.
Watch Lena Horne sing a Broadway medley from a television special in 1962.
Watch Lena Horne sing "I’ll Plant My Own Tree" (from Valley of the Dolls) from a television variety show in the late 1960s.
A fiery tigress
Gavin himself seemed predestined to write Horne’s biography. Having been born in Manhattan in 1964, he was raised by adoptive parents in Yonkers. He sought out music at an early age to rise above the realities of his own harsh family life that included an alcoholic father, and an urge to prove himself as sophisticated and intelligent. As part of his self-taught musical education, he began going into Manhattan to attend cabaret shows and theater. "Blossom Dearie, Mabel Mercer, Felicia Sanders, they were all beacons, luring me into a Manhattan life that I dreamed of leading," he told Cabaret Scenes Magazine in an October 2009 interview.
But it would be a college professor at Fordham University in the Bronx that would recognize Gavin’s potential as an arts and entertainment journalist, encouraging him to further develop an essay he’d written on a small Manhattan cabaret club into an expanded documentary book on Manhattan cabaret nightlife. His first interview was of his favorite singer, Carmen McRae, who was appearing at the Blue Note.
This ultimately led to his first book, Intimate Nights: The Golden Age of Cabaret (1991). John S, Wilson described the book in the New York Times as "Vividly reported...etched in Acid," while Alvin Klein in the New York Times called it "the definitive book about the golden age of cabaret." Bolstered by such acclaim, Gavin continued on to his second book Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker, (2002), which the Hollywood Reporter called "a landmark in entertainment biography."
Gavin’s writing spans cabaret, jazz, classical, pop, world music, film, theater, television, books, art and sex. His subjects have included everyone from Marilyn Monroe, JFK Jr, and Bobby Short, to Annie Lenox. He has written entertainment articles for the New York Times, The Village Voice, Vanity Fair, Time Out, and TV Guide, and he’s written liner notes for over 400 CD’s. His essay for the GRP box set "Ella Fitzgerald - The Legendary Decca Recordings" earned a 1996 Grammy nomination.
Of Stormy Weather, the Life of Lena Horne, Liz Smith proclaimed "[It] may just be one of the best biographies about show business, race, love, sex, and music ever written."
Speaking with Gavin about Lena Horne and cabaret in general elicited some profound insights into the human condition and its affect on art. "I have come to believe that sometimes, the division between the art and the artist can be so cavernous, you can’t imagine they are coming from the same place."
He continues, "Talent is very often bestowed upon the strangest people. You can have no brains, no intelligence, and you can have this gift. In the case of Lena, her talent was not that apparent at the beginning. If you hear her first recordings, you will hear a pleasant singer who can carry a tune, and trying hard, but you would never guess it would lead to the fiery tigress we’ve come to know as Lena Horne."
Story continues following page.
Watch Lena Horne on the Tonight Show in 1982.
Book comes to life
In the upcoming concert, Gavin is excited to have his book come to life on stage, especially as sung by Rebecca Parris and Paula West. "It’s hard to think of many singers who can capture what Lena Horne is about," he asserts. "These two singers are such strong artists that they can pull it off." On Parris, he notes "Rebecca is a singer I’ve known for twenty years. She deserves a worldwide reputation I believe she is that good." Then he switches to his Left Coast favorite. "Paula is so popular in San Francisco that she just sold out her six-week run at the Rrazz Room, and they want her back for eight weeks next year. She has a beautiful rich dusky sound. Performing Lena’s songs, like "Ill Wind" and "Stormy Weather," Paula and Rebecca will do Lena proud." West’s musical director/arranger/pianist George Mesterhazy will serve as same for this show. "I hope to minimize my involvement on stage to focus on the songs," he adds. "Out of the 75 minute show. There is only 12 minutes of talk."
Not only will this show help to maintain the momentum of interest in the book Stormy Weather, but Gavin has also produced a CD of old MGM recordings by Lena Horne never before released, to be launched this week with the release of the paperback of Stormy Weather. He is also quite excited about the making of a documentary of his first book, Intimate Nights, with filmed interviews of many of the cabaret and entertainment luminaries profiled in the book.
In a way, Gavin’s book on Lena Horne, the performance of Stormy Weather, and the documentary of Intimate Nights, all stem from Gavin’s love of clear, honest cabaret performing. "When cabaret is good, it is a transporting experience, that makes you feel you are part of the only place in town that matters," he proclaims. For him, it is even more personal than that. "The great thing about cabaret is that it is a refuge for misfits, who have trouble getting cast in someone else’s show. What do they do? They become their own show," Gavin concludes. "This was true for Lena Horne, who had the cabaret opportunity of a lifetime with her one woman show, The Lady and Her Music." This also might be said for Gavin himself, the brilliant misfit, self-proclaimed cabaret nerd, who makes his cabaret debut in Stormy Weather: The Life and Music of Lena Horne.
James Gavin, Rebecca Parris, and Paula West will perform Stormy Weather: The Life and Music of Lena Horne on Saturday, April 24, 8pm and 10pm, at Scullers Jazz Club, at the Doubletree Guest Suites Boston, 400 Soldiers Field Road, Boston, MA 02134. Tickets are $38. For reservations, call 617.562.4111 or visit www.scullersjazz.com.
On April 25 Stormy Weather: The Life and Music of Lena Horne plays the Camden Opera House, Camden, ME. For more details visit the Camden Opera House website. And on May 5, 2010 the show is being performed at Blues Alley, in Washington, D.C . For more information visit the Blues Alley website
Visit James Gavin’s website to learn more of his upcoming appearances. The paperback edition of Stormy Weather: the Life of Lena Horne is now available .
Watch Lena Horne on the Rosie O’Donnell Show in 1998.
Watch James Gavin discuss his book Stormy Weather on NBC’s Weekend Today, August 2, 2009.