Wednesday, May 12, 2010

In Memorium of the last surviving (?) Cotton Club chorus girl

No doubt some will take exception to this, but I'm of the opinion that Lena Horne was the purest recording artist of all the greats, i.e. Sinatra, Fitzgerald et al. That is, she almost never tumbled to making records, like most others, solely designed to score commercially  (t'ain't no sin, really). At nearly every utterance of this observation, I've had folks throw Horne tracks like her Rocky Raccoon, etc. in my face. But even that one, and the other few, arguably, questionable tracks are miles better---IMHO--- than, say, Frank's Night and Day Twist or Ella's Tracks of My Tears

Horne is the greatest "live" performer I have ever seen (and I've witnessed more than my share of Pantheon types). I caught her in person three times, including the very first preview of "The Lady and Her Music" (!). Tickets for that night were a cinch to acquire; but after opening night, the show was a New York ticket scalper's dream come true.

Another Horne performance I attended was about 25 years or so ago at Lincoln Center. It was a tribute to Billy Strayhorn. She came out on stage and received the longest and most tumultuous standing ovation I've ever witnessed. So over-the-top, I began to truly fear that the audience would simply not stop and Lena would never get the chance to sing a single note. Eventually, order was restored and Lena proceded to out-Aretha even Lady Soul herself!). When she finished performing, that second standing ovation of the night was even more out-sized than the first.

Several years after I attended that first evening of Lady & Her Music in NYC, I caught one of the final performances of it here it L.A. By now Lena was so offhanded in her playing of the material, that it suffused the show with a kind of humor that wasn't so much apparent to me that first night. She was having so much fun with it by now, and her playfulness was just so infectuous that the experience was less like a touring big-time New York stage production, and more like "An Evening at Home with Lena Horne." Just Lena and her BBF. . .the audience!

My late friend, writer-personal manager-record producer, etc. Nat Shapiro, had clearly seen every great artist of the majority of the 20th Century---classical, jazz and otherwise---and he also opined that Horne was the most memorable performer that he, too, had ever witnessed "live." Nat ended up producing several of her finest recordings, knew her fairly well, and even offered to introduce me to her, but I declined. I just didn't think that my heart could withstand the shock.

Another Horne performance, of sorts, that I was privvy to happened one night at about two a.m. Sunday morning when I was walking down lower 7th Avenue in New York thirty years or so ago. I heard, wafting through the misty night air, the sound of music being played on one sort of mechancial device or another. And I as drew closer to the Village Vanguard, I saw it: a boom box situated on top of a station wagon in front of the Vanguard was playing a cassette ('member them?) of Lena's A New Album that my friend Nat had just finished producing and getting off to market. And surrounding the vehicle in total stunned silence, taking in the sounds was an assemblage united as one, on the sidewalk and spilling out into the street, of several dozen listeners. I joined them in their reverance and listened to the rest of the LP. I've since come to think of us as parishoners in attendance at a sort of Church of Lena Horne. . . early, early Sunday a.m. service.

If you haven't read it already, I can't recommend too highly James Gavin's authorized bio of Lena Horne entitled (natch) Stormy Weather. Now in paperback. . .I think. As much a page-turner adventure novel as it is a biography!


Anonymous said...

I'll be broadcasting a 2 hour tribute to Lena tonight, and I will probably focus on her 1940's jazz-based recordings and her 1950's RCA concept albums.

The only thing I take exception to is the approach whereby one person is complimented through criticism of another person. Many artists exhibit great integrity in their careers.

I believe the huge international acclaim being given to Lena is driven by her political and social stands. That is fine. If Lena had simply been a beautiful entertainer and singer, she would have had some attention in the obits, but none of the essays and widespread tributes.

Anonymous said...

As a follow-up, it is interesting that we often see criticism of artists that take social and political positions(..."that is not their place"...). But in nearly every case, the most widely acclaimed, and best remembered, artists are just those that DID make a stand on social and political issues.

You can run through a list. Visual artists, actors, musicians, poets, writers...the great legends took stands. Those that stuck to the script or didn't venture from their craft, may have a legacy - but it often diminishes with time. The legacy of those that took a stand seems to only grow with time.