Lena Horne’s ties to Middle Georgia remembered

pramati@macon.comMay 11, 2010 

Lena Horne charmed millions worldwide with her rare beauty and a voice to match.

And it was in Macon where she first started to sing.

The famed jazz singer died Sunday night in New York at age 92 after a long career that included a Tony award-winning appearance on Broadway, work as a political activist and a reputation as one of the finest singers of her era, ranking alongside the likes of Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. In 1991, Horne was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame.

In her very early years, Horne spent much of her life moving from foster home to foster home after her parents split and her mother — herself an aspiring performer — couldn’t live with her in-laws in New York.

As a child, Horne lived with her mother in Miami before she was sent to Macon, where she lived with two older women in a small house on Oglethorpe Street near what is now the Bibb County jail.

Ed Carvest, a well-known member of the Macon community in the 1930s, organized a youth choir that would often perform for the public at Macon City Hall. Lena Horne was a member of the choir.

“Why, Mr. Carvest gave me my start in singing,” Horne told The Telegraph in 1971.

Horne lived in Macon for a couple of years under what would be considered generally harsh conditions. Horne told The Telegraph in 1991 that the two women on Oglethorpe Street were “the poorest, most deprived, most giving people I’ve ever known.”

Macon City Councilman Rick Hutto, who used to work for a law firm in Washington, D.C., recalled meeting Horne at a party there in her honor.

“She was absolutely lovely,” Hutto said.

Although Horne told him she didn’t have a good experience while in Macon, she said the city itself “had nothing to do with it,” Hutto said.

In the 1930s, her uncle, Frank Horne, was assistant principal at Fort Valley High and Industrial, a junior college that later became Fort Valley State University. Frank Horne would later become an advisor to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Lena Horne lived in Fort Valley for two years, first with her uncle’s fiancee and later in her uncle’s home after he married.

“Fort Valley was great,” Lena Horne said during the 1991 interview. “There were a lot of interesting things for a child — there are things that you eat, that you see. ... That’s when I began to know about the Harlem Renaissance and great black people, because my uncle was an activist.”

Horne’s mother returned and uprooted her to Atlanta before eventually sending her to her grandparents in Brooklyn.

As a teenager, she broke into show business as a chorus girl at the famed Cotton Club in Harlem.

Horne’s star rose in the 1940s, when she became a pinup girl for black soldiers fighting during World War II. She went overseas to entertain the troops until she gave a performance in which German prisoners of war were allowed to sit near the front while black American GIs were relegated to the back.

That moment stirred her activist roots that she learned from her grandparents. She would spend the rest of her life working for equality.

Horne was the first black entertainer to play New York’s Copacabana Club and among the first to sign a contract with MGM Studios. In 1943, she landed a role in the all-black musical “Stormy Weather.” Her rendition of the movie’s title song would eventually become her signature. Other well-known tunes she became known for included “The Lady Is A Tramp” and “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.”

Horne became angry and disillusioned when a role in the 1951 movie musical “Show Boat” — a role she had originated in an earlier version of the movie — went to white actress Ava Gardner instead, despite the fact that Gardner wasn’t a singer.

“It’s something that shaped her life to a very high degree,” film critic Richard Schickel told The Associated Press. “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. I’m talking particularly about her movie career.”

She toured all over the world as a singer for most of her adult life, and she returned to Macon to perform at The Douglass Theatre, though management there isn’t sure when.

Horne spent much of the 1960s as an activist, including participating in the Aug. 28, 1963, March on Washington, D.C., where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech.

In 1981, she put together a one-woman show based upon her life called “Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music,” which won a special Tony Award.

“I had seen her one-woman show on Broadway, and it was unbelievable,” Hutto said. “She was in her (60s) then, and she was amazing. Not only was she gorgeous, but her voice was still there. She danced and sang like she was a 30-year-old.”

During Horne’s Georgia Music Hall of Fame induction in Atlanta, she performed “Stormy Weather” and “Georgia On My Mind.”

“She graciously and genuinely acknowledged how much the recognition meant to her,” said Lisa Love, the music hall’s executive director. “She was a class act who will be remembered for her immense talent and beauty.”

Macon disc jockey Ben Sandifer met Horne during that induction ceremony.

“She was very, very nice,” he recalled. “She was a very talented lady. She did one of the best versions of ‘Georgia On My Mind’ that I’ve ever heard. She was kind of a trailblazer. She sang with the big bands in the ’40s in a lot of places where she wasn’t even allowed to sit on the bandstand until it was time for her to perform.”

Despite her appeal as a sex symbol, it wasn’t how Horne saw herself.

“I have really been misunderstood where those sexy songs are concerned,” Horne told The Telegraph in 1977, adding, “I’m just a woman, we all are women and we have our sexuality. That’s the other thing we have to come to grips with ... we have it and it’s there. Even at the height of this so-called glamorous thing I went through, it was difficult to sing a lot of the songs I sang.”

Information from Telegraph archives and The Associated Press was used in this report. To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.

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