Lena Horne, although she is now slowly fading from the status of household name, was one of the first African American goddesses of the entertainment world, pioneering the way for many of the celebrities of the 20th and 21st century across the fields of cinema, theatre, cabaret, musical and the media. On an international leg of their touring show, James Gavin (New York Times arts journalist, music intellectual par excellence and author of the definitive Lena Horne biography Stormy Weather: The Lena Horne Story) and songstress Mary Wilson (a founding member of Motown supergroup The Supremes) brought the house down at the Duncan Playhouse during the Adelaide Cabaret Festival. Stormy Weather: The Lena Horne Project proved to be a unique and memorable tribute combining biographical readings from Gavin with glorious music from Wilson, backed by her exquisite jazz trio.
In this interview Benny Dimas and James Gavin discuss the great Lena Horne, the show, Mary Wilson, and James’ works.
Part of your motivation to bring Lena Horne’s story to the stage, and to a greater audience, came from your experience of meeting her at a later stage in her life and career. Could you elaborate on the circumstances of that meeting?
In 1994, Lena Horne decided, with much trepidation, to return to performing, on a limited basis, after several years of semi-seclusion. Singing had always been her life. She surely missed it. But she was 77, and far less physically hardy than the Lena everyone remembered from her one-woman Broadway show in 1981-1982. Still, much excitement surrounded her re-emergence. I was as excited as anyone, for Lena had fascinated me since I was in my early teens. I had recently begun writing features for the Arts & Leisure section of the New York Times, and I got the OK to do one on Lena. Of course she agreed, because she needed to publicize her new CD and appearances, and the New York Times is the New York Times. First I was invited to attend one of the recording sessions for her CD, and there I had a brief exchange with Lena, who was shy, self-effacing, and charming. Thereafter, I met her and her manager Sherman Sneed, whom she had known since the ‘50s, in the lobby of a New York hotel where Lena liked to do her professional business. Sherman left me alone with her, we rode the elevator to her suite – a ride that felt endless, as my heart pounded nervously – and we settled down to talk. We were together for two hours and fifteen minutes. I was incredibly moved by her candor, her openness, her pain, her regret, all the conflicting feelings that this iconic woman felt about a career and a life that had affected the lives of millions.
During the show, your insightful biographical readings combine with audiovisual material from Horne’s performances and from her speeches at Civil Rights rallies. In both the book and the show you emphasise Horne’s involvements in the sociopolitical struggles of the 20th century. She was much more than just the star of stage and screen that many perceived her to be, wasn’t she?
Lena was raised with a fierce sense of social consciousness and pride in her race and in her history. But as she once said, Lena’s struggles and her response to them were all very personal. When someone hurt her, made her feel excluded or less-than, she struck back. It just so happened that her personal evolution corresponded with the evolution of civil rights in this country, and that Lena, as a star to whom many paid close attention, was living a life that resonated powerfully with the lives of millions of other marginalized people. And so her struggles took on enormous resonance and symbolism. She knew it. She knew what was expected of her, as the “chosen one” among black performers. She lived with a degree of pressure that the rest of us could never begin to feel. She handled the role beautifully, but the emotional toll was profound.
It is also a sad truth that Horne’s life and work within both the Civil Rights movement and the entertainment industry were problematised by her position as a light-skinned African American woman. Her choice to perform ‘It’s Not Easy Being Green’ and imbue it with layers of identity politics highlights her singing as an act of social and political commentary, not just as an act of entertainment. The choice of including that number in the song list for Mary Wilson to perform during Stormy Weather evoked more than a few tears from the audience, myself included. How did the rest of the songs fall into place, and how did the show come together?
First of all, thank you for those very flattering words. Because this is a narrative piece, every song had to represent a piece of the story, while suiting the talents of Mary Wilson, a singer from a different field, with a voice unlike Lena’s, but still a descendent of Lena’s in many ways. We needed a certain number of fast songs and a certain number of slow ones, some light ones and some heavy ones. I went through every Lena Horne recording I had and put together a master list, and whittled it down to ten (aside from those songs Lena sings in the videos) that would give a sweeping panorama of her career. What makes Lena such a fun subject is that she dragged her baggage with her onstage every time she sang. She couldn’t not sing autobiographically. That’s the kind of singer I like the most.
Mary Wilson, one of the founding members of legendary Motown group The Supremes, gave a magnificent performance of some of Lena Horne’s standards without direct imitation. It was a tribute I feel Horne would have approved of. How did Mary become involved with the show? How does it feel to work with a living legend?
I met Mary completely by chance, when I was on a tour to promote the paperback edition of my book in 2010. I was in Palm Springs, California, and met Mary at a book-launch event for Kaye Ballard, the great singing comedienne, now about 86. Mary was in town as guest star of a long-running show called “Palm Springs Follies.” A local radio-show host who knows Mary took me over to meet her (I had begged him). I found Mary to be instantly approachable and warm. She asked me how she could get in touch with Lena. I said, “Oh, Mary, I’m afraid it’s too late.” Lena was frail and had been reclusive for ten years. The very next day, she died. But I had recently done a few performances of the Stormy Weather show with other singers. I called the managers who had taken an interest in my show, and who now book it, and told them that I had an idea. They got in touch with Mary’s manager. She immediately agreed to do the show. You know the rest.
As for the second part of your question, Mary is an anti-diva. She says in the show that she learned graciousness from Lena Horne; no doubt she also learned it by never wanting to emulate the less gracious behavior of Miss Ross. Mary is a road warrior, remarkably flexible, a great sport, unfailingly lovely to her fans, and in all, a privilege to work with. She has suffered many blows and many insults, but you saw and heard (in the show) how well she’s weathered them.
Lastly, can you give us any clues as to what you might be working on for your next projects? Stormy Weather will continue to tour in the U.S.A. in November, but is there anything else exciting on the horizon?
I am midway through a Peggy Lee biography for Simon & Schuster. Now there’s a wacky story, with schizophrenic emotional extremes and, of course, profound music-making. Peggy is another of my greatest fascinations. I’m having a ball writing this book. Otherwise, Benny, I’m a hard-working freelance writer doing my best to pay the rent. And having an amazing life.
James Gavin, thank you so very much for your time, and for the truly marvelous show you created in tribute to a great legend of the 20th century.