Lena Home has packed one enormous amount of living, entertaining and making people happy into her first 76 years. If her youthful and vibrant demeanor says anything at all, she has many more career highlights yet to come. Bom in Brooklyn in 1917, Home made her show business debut at l6 as a dancer at Harlem’s renowned Cotton Club where such future musical legends in the making, like Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington and Jimmy Lunceford, had already become familiar musical standard-bearers.
At the time, the teen-ager had loosely focused on a career as a teacher, but her brief experience at the Cotton Club, entertaining as well as forming strong bonds of friendship with so many musical performers, helped establish her lifetime goal, becoming a singer who would give voice to the songs of musical Americana in all its guises.
Her next move was to the vocalist or “girl singer” spot, as the role was known, with the Noble Sissle Orchestra, a prominent ensemble in the jazz/pop mode of the ‘30s. Then, following a brief retirement into marriage and two children, Ted and Gail Jones, she returned to the big band scene touring with the Charlie Barnett Orchestra. Later, she launched a solo act, enjoying some of her happiest experiences in her budding show business career with engagements at the old Cafe Society in Greenwich Village, where she met and became friendly with such artists as Billie Holiday and Paul Robeson.
During the early ‘40s, Lena Home was spotted by an MGM talent scout, a meeting which resulted in starring roles in several classic films, “Panama Hattie” and “Ziegfeld Follies.” She also starred in a pair of legendary black musicals, “Cabin in the Sky” and “Stormy Weather.” As a consequence of her work in
pictures, Home met Lenny Hayton, who became her musical mentor at MGM and her second husband.
The pair, while enjoying a truly happy marriage, encountered many difficulties born of attitudes of the time toward mixed marriages, but the union survived for 24 years until Hayton’s death in 1971. During the ‘50s and ‘60s, Home starred in several Broadway shows, including the hit musical, “Jamaica,” performed in numerous television programs and appeared frequently with such notable talents as Tony Bennett, Billy Eckstine and Harry Belafonte.
In 1981, Home made a triumphant return to Broadway, this time in her own record-breaking one-woman show, “LENA HORNE: The Lady and Her Music,” which later was rewarded with a Grammy, a Drama Desk Award and a special Tony Award, all this accomplished as the star approached her mid-sixties!
In terms of excitement level and degree of importance, this Broadway winner might well have been the finale of a wonderful career. But there was more, much more yet to come. When the long-standing jazz highlight of the New York concert season, The JVC Jazz Festival, presented a tribute to the late composer and star, Billy Strayhom, last year, Lena Home was there. She saluted her long-time friend and soul-mate with an electrifying 40-minute set of music, heralded by the New York Times as “the stuff of legends.”
More recently, Home has re-emerged as a recording artist, with what promises to be a brilliant new excursion into the most hallowed areas of pop music. The new album, on Blue Note Records, “We’ll Be Together Again,” contains l6 wonderful songs, many of them by the late and great Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhom, and performed in a manner which truly reflects her lifetime of devotion to American popular music and its creators. She has indeed given her followers a Lifetime of Achievement to savor.