Monday, May 10, 2010

The Lady and Her Music

The time was 1983 and I was still working in radio at WYAT Radio, a daytime AM carrier-current station at 990 KHz. The station specialized in oldies with a healthy dose of local New Orleans artists like Fats Domino, Irma Thomas, Chris Kenner, Lee Dorsey and Shirley and Lee. At her insistence, I was still working occasionally at my mom's record store, Smith's Records, and it was because of her association with RCA Records that my mom, dad and I were extended four tickets to the Saenger Theatre to see the touring company of Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music. I invited my hair stylist, Sally, to accompany me and my parents. It was, I believe, the first time my mother and father had met the lady who would become my wife nearly a year later. Even then, at 66 years of age, Lena Horne was in incredible voice and a radiant star. The full orchestra that accompanied her seemed to dim in comparison to the scintillating vocals that were a little smoky, but nonetheless powerful. Throughout the evening she talked about her past career, especially the fabled M-G-M years when she was breaking racial barriers and turning heads. The highlight of the night was her resplendent rendition of "Stormy Weather," the title track from one of her greatest cinematic starring roles. The following year, about a month after my return from my honeymoon, I started temporary work at the record store as the manager, expecting to eventually return to my broadcasting career. Some 13 years later I was still working at the record store and had personally sold dozens of the RCA double LP "Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music" recorded live on Broadway and released before I saw her in New Orleans. Lena Horne's passing yesterday at 92 in a New York hospital brought all of these memories back. I read where she suffered the loss of her father, her second husband, musical conductor Lenny Hayton, and her son Edwin from her first marriage within a relatively short period from 1970-71. Understandably, she considered retirement at that time, but she soon realized that she could not keep away from the public that idolized her. It turns out some of her greatest achievements including a Tony award and the record for the longest solo appearance on Broadway, three Grammy Awards and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences would have escaped her had she chosen to give up show business at that juncture. Later, following the success of "Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music," she released "The Men in My Life," a 1988 studio album and "An Evening with Lena Horne," a follow-up live recording in 1995 that brought her more fans and continued to establish her as a major recording artist. In her personal life she was a tireless crusader for civil rights, a trailblazer for women's rights, but was first and foremost a theatrical star of the highest order. I join with millions of other adoring fans who mourn her passing.

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