Never really a jazz singer, since she does not improvise, Lena Horne is one of the great pop vocalists of all time. Born in Brooklyn in 1917 she quit school when she was 14 and landed her first stage job at age 16, dancing and later singing at the famed Cotton Club in Harlem. During 1935 and 1936 she sang with Noble Sissle's orchestra and made her first recordings with Teddy Wilson in the late 1930s. Her film debut came in 1938 with The Duke is Tops, an independent all-black film.
In 1940 Horne joined Charlie Barnet's orchestra. Barnet was one of the first white bandleaders to hire African-Americans. Horne stayed with Barnet for only a year, however. The problems of traveling in a segregated country proved too much for her. She was unable to stay in the same hotels as the rest of the band, she wasn't allowed to use the dressing rooms at theatres, and she wasn't allowed to sit on stage with the band in between numbers.
In 1941 Horne recorded with Artie Shaw and in 1942 became the first African-American to sign a long-term contract with MGM. Moreover, she had a clause in her contract that prevented her from being cast as a domestic or in jungle native roles. Despite such promise her film career never really got off the ground. Aside from the all-black productions Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather, she was relegated to mostly one-scene musical roles which were filmed in such a way that they could be cut from the movie for distribution in the South.
Horne left Hollywood in the early 1950s to concentrate on her singing. During the McCarthy era she was blacklisted for her left-wing associations, but in 1956 she was taken off the list and resumed her career. She found great success during the 1960s and 1970s. In 1981 she appeared on Broadway in her own show, Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music, which became the longest-running one-woman show in the history of Broadway. She continued recording up through the 1990s. Lena Horne currently lives in New York City.