Farewell to Lena Horne and some songbirds of color


Billie Holiday was the first to go. Of course, she would be. July 17, 1959. Handcuffed to her bed in Metropolitan Hospital, with a cop at the door in case she woke up and got away anyway. When I heard the news, I got drunk and wrote the best thing I’ve ever done. “Bye Bye Blackbird.” You could look it up.

So. Lady Day, the first to go and arguably the greatest, though you could make a very strong case for Ethel Waters. I am talking about sheer God-given musical and/or emotional force, not just similarly God-given physical beauty. As that goes, physical beauty, they all had it, and one of them — no, two of them — had almost too much.

I had heard about Ethel Waters all my life from GeeGee — full name, Blanche Avalone — the tiny brown-skin woman who came to take care of me and the household when I was one month old and who stayed in that job for the next 30 years, until my father died. But I had never actually seen and heard Ethel Waters until “Cabin in the Sky” opened at the Martin Beck in the fall of 1940, and I went back up to school, to Dartmouth, in the snow and ice, after Christmas, with “Here I go again…falling in love with love,” ringing in my head — and heart — in Ethel Waters’s husky, poignant voice and getting all mixed up with my aching love for Katy Sprackling, who was in love, as it turned out, with someone else.

Two wars and 10 years later, in 1950, there opened on Broadway a heartbreaking play called “The Member of the Wedding” with Julie Harris as eager, starry-eyed Frankie Addams, and 8-year-old Brandon De Wilde as bespectacled, young John Henry, two kids sitting around a kitchen, listening to Berenice Sadie Brown. Just as I had sat in a (much smaller) Manhattan kitchen throughout my boyhood, soaking up knowledge from GeeGee on this matter and that matter and — way back in 1932 — crying with her over the defeat of poor Mr. Herbert Hoover by this somebody named Franklin D. Roosevelt.

But there was one thing Berenice Sadie Brown did that GeeGee could not do, was never born to do. There in that other kitchen, the one on stage, Ethel Waters sang “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” in a way that cleanly turned you inside out, and would sing it that way again, if memory serves, in the fine Fred Zinnemann movie that followed a couple of years later.

It was during the first of those wars, the big one, that during a brief furlough to my home city, I ventured in uniform one night into a Downtown basement called the Village Vanguard, where I presently found myself sitting in its tiny kitchen with a no-less-tiny sepia songbird on my lap named Maxine Sullivan. “You take the high road, and I’ll take the low road, and I’ll be in Scotland afore ya…” Her pure, pure voice on radios everywhere had made the old bonnie bonnie banks of Loch Lomon famous all over again, whatever her color. All the more so because of her color. “So long, Sergeant,” she said, blew me a kiss, and hopped off.

The no-longer-existent Loews Sheridan, that great old heap of a movie house a couple of blocks north of the Vanguard, is where, almost exactly two years before her death, the police-banned Billie Holiday would return to New York City, thanks to Art D’Lugoff and the Village Voice — the one and only Lady Day herself, driven up at 70-to-80 miles per hour from Philadelphia (by me) to sing to a packed midnight concert that didn’t get started until nearly 3 a.m. but was worth every second of it.

In another geographical direction, across Seventh Avenue and beyond that little triangular island that gives the area its name, or vice versa, there was another basement place of entertainment, No. 2 Sheridan Square, where you might on any given evening catch big Zero Mostel and little Jimmy Savo doing crazy wonderful things, and Hazel Scott, an elegant young black woman, boogey-woogeyishly embroidering 18th-century chamber music with great style and panache. She would one day marry power politico Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., who ended up having a boulevard named after him. She ended up alone and all but forgotten in a small apartment on Roosevelt Island, but anyone who ever heard her accompany herself at the piano, in or out of 2 Sheridan Square, has not forgotten.

There was also at that downstairs cabaret on more than one occasion a tall, svelte, cool, supremely beautiful young chanteuse named Helena Horne — almost as beautiful as Dorothy Dandridge, Hollywood’s storm-tossed, coffee-colored glamour girl of the 1940s and ’50s (“Carmen Jones,” “Porgy and Bess”).

I did not, however, way back then in that cavern under Sheridan Square, think Helena Horne might be anything very much more than tall, cool and bland as a singer.

The next time I saw her, she was on a movie screen. Her name was Lena Horne, and she was proving how wrong I was.

Today, June 10, 2010, I woke up, sat down to breakfast, put on the radio, and learned that she, too, fiery Lena Horne, had taken her departure from us, at age 92.

Bye-bye blackbirds all, black or white.

Where are Maxine and Hazel? Ethel and Lena? Lady Day?

Where are the snows of yesteryear?