Lena Horne developed into one of America’s most unique singers, but she didn’t start out that way. From her Cotton Club debut (at the age of 16) through her galley years as one of MGM’s first black stars, Horne was required to be glamorous and unexpressive, a sort of cocoa Dinah Shore. A tough childhood and unrelenting racism also contributed to her desire to repress her feelings in performance, and her refusal to play either servants or prostitutes shortened her Hollywood career. With the help of her second husband, the arranger Lenny Hayton, she eventually developed a kind of toughness in her performances, which became another way to protect her from her emotions and isolate her from her audiences.
In her 60s, after years of industry blacklisting, involvement in the civil rights movement and personal loss, Horne finally found a way to use her anger, bite and humor, to communicate her complex feelings to her audience. In 1981, she opened on Broadway in an autobiographical concert called Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music. It was meant to be a four-week engagement, but ended up playing on Broadway for more than a year, closing on Horne’s 65th birthday. She then taped the show for television, before touring in it for two more years in the US and three months in Europe. One of the show’s highlights was “Yesterday When I was Young,” a song by Charles Aznavour (“Hier encore”), with English lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer. To Horne, this song told the story of her life, and she turned it into a startling and candid public confession.