By WILL FRIEDWALD, Special to the Sun | May 10, 2010
Lena Horne walking into a room was like the sun coming out. I had that experience only once: in May 1998, she agreed to do a test session as a favor to two old friends. Bruce Lundvall, the head of Blue Note records (for whom she had done several albums), wanted to produce Horne in a duet with Tony Bennett in a track to be used as a movie title theme. The project ultimately never got any further than this one rehearsal, but it was an amazing thing to be there, one of many reasons for which I'll forever be grateful to Tony.
I arrived with Tony and Danny Bennett, his manager and son, and Bobby Tucker, who had been Billy Eckstine's pianist for many years and was then working with Tony. We got there first, and were waiting for Lena to arrive, when a curious thing happened. It was a comparatively small studio, with big windows on one side of the room, while on the other side there was just a piano and a blank wall. I was looking out the window, the sun was shining brightly, and I felt it on my face. Then, mysteriously, I suddenly felt the sunshine on the back of my head and my neck – as if I were lying down on the beach. How could this be, I wondered? There were no windows behind me — yet I felt the sun on my back as surely as I've ever felt anything in my life.
I turned around and there was this tiny little old lady. Even in civilian clothes, even at age 80, even just standing there, it was one of the most magical things I've ever felt — the woman had a genuine aura about her — she made her presence felt without so much as saying anything or even moving. I felt like I couldn't even look at her without putting on my sunglasses.
The other thing I remember about that session is that Horne and Mr. Bennett were asked to do “Singin’ in the Rain” together. When Bobby Tucker sat at the piano, he played the famous vamp to the song from the 1952 MGM musical. Although I was trying hard to stay out of the way, when he went into that intro, I couldn't help but interject, “Oh, the Roger Edens vamp.” At this point, Lena turned to me and glared: “No! It’s the Lennie Hayton vamp,” referring to her husband, who, was also a leading figure in the MGM music department.
I had interviewed Horne on the phone several times, both before and after this occasion, although this was the only time I was in the same room with her. When she died on Sunday night, I felt as if the last of the goddesses here on earth had returned to Mount Olympus.
Mr. Friedwald writes about jazz for The New York Sun.
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