Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson, Lena Horne and Cab Calloway, stars of 1943’s Stormy Weather. Upon hearing Horne imitate he singing style, Ethel Waters said, ‘You get busy and don’t let anybody stop you from singing from now on.’

Lena Horne
June 30, 1917-May 9, 2010

Ethel Waters said, ‘You go, girl,’ And She Did:
The Backstory of ‘Stormy Weather’

Much has been written in praise of Lena Horne since her death at age 92 on May 9, and a straight obit at this juncture seems pointless. In reading these tributes, however, the origins of Ms. Horne’s career making hit, “Stormy Weather,” appear to have been lost in time. The Harold Arlen-Ted Koehler classic did not drop from the sky complete and ready for Ms. Horne’s interpretation in the 1943 film Stormy Weather, but began in a Cotton Club revue a decade earlier, in 1933, where it was performed by Ethel Waters. When Waters recorded the song for Columbia that same year,  she was regarded as one of the finest blues singers of her generation. Later in her career Waters would transform herself into one of the great gospel singers of her time, but in 1933 she had a right to sing the blues, and she exercised that right with impressive authority.

Lena Horne sings ‘Stormy Weather,’ from the Irving Mills-produced 1943 movie that made Horne a star.

In 1933, following a stint working at Al Capone’s club in Cicero, Illinois, Waters had returned to New York, with her personal life in a shambles (she had broken up with her second husband, Eddie Matthews) and her professional life in a holding pattern. The link to Capone had made her persona non grata among other club owners wary of raising the gangster’s ire by hiring his star singer. Back in New York at last, Waters began to regroup, thankful she had made it out of Cicero in one piece. “Though I’m a child of the underworld, I must say that I prefer working for people who never laid eyes on an Italian pineapple or a sawed-off shotgun. I went back to New York glad to be alive.” (source: Jim Haskins, The Cotton Club, Random House, 1977)

Herman Stark, who owned and operated Harlem’s celebrated Cotton Club in its heyday from 1929 to 1940, was thrilled to have Waters back in town, because he had a perfect vehicle for her in waiting. Mills Music songwriters Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler had written an evocative new song to which the Irving Mills-managed Duke Ellington had created special storm effects. “It was a torch song,” Jim Haskins wrote in The Cotton Club, “and Ethel had a solid reputation for doing such numbers in her own, very personal way.

“Ethel was pleased that Stark wanted her, but even though she sorely needed exposure in a club whose underworld backing was at least less conspicuous that that of the club in which she had been working in Illinois, she was sure of her talent and appeal. She was not one to “sell herself cheap.” She asked for the highest salary Stark had ever paid a star.

“For his part, Stark knew he needed a particular type of performer and a particular type of voice, and he was a sufficiently good businessman to be willing to pay for what he wanted.

“The song about which everyone at the Cotton Club was so excited had been created in such an offhand manner that few could have foreseen the impact it would have. Arlen had been thinking of Cab Calloway when he wrote it, but the lyrics Ted Koehler had written for the tune were not Calloway lyrics. In a radical departure from his usual style, Koehler only listened to the tune a few times before he had the words. Altogether the creative process for the song took about thirty minutes, after which the two went out to get a sandwich. Running through it again later, Arlen and Koehler began to hear in the song more than what they had so casually wrought, and when they rehearsed it at the club the response was more excited than it had been to any of their earliest hits; this was A SONG!

“Ethel listened to the number and agreed that it was indeed wonderful. But she felt that the piece should express more human emotion and not rely upon complex sound effects. She asked to take the lead sheet home and work on it.

“When she returned, Ethel made a stipulation. She had worked on the song and knew she could infuse it with the emotion she felt it deserved, but she wished to sing it only at one show a night. The song was ‘Stormy Weather.’”

Ethel Waters’s original 1933 recording of Arlen-Koehler’s ‘Stormy Weather,’ decidedly bluer in tone and attitude than Lena Horne’s version ten years later. ‘I was singing the story of my misery and confusion, of the misunderstandings in my life I couldn’t straighten out, the story of wrongs and outrages done to me by people I had loved and trusted,’ Waters said.

To her biographer Charles Samuels Waters explained how “Stormy Weather” could hardly have come along at a better time for her to put a raft of hurt and regret into her reading. “I found release in singing it each evening. When I got out there in the middle of the Cotton Club floor, I was telling things I couldn’t frame in words. I was singing the story of my misery and confusion, of the misunderstandings in my life I couldn’t straighten out, the story of wrongs and outrages done to me by people I had loved and trusted. If there’s anything I owe Eddie Matthews, it’s that the enabled me to do one hell of a job on the song ‘Stormy Weather.’”

The same year Waters returned to New York and took up residence at the Cotton Club was Lena Horne’s first year as a club showgirl. Not a natural singer, Horne had been taking singing lessons in hopes of being given a chance at a larger role in the club’s revue. In the backstage dressing room, she would often entertain her fellow chorines with imitations of other singers she was studying, one of whom was Ethel Waters, singing “Stormy Weather.” One night when Waters was appearing at the club, she overheard Horne doing her Waters impersonation and walked into the dressing room to find out who was singing. Embarrassed, Horne apologized. “It was just in fun, Miss Waters,” she said sheepishly.

“In fun, girl?” Waters responded. “That’s fine singing. You get busy and don’t let anybody stop you from singing from now on.”

Lena Horne listened, and took the advice to heart.


Lena Horne, In Her Own Words

Lena Horne with Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson in the Vincente Minnelli-directed Cabin In the Sky, 1943

“My identity is very clear to me now. I am a black woman.”

“When I went South, and me the kind of people who were fighting in such an unglamorous fashion, I mean, fighting just to get someplace to sit and get a sandwich, I felt close to that kind of thing because I had denied it, nad had been left away from it so long. And I began to feel such pain again.”

“You have to be taught to be second class; you’re not born that way.”

“It’s not the load that breaks you down, it’s the way you carry it.”

“I don’t have to be an imitation of a white woman that Hollywood sort of hoped I would become. I’m me, and I’m like nobody else.”

“I remember the day Dr. King died. I wasn’t angry at the beginning. It was like something very personal in my life had been touched and finished.”

Lena Horne discusses her early life and family, and her entry into show business as a Cotton Club showgirl, ‘a form of indentured servitude. I tried to fit in, but I was always an outsider. I was like two Lenas—the one I showed the world, and the one I was inside.’

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