In show business, there are no divas held in higher regard than Lena Horne. So, if anyone even entertains the notion of doing a project on her, like, say, Leslie Uggams or Vanessa Williams, they’d better be able to fill her Ferragamos. Such a one is definitely that total bombshell of a performer Vivian Reed, whose show, “Vivian Reed Sings Lena Horne,” will play at Feinstein’s/ 54 Below once a month through March, starting November 8. I interviewed her in her airy Upper West Side apartment, elegantly filled with intriguing samples of her line of high end scarves, which are a beautiful and profitable sideline to her singing career.
Reed told me, “Lena Horne meant a lot to me, because years ago when I was managed by Honi Coles and Bobby Schiffman of the Apollo, Lena’s uncle, Bert Horne, also worked there. One day, Bobby told me to come to the office and there was this huge brown trunk. I opened it and there were all these beautiful evening gowns. Bobby had asked Bert to ask Lena if she had any gowns she wasn’t wearing anymore and could give to this new artist, me.
“There were like seven to 10 of them as far as I can recall. The one I wore most was close to the body, black lace overlaid on satin, with a wide cummerbund of shocking pink. I don’t have them anymore, gave them away. Now I wish I did have them. Are you kidding me? You don’t even think about what they might mean later. I always give my old gowns away, especially if you live in an apartment.
Singing Lena Horne at 54 Below, but she also doesn’t hold back from funky R&B
“What incredible generosity, though. Later, when she was on Broadway, I went backstage and we had a nice conversation. She had heard of me, and I was able to thank her.
“This was a woman who went through a lot, because she she got it from her own people and she got it from white people, as well. The studio had her do these films but would cut her scenes out when they were shown in the South, and they developed a special makeup for her by Max Factor called Egyptian Light. That was the white side of things, the black side always accused her of passing, so that was not easy for her.
“But nevertheless, she blossomed into a performer. I say performer rather than singer because that is more important, to entertain people. She learned how to do it in such a grand way that she endeared audiences and brought them to her. Not everybody can do that. You have beautiful singers who can’t. But she was very special, not even to speak of her beauty — she was absolutely gorgeous.
“I did this show in Pittsburgh with a full orchestra, and it was great. I sing about 15 songs, with lots of narrative: definitely ‘The Lady is a Tramp,’ ‘Stormy Weather,’ ‘Just One of Those Things,’ ‘On a Wonderful Day Like Today.’ It’s funny because in this year, which is her centennial, everybody is doing Ella Fitzgerald but I don’t hear of any Lena shows.”
The thrill of any Reed performance is the way she takes hold of even the hoariest standard and ruthlessly makes it her own via her soaring, burnished pipes, searingly authentic interpretation, and electrifying injections of purest soul. There have been some dissenters, henceforward to be referred to as idiots.
“They got a little upset with me at the Cabaret Convention,” Reedconfessed. “I had told KT Sullivan [artistic director of the Mabel Mercer Foundation, which produces the Convention] I was planning to do something different and she got very excited.
“The Convention is now in its 28th year, and for so long it was all about the Great American Songbook from 1920-50. But since that time, there have been many wonderful composers — Lionel Richie, Stevie Wonder, Carole King, Cyndi Lauper. So the Songbook has grown, and when I told KT I wanted to do R&B she was excited.
“But some critics complained, ‘How could she do R&B?’ And, you know, that’s racist. But a lot of people applauded me for doing something different. I was told that people gave me a standing ovation, which I couldn’t see because of the lights.
“Then this man came up to me and told me he had always loved my music but was disappointed by what I had done. He said it was inappropriate and, without missing a beat, I said to him, ‘The reason you don’t like it is because it did not conform to the type of music you thought I should be singing.’
“He said, ‘Well you could have done something from your Lena show.’ And I said, ‘But I didn’t want to.’ And trust me, I rocked that room! I began offstage, singing ‘Signed, Sealed, Delivered,’ followed by a drum roll and KT came on to introduce me as this year’s winner of the Mabel Mercer Award. Then I’m hitting it hard, with ‘Hold On, I’m Comin’,’ and it’s hardcore funk. Funk, funk, funk! Then Jennifer Warren’s ‘Up Where We Belong,’ and I ended with ‘Higher and Higher,’ audience participation.
“But some people just couldn’t see past the standards. They just couldn’t see past the old standards. Don’t get me wrong. I love the old standards, but I don’t want the doors to close when the older people are gone. Evolution must happen, and cabaret, in its truest definition, is everything.
Because I sang right after being introduced that night, I never got to be actually presented with the award. KT will be doing that on my show on November 8. I love her and support everything she does. She just has to be strong and not let these people hurt her.”
VIVIAN REED SINGS LENA HORNE | Feinstein’s/ 54 Below, 254 W. 54th St. | Nov. 8, Feb. 7 & Mar. 7 at 7 p.m.; Dec. 7 at 9:30 p.m. | $35-$75 at 54below.com, plus a $25 food/ drink minimum