*Her cameo in the 1978 movie adaptation of the Broadway smash “The Wiz” wasn’t Lena Horne’s most famous screen role but it was certainly one of her most significant. As Glinda the Good Witch of the South, Miss Horne rendered the energizing anthem “If You Believe,” a song that reflects the pride and tenacity that propelled Miss Horne through a multi-decade career fraught with racial injustice.
If you believe within your heart you’ll know
That no one can change the path that you must go
Believe what you feel and know you’re right because
The time will come around when you’ll say it’s yours…
Believing in herself — or, as Glinda says, knowing her heart, her mind and her courage — kept Lena Horne intact as she confronted the barriers of racist segregation onstage and off. Whether it was the indignity of headlining in “whites only “ hotels where she could not stay, being denied starmakng roles in Hollywood (MGM groomed her for the lead in the Technicolor spectacular “Showboat” and then gave the role to Ava Gardner) or being taunted by an inebriated bigot at a Beverly Hills restaurant, Lena Horne remained the proud, confident, illustrious. Sista didn’t take no stuff, either! When German prisoners of war were seated in front of black American soldiers at World War II show, Miss Horne walked around behind the Germans and sang in front of the brothers. Then, she quit the USO show and bankrolled her own military tour. And when that alcohol-fueled racist shot a slur her way in Beverly Hills back in 1960, Miss Horne went off — hurling a table lamp, an ashtray and several glasses at the fool. Lena Horne fought for civil rights alongside Paul Robeson, Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King, Jr. and she wasn’t shy about denouncing racial injustice onstage and in media interviews. So, the song “If You Believe” was at once Lena Horne’s personal testimony and her loving, empowering charge to younger generations.
Listen to one of her recordings and you’ll hear and feel what I mean. As the song crescendos to its tonal and emotional peak, Miss Horne’s passion — her anger at the indignities of the past, her pride at overcoming, her bold confidence for the journeys yet to come — explode like glorious fireworks. Then, her voices floats down, delivering the final line as a gentle, encouraging hug: “Believe in yourself, as I believe in you!” “If You Believe” soared in “The Wiz,“ but Miss Horne really sent it to the stars three years after the movie in her 1981 Tony Award-winning one-woman show, “Lena: the Lady and Her Music.” In “The Wiz,” Miss Horne punctuated the line “Believe in yourself” with a passionate-but-controlled (and, forgive me for saying so, slightly off-key?), “Woo!” But on the Broadway stage she cut loose, letting her magnificent voice carry that punctuation to the heavens: “Believe in yourself! Wooooooooo!”
Lena Horne performs “If You Believe” on the 1982 TV special, “To Basie with Love”:
By the early ‘80s, “If You Believe” had become one of Miss Horne’s signature songs, second only, perhaps, to “Stormy Weather.” (In fact, she sometimes performed the tunes as a medley.) Onstage, she often used “Believe” as a teaching moment — reminding audiences of the foul treatment black folks endured under Jim Crow, and celebrating the change that the civil rights heroes forced America to embrace.
Appearing on a network TV tribute to legendary bandleader William “Count” Basie in 1982, Miss Horne led into “If You Believe” by recounting how Basie became the first black artist to perform at a swanky rooftop nightclub back in the ‘40s. Miss Horne declared with triumphant defiance, “Basie knew he was great, but he had to prove it all over again…now it’s two generations that don’t have to deal with that kind of thing!” She could have been talking about herself. And countless other black trailblazers who challenged institutionalized racism back in the day. So, when she started singing “If You Believe” on that Basie tribute, it was clear that Miss Horne was speaking a word to the past, the present and to the future. She was telling us how she and the brave souls of our past got over. She was telling us that we, and those who will follow us, are destined for greatness…
Believe in yourself Right from the start
Believe in the magic right there in your heart
Go ‘head, believe all these things Not because I told you to
But believe in yourself as I believe in you!
Thank you, Miss Horne, for showing us how to believe.
I’m Cameron Turner and that’s my two cents.
Read more “Turner’s Two Cents” on www.EURweb.com AND www.PasadenaJournal.com. In Los Angeles, watch for Cameron Turner’s television commentaries on “The Filter with Fred Roggin,” on KNBC 4 and digital cable NBC Plus.