New York — ''Suddenly I felt I just couldn't bear to sing another chic lyric about my penthouse or my diamonds. I couldn't work at the Waldorf for another minute. So I stopped singing.'' So says Lena Horne about her four-year hiatus from white audiences back in the 1960s.
This grand dame of interpretive performing, a ''song stylist'' who is truly what some people in the trade call a LIHOT (legend in her own time), is talking about herself and the televised ''Great Performances'' version of her Broadway one-woman hit, Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music (PBS, Friday, Dec. 7, 9-10:30 p.m., check local listings). Meanwhile, on Sunday, she will receive one of the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors Awards for ''lifetime achievement in the performing arts.'' (The ceremony will be taped for later airing on CBS-TV.)
Personally colorful enough to dress all in conservative black - a black wool dress, black stockings, black boots, and a black fur coat thrown over her shoulders - she is speaking with me in a suite at New York's Wyndham Hotel. Miss Horne wears practically no makeup, and it is apparent her patrician features require little artificial help.
The 90-minute PBS show is a re-edited version of the recent Showtime special, taped during an actual performance. It is quintessential latter-day Horne - overflowing with personalized style and interpretive skill, impeccable enunciation, hard-edge attitude and soft-edge charm. She sings many of the numbers that made her famous but reinterprets many of them to conform to her more recent self-image. It is not the cool, hard-to-reach-but-still-sexy Lena Horne of the 1940s singing ''As the Clouds Roll By,'' but a new frank, self-assured, intelligent, alternately tough and vulnerable woman of the 1980s.
Miss Horne says that ''the choice of material in the show fits everything that happened to me at certain times and it was happening to the country at just about the same time.'' The final number of the television show is ''If You Believe,'' from ''The Wiz,'' in which Miss Horne played Glinda, the Good Witch. The lyric urges people to believe in themselves. Does that reflect Miss Horne's philosophy as well?
''It is basically my personal philosophy. The song is a reaffirmation of self. You may have friends and money, but you've got to have something within yourself holding your back up and nobody else can give it to you.
''My life has been a circle. I was left alone when my parents broke up and I was a lonely kid, moved from relative to relative, in the South and in Brooklyn. Whenever I'd grow close to family - my grandmother, for instance - my mother would take me away so I never made any attachments. My father was a street man, a gambler, a hustler.
''It was a strange dichotomy. My mother's people in New York were middle class, teachers, social workers. When I went South I was with poor black people. So when I started singing and came to cafe society for the first time, I met so-called liberal white artists and I became an artist in a circle of artists. But there was no real integrated world outside.''
After she stopped working in white nightclubs and segregated movies, ''I toured black schools and worked before black audiences. Then, when they killed Medgar Evans, I suddenly went crazy. I realized that I had been isolated. When I fought discrimination on a personal level in hotels and restaurants, that wasn't doing anything for anybody. It was my realization that there was a broader picture. I exploded. That's when I began a whole year of crying. For years I hadn't used my tears. I was glamorous, exotic, sexy, but I didn't enjoy a darn thing I was doing. I knew I had to begin to live.''
Miss Horne explains that at about this time both her father and her son were diagnosed as terminally ill. ''I spent their last years in California with them. I had four years of schooling by my son and my father. We told each other everything and talked about everything. I had the greatest four years of my life.
''I went away from my husband (musical director Lennie Hayton) for just a minute - he was so sweet, but being white he didn't understand the extent of my hostility. Then they all died.
''I stayed in my house grieving, working very little if at all - until comedian Alan King came to see me and told me I had to get back to work and insisted I join him at the Westbury Music Fair. He bullied me out of my depression.
''It had been an odyssey, a transformation.''
Miss Horne now admits to herself that ''I began to improve in my work because I allowed myself to show my anger. I realized that I was prejudiced against white people. I was tired of being a closet liberal. Gradually I lost a lot of my hate. I grew more compassionate. I began to realize I was stronger than I had thought, that I wasn't alone. I realized I had to make some sort of statement as a person because my people who died and left me must have thought something of me because they gave me so much of their wisdom.''
Because in the past she has been criticized within and outside the black community for being a latecomer to the civil rights movement, Miss Horne is a bit defensive about her early days. ''I always spoke out. But it was on a personal level. I was busy trying to get engagements in places that never booked black acts and fighting over accommodations in hotels. ''I never knew that because it didn't get into the newspapers every time, many people were unaware I had such a big mouth, as opposed to Harry Belafonte who really spoke out quite loudly. I was busy running around the country trying to break open places to work.
''I didn't realize it mattered to anybody but me and my little group. That was rather selfish. It wasn't until in the 1950s - a white guy called me a nigger in Hollywood and I threw a lamp at him and it made the newspapers - that all the world press came banging at my door. Phone calls and telegrams came in from all over. Joe Louis sent me a wire saying 'If I had a right like yours. . . .'
''It was the first time it struck me that black people related to each other in bigger ways than I realized.''
Miss Horne says she is thrilled that things seem to be changing now. ''Still not enough. But I'm thrilled by the 'Bill Cosby Show' on NBC. I've gotten three scripts in the past two weeks all copying his show. They don't realize his contribution. He is true and special. He never makes a wrong move on that show. He is almost as old-fashioned as I am and it comes through on the show. Put a black Joe Doakes in the same show, a jive actor with no compassion, no understanding of his history, and he couldn't do it.''
Will Miss Horne take a more active role in the civil rights movement now?
She shakes her head.''I don't think my personality would support that. I'm not very tactful.
''I've never been a person who could talk other people into anything. I do my best work as an entertainer. Can you picture me in 1950 talking to a bunch of black people on a street corner in a $1,000 gown that I wear in my act at the Waldorf telling them how to take care of the roaches in their homes? They would have hooted me off the street. I never had the right. I didn't choose it to be that way, but it was the illusion that Hollywood gave me.
''I work best through organizations, and I am active in the NAACP and Urban League'' and lots of other charities.
Miss Horne is amused by the fact that since her appearance in ''The Wiz,'' young people come up to her and recognize her as the good witch. ''I'd like to do more movies or more TV, I can be somebody's mother or grandmother.'' However, she says, ''they still send me scripts where the black men and women are yelling at each other, putting each other down. I won't do those shows.
'' But I'm going through a period when I haven't made up my mind what to do next. I just closed the show in London last month. It's another cycle in my life. I'm thinking about it.''
She'd like to do another show but ''I don't want to be the star. I'd like a show with a fine story and a lot of good actors, and me with just a part in it. If you've got the name, they lay more weight on you as a draw. I don't want it to be 'Lena Horne in. . . . ' I'm too tired now.''
She is very impressed by MTV videos. ''Music has gone to videos, electronic editing, visuals, fast, written to be looked at, not listened to. It's wonderful. I love it.''
But is there a place for Miss Horne in it?
''Well, Michael Jackson opened videos up to black performers, didn't he?'' she giggles.
Miss Horne believes that most white rock-and-roll singers lifted their styles from black music. ''They stole from Little Richard and Bo Diddley and others. I'm not bitter really. The British say Elvis is their inspiration. But Elvis admitted he got it from black singers.''
What were the musical influences on Miss Horne?
''All the white writers. I was too young to hear Bessie Smith. Billie Holiday was the first singer I noticed doing marvelous blues. Ethel Waters had already crossed over (into the white music field).
''But you have to remember that I was always influenced more by the lyrics because I never sang that great.''
Would it be fair to say that Miss Horne has mellowed?
She throws off the black fur coat and wraps her arms around her body in an unconscious gesture of self-appreciation. ''Mellowed? A little. But I have to tell you it is more that I have channeled my feelings. They are harnessed. They go where they do the most good. I don't fritter it around anymore.''
Watch ''Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music'' and you'll see exactly what she means. It's apparent that Lena Horne is not frittering it around.