Song: The Life of Helen Morgan
by Mrs. Parker
2004 by Michele Gouveia. All rights reserved.
A petite singer, perched on the edge of a piano in a smoky nightclub, warbles about the man that done her wrong. It sounds like a cliché, but in the 1920s prohibition world of speakeasies and nightclubs, one woman established this image, defining the term torch singer. Her name was Helen Morgan.
Helen Morgan as Julie, the role she originated in Showboat. Photo: Culver Pictures.
Morgan was not an overnight success. Hers was a tale of years of struggle in small clubs and choruses before achieving success on Broadway and in nightclubs that bore her name. But her fame would come with a price that would eventually lead to her downfall.
Morgan loved to sing from the start. At five the precocious
little girl climbed atop an ironing board and announced to her mother that “I
will now sing ‘Three Blind Mice.’”
At twelve, she was overheard singing by Amy Leslie, an ex-stage actress and
newspaper woman who quickly began championing the young girl’s cause. The
result was a job performing at the French Troc, a Montreal nightclub. The young
Morgan wowed the audiences with her poignant renditions of French Canadian songs
she had learned growing up near Toronto. The crowd grew nightly and, as the
legend goes, Morgan, who was dwarfed by the large crowd, was picked up one night
by a member of the audience and placed on top of the piano. It would become her
Morgan was soon forced to quit due to her age, and it
wasn’t until six years later that she was able to make a real debut at a
Chicago night spot called the Green Mill. Although she would perform in the
theatre, Morgan would always be associated with nightclubs.
In 1918, she and her mother moved to New York where Morgan
started going to auditions. The gamine-faced chanteuse with the halo of dark
curls stood out from the other young singers but it would be a while before she
That first year in the city, she got a chance to perform,
albeit in an unusual way. A war bond rally was being held across from the Palace
Theatre with various celebrities in attendance, including America’s
Sweetheart, Mary Pickford. Morgan got up the courage to ask Pickford if she
could sing a song in exchange for the purchase of a $10 bond. Pickford agreed,
and with the help of a megaphone, Morgan sang “Over There,” effectively
making her Broadway debut.
After two years in the chorus of the Ziegfeld-produced
musical Sally, Morgan went to work for
Billy Rose in his nightclub the Backstage Club, starting a routine of juggling
theatre and nightclub performances. It was here, in the night spots of New
York, that Morgan’s legend would grow, as would her problems. During
Prohibition, clubs like Rose's, that served bootleg alcohol, flourished. They
were frequented by those looking for a drink and some fun. They also attracted
gangsters and other notorious underground figures, who owned many of the popular
spots. Morgan would always claim that she had no business dealings with
gangsters, but her mere association with their nightclubs would forever follow
her. It was also during this time that she started drinking a lot, favouring
Morgan was becoming known in New York, it wasn't until the composer Jerome Kern
saw her in 1926's Americana, a musical revue, that her place in
American music history would be confirmed. At
work on a new musical with Oscar Hammerstein, Kern was looking for a special woman
to portray a character integral to the story—a woman who would be able to
convey sorrow and heartache in a convincing manner.
On December 27, 1927, Show Boat debuted at the Ziegfeld Theatre. In it, Morgan played Julie, a “mulatto” whose black blood causes her to be ejected from a traveling performance group that plays up and down the Mississippi on a river boat. Julie is part of the subplot of the musical but her character is unforgettable. Morgan’s rendition of “Can’t Help Lovin’ ‘Dat Man” became a classic. But more important was her version of “Bill.” The song had been composed originally by Kern, with words by P. J. Woodhouse, for Kern’s 1917 musical Oh, Lady! Lady! Kern rewrote it with Hammerstein and Morgan’s singing about “just old Bill” brought the house down every night and became her signature song.
Sheet music from Show Boat, with Morgan shown in the upper right-hand corner. Notice that although the music is for Morgan's song, "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man," Irene Dunne is given prominence on the cover. Michele Gouveia Collection.
Oscar Hammerstein had nothing but praise for Morgan in the
role of Julie. “Everything she did was exactly right. Nobody had to tell her
how to move, gesture, or even put over a song.”
Morgan was able to connect with her audience in a way that
few singers could. Her voice, with its surprising range from low and husky to
high and clear, had a sweetness and grace that few others had. When she sang
“I love my mister man, and I can’t tell you why,” women related to Morgan,
remembering their own broken hearts. And when she sobbed, “I love him, because
he’s wonderful, because he’s just old Bill,” she gave hope to all the
average Joes that somewhere, there was a woman willing to love them. In many
ways, with her semblance of vulnerability and fragile strength, she resembled an
American Edith Piaf before there was a Piaf. The intimacy of the nightclub
setting also lent an air of closeness between the audience and Morgan that could
never be achieved in the same manner in a large theatre. Morgan was a chanteuse
of the highest order, and her nightly performances came to define the torch
While performing in Show
Boat, Morgan continued her nightclub shows. After Rose’s club was shut
down, Morgan sang in a succession of clubs named for her: The Helen Morgan Club,
Chez Helen Morgan, Helen Morgan’s Summer Home. New York was overrun with
nightclubs, but few had a well-known singer performing
nightly. Morgan’s name started appearing in the papers, not in music reviews
but in stories of late night raids by prohibition agents, culminating in
Morgan’s arrest in the summer of 1928 for “violating the national
Prohibition law.” She was later tried and found not guilty. Morgan was free,
but the stress of the trial took its toll.
Morgan would go on to star in other Broadway shows and even
in a few Hollywood films, including a reprisal of Julie in the 1936 film version
of Show Boat. But her growing
dependency on alcohol affected her health and stamina, and she started to
perform less frequently. In 1941, she arrived in Chicago to star in a
“vaudeville” version of George White’s Scandals.
She fell ill after one performance and was rushed to hospital. She died
on October 9 from cirrhosis of the liver. She was 41.
the dope on Helen Morgan, click here.