Singer/actress Helen Morgan was an iconic figure of the 1920s, a nightclub performer known for her heart-rending interpretations of torch songs describing romantic devotion to wayward men, which she sang from her perch on top of a piano. Morgan's natural environment was the nightclub, in particular, the '20s speakeasy, but she also made records and appeared in vaudeville, on Broadway, in movies, and on radio. Her most memorable portrayal was that of the doomed mulatto Julie in stage and film productions of the landmark musical Show Boat. In addition, she appeared in four other Broadway shows and nine other Hollywood movies, and her recordings for Brunswick and Victor produced a series of singles that resulted in six American hits.
The facts about Morgan's early life are disputed. According to most biographical sources, she was born Helen Riggins in Danville, IL, on August 2, 1900, to parents who were of French-Canadian origin. Her father died when she was a child, and her mother remarried a man named Morgan; his stepdaughter took his name, becoming Helen Morgan. But in his 1974 biography Helen Morgan: Her Life and Legend, Gilbert Maxwell tells an entirely different story. By his account, Morgan was born in October 1900 in Toronto, Canada, where her mother, Lulu Morgan, was working as a waitress in a railroad yard after being abandoned by her husband, Thomas Morgan, a fireman for the Canadian National Railroad, who was in fact Morgan's biological father. Thomas Morgan, says Maxwell, was an Irishman, and his wife an American of Irish descent who had grown up on a farm in upstate New York. When Morgan was four years old, her parents were reconciled, and the family moved to Danville, IL, but her father deserted again later in her childhood.
Morgan first came to public notice in 1912 when Amy Leslie, a writer for The Chicago Daily News with theatrical connections who had gone to Danville to do a feature story on railroad wives, discovered her in the roundhouse singing a French-Canadian ballad from the cowcatcher of a locomotive and became her manager. Leslie booked Morgan into the French Trocadero nightclub in Montreal where, it is said, she was set up on the top of an upright piano so that everyone in the club could see her. She was also seen by a member of the Gerry Society, which devoted itself to combating child labor in show business, and that was the end of her early career. She and her mother moved to Chicago, where she briefly attended Crane High School in the fall of 1913 before quitting and taking a series of menial jobs over the next several years. Eventually, she was able to return to performing at the Green Mill nightclub in Chicago in 1918. She also entered beauty contests, being named Miss Illinois and then winning the Miss Mount Royal contest at the 1918 Winter Sports Festival in Montreal. The prize for the latter was $1,500, which gave her the wherewithal to move to New York City, where she studied singing with Edward Petri of the Metropolitan Opera School.
Depending on the account, Morgan appeared in the chorus of the 1920 musical Sally on Broadway or during its post-Broadway national tour, or both; since her name does not appear in the credits of the Broadway production, the tour seems more likely. Most of her time during the early '20s, however, was spent building up her name in nightclubs, and she made a notable breakthrough in November 1924 when she was the initial headliner at impresario Billy Rose's newly opened Backstage Club in New York City. Once again, she performed from the top of a piano. Among those who saw her at the club was theatrical producer George White, and he cast her in the next edition of his series of Broadway revues, George White's Scandals, which opened on June 22, 1925. It ran 169 performances, closing on November 14. Then she was cast in another Broadway revue, Americana, which opened July 26, 1926. She gained greater recognition in this show; after the opening, the song "Nobody Wants Me" was added, and she got to sing it from her usual perch atop an upright piano in the orchestra pit. Americana ran 224 performances, closing on February 5, 1927. By then, Morgan had reached other milestones in her career. On January 24, 1927, she made her debut at the Palace, the country's premiere vaudeville house, and, having been seen in Americana by composer Jerome Kern, she was cast in his next musical, Show Boat.
Show Boat was delayed, however, and Morgan accepted nightclub engagements in England. In June 1927, she made her first recordings in a session for Brunswick Records, at which she was accompanied by Leslie A. Hutchinson (later known as the bandleader Hutch) on piano. There were further sessions in July and September, and among the tracks recorded was "A Tree in the Park" from the Broadway musical Peggy Ann. Chart researcher Joel Whitburn, in his book Pop Memories, estimates that "A Tree in the Park" would have had a week in the Top Ten if charts had existed in 1927. Morgan returned from England in time to go into rehearsals for Show Boat, which finally had been scheduled to open on December 27, 1927. It became a massive hit, and it made her a star beyond the nightclubs for the first time. As Julie, she sang "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" and, back on top of a piano, "Bill," before making her tragic exit. The show played a remarkable 572 performances before closing on May 4, 1929, and Morgan was in it for the entire run. On February 14, 1928, she recorded "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" and "Bill" for Victor Records, both Top Ten hits by Whitburn's reckoning.
Meanwhile, however, Morgan's stardom led to difficulties. Her prominence in the world of New York nightclubs (actually, illegal speakeasies in the era of Prohibition) led to her fronting a club called Chez Morgan, at which she entertained. On December 30, 1927, only days after the opening of Show Boat, she was arrested at Chez Morgan for violation of liquor laws. Charges were dropped in February 1928, and the club reopened as Helen Morgan's Summer Home, but she was arrested again on June 29 and this time indicted. A jury acquitted her at a trial held in April 1929; in the meantime, however, she had temporarily given up performing in nightclubs, not returning to such work until after the repeal of Prohibition. She did find other venues for moonlighting, though. While continuing to appear in Show Boat, she also performed in the late-night Broadway revue Ziegfeld Midnight Frolic, which opened December 29, 1928, in which she sang "Who Cares What You Have Been?" On March 6, 1929, she recorded that song as well as "Mean to Me," a number 11 hit. She also found time to make several film appearances. With the onset of talking pictures, the Universal movie studio's newly made silent version of Show Boat was deemed to need at least a sound portion, so the company shot several of the stage performers for a musical prologue, Morgan among them, and the film appeared in April 1929. She also went to Paramount Pictures' studio in Astoria, Queens, for appearances in three movies, director Rouben Mamoulian's Applause (released in October 1929), the Ziegfeld revue Glorifying the American Girl (January 1930), and Roadhouse Nights (February 1930).
Jerome Kern and lyricist/librettist Oscar Hammerstein II, the team responsible for Show Boat, next wrote a show specifically for Morgan. It was Sweet Adeline, which opened on Broadway on September 3, 1929, to good reviews and a strong box office. Morgan recorded both "Why Was I Born?" and "Don't Ever Leave Me" from the score, and "Why Was I Born?" gave her another Top Ten hit. Unfortunately, October 28, 1929, brought the stock market crash signaling the beginning of the Great Depression, and ticket sales fell off. Sweet Adeline closed on March 22, 1930, after 234 performances. Morgan opened a second run in vaudeville at the Palace on March 30 and performed on local radio. During this period, she popularized "The Man I Love," which George and Ira Gershwin had written years earlier but never managed to put into one of their shows. Through Morgan's efforts, it became an independent hit, although she did not record it. She did record "Body and Soul" from the show Three's a Crowd in September 1930, however, and the result was her final chart entry. She had another engagement at the Palace in February 1931, and on July 1, 1931, she returned to Broadway in that year's edition of The Ziegfeld Follies, which ran 165 performances, closing on November 21. In April 1932, she was one of the featured performances on the CBS radio series The Ziegfeld Follies of the Air, which ran through late June. While still appearing on it, she returned to her most celebrated role, launching a revival of Show Boat on Broadway on May 19, 1932. This production ran 180 performances, closing on October 22, followed by a national tour that ran from November to February 1933. In August 1932, she and the show's other star, Paul Robeson, recorded one of the first cast albums, long before the vogue for such recordings began in the 1940s. What was technically a studio cast recording of Show Boat was released by Brunswick on four 78-rpm records.
Morgan continued to work in radio, serving as a regular on The Linit Bath Club Revue, which ran on CBS from October 1932 to April 1933, and on the CBS series Broadway Melodies during the 1933-1934 season. In between, she married a Cleveland attorney, Maurice Maschke, Jr., on May 15, 1933. (A divorce between the two was granted on June 19, 1935, and became final a year later.) In November 1933, with Prohibition ended, she returned to nightclub work with an extended engagement at the Simplon Club in New York. She also returned to movie-making, filming a feature called Frankie and Johnnie in 1934 that was not given a wide release until May 1936. In May 1934, she appeared in a play, Memory, in Los Angeles, but it closed quickly, and the producers filed a complaint with Actors Equity claiming that the closing had been due to her drinking and insubordination. Actors Equity cleared her of the charges in August. She made a series of film appearances over the next year -- You Belong to Me (September 1934), Marie Galante (November 1934), Sweet Music (February 1935), and Go into Your Dance (May 1935) -- and she made recordings of songs featured in the pictures for Brunswick, doing her final recording session on January 9, 1935. Back in New York, she again fronted a nightclub, the House of Morgan. In October 1935, she appeared in Let's Have Fun, a radio musical with songs by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. In May 1936, she immortalized her performance as Julie in the second film version of Show Boat. Starting in June and running through the fall, she toured the U.S. in a road production of George White's Scandals. She moved to England in 1937 and worked in the British Isles through 1938. Back in the U.S., she undertook a tour of the vaudeville circuit in 1939, then returned to club engagements, appearing at the Famous Door in New York in the fall of 1940 and in Miami Beach in the winter of 1941.
In July and August 1941, Morgan returned to national prominence as the host of the weekly NBC radio series Open House. On July 27, 1941, during a return appearance in Miami Beach, she married Lloyd Johnson, an automobile dealer from Los Angeles. In September, she went to Chicago to begin appearing in another production of George White's Scandals, but she was taken ill after the first day with kidney and liver ailments, and admitted to a hospital, where she underwent an operation. She did not recover, however, and died on October 8, 1941. Two competing versions of her life bearing the same title appeared in different media 16 years later. The live television broadcast The Helen Morgan Story was seen over CBS-TV on May 16, 1957, starring Polly Bergen. Less than five months later, a movie also called The Helen Morgan Story starring Ann Blyth (her singing dubbed by Gogi Grant) opened. Morgan's studio recordings have been reissued on numerous compilations by CBS (since purchased by Sony), which controls her later Brunswick tracks, and RCA Victor. (In Europe, where copyrights on her recordings have lapsed, various labels have reissued them.) There have also been record releases of soundtrack material from her films and airchecks from her radio appearances.