Torch Song: The Life of Helen Morgan

by Mrs. Parker

Copyright 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.’”[1] 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 trademark.

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 was noticed.

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 Napoleon Brandy.

Although 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.”[2]

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 singer.

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.


To get the dope on Helen Morgan, click here.

[1] Maxwell, Gilbert. Helen Morgan: Her Life and Legend. New York: Hawthorn Books, 1967, page 6.

[2] Ibid., pages 38-39.