Before the tragic legacies of songbird icons Édith Piaf, Billie Holiday and Judy Garland took hold, there was the one...the original...lady who sang the blues and started the whole "bawl" rolling. Like her successors, Helen Morgan lived the sad songs she sang...and more.
She started her life fittingly enough on August 2, 1900 in very humble surroundings. Her father was an Illinois dirt farmer and school master. She moved to Chicago while young and worked a number of menial blue-collar jobs -- manicurist, cracker-packager, counter clerk. But her passion was music and, at the age of 18, decided to leave and pursue her dream as a cabaret singer. Within a few years, she was working under the Broadway lights with the George White Scandals. In between. she studied music at the Metropolitan Opera and performed in vaudeville shows.
Helen was the antithesis of the freewheeling "Jazz Age" baby as her deep, dusky voice seemed born to weave tales of sadness and lament rather than focusing on fun and frolic. The Chicago mobsters and underground bootleggers bawled like burly babies and really took to Helen's "torch song" renditions while glamorously propped on a piano with trademark scarf in hand (originally used to disguise nerves). Prohibition-era gangsters even bankrolled her clubs which became very popular...and frequently raided.
Helen conquered Broadway in the late 1920s with her quintessential role as the tragic mulatto, "Julie", in the landmark smash musical, "Show Boat", in 1927. Introducing the standards "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" and "Bill", Helen earned more success with the musical "Sweet Adeline" in 1929 in which she introduced another favorite "Why Was I Born?". Her fragile mind and heart, however, couldn't handle the problems that started surfacing in the 1930s.
A broken marriage, emotional instability and a deep passion for the demon drink quickly did her in. She couldn't hold jobs and her health worsened by the year. After spiraling badly for a half-decade, she tried sobering up and made a huge splash in 1936 with the screen version of Show Boat (1936) starring Irene Dunne, Allan Jones and Paul Robeson. She also began to redeem herself in clubs again but it was ultimately too late. Years of abuse did its damage and she died of liver cirrhosis in 1941 at age 41. In 1957, a glossy, somewhat fictitious movie was made chronicling her life and troubled times. The Helen Morgan Story (1957), starred a game Ann Blyth as the sultry, ill-fated songstress, with Gogi Grant a spectacular choice for dubbing in the vocals to all of Helen's best known standards.
Yes, before there was a Garland, there was Morgan, and although Garland seems to have her beat these days as THE musical icon of despair, Helen was the original tear-stained blueprint.