Helen Morgan (August 2, 1900 – October 9, 1941) was an American quintessential torch singer and actress who worked in films and on the stage. With her sweetly quivering, light soprano voice, she charmed audiences in the theatre and on the silver screen in its earliest days.
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 as Helen Riggins in very humble surroundings. Her father was an Illinois dirt farmer and school master. After her mother, Lulu Lang Riggins, divorced and remarried, she changed the last name to 'Morgan'. Her mother's second marriage ended in divorce, and she moved to Chicago with her daughter. Helen never finished school beyond the eighth grade, and worked a number of menial blue-collar jobs -- manicurist, cracker-packager, counter clerk just to get by.
In 1923, she entered the Miss Montreal contest, even going to New York to meet Miss America Katherine Campbell, but when she returned, her American citizenship was discovered and she was disqualified. She also worked as an extra in films. By the age of twenty, Morgan had taken voice lessons and started singing in speakeasies in Chicago. By the mid twenties she had secured backing for her own succession of speakeasies: Helen Morgan’s 45th Street Club, Chez Helen Morgan, Helen Morgan’s Summer House, and the House of Morgan. She got busted for her efforts, but her fame also brought her bookings. 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). It is even remarked that her trademark of performing while perched on top of a piano was because she was often too drunk to stand up. 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 favourite "Why Was I Born?". Her fragile mind and heart, however, couldn't handle the problems that started surfacing in the 1930s.
Helen went on to perform with the Ziegfeld Follies in 1931, the Follies' last active year. During this period, she studied music at the Metropolitan Opera in her free time.
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 spiralling 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.
In the late 1930s, Morgan was signed up for a show at Chicago's Loop Theatre. She also spent time at her farm in High Falls, New York. Alcoholism plagued her, and she was hospitalized in late 1940, after playing Julie La Verne one last time in a 1940 Los Angeles stage revival of Show Boat. She made something of a comeback in 1941, thanks to the help of manager Lloyd Johnson. However, the years of alcohol abuse had taken their toll. She collapsed onstage during a performance of George White's Scandals of 1942 and died in Chicago of cirrhosis of the liver on October 9, 1941 at age 41.
Morgan was portrayed by Polly Bergen in a 1957 Playhouse 90 drama, The Helen Morgan Story, directed by George Roy Hill. Bergen won an Emmy Award for her performance. That same year, the feature film The Helen Morgan Story, based directly on the Playhouse 90 drama, starred Ann Blyth as Morgan. However, the feature film was not as well received, partly because critics felt that Blyth's real singing voice sounded more like Morgan's than the voice the studio supplied for her - that of Gogi Grant.
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.
(Info edited from IMDb Mini Biography By Gary Brumburgh & Wikipedia)