Helen Morgan (1900-1941) was born on this day.
Ms. Morgan created the role of the drunken, melancholy torch singer, sitting on top of a piano in a night club. Quite literally. She was quite literally drunken, and she was quite literally the first to sing from atop the piano. She said she was “tired” (which inevitably calls to mind the number of the same name from Mel Brooks Blazing Saddles). After winning a beauty contest in 1918 she quit her job at the cracker factory and began singing in night clubs and taking chorus parts in Broadway shows. By the mid twenties she had secured backing for her own succession of speakeasies: Helen Morgans 45th Street Club, Chez Helen Morgan, Helen Morgan’s Summer House, and the House of Morgan. Like Texas Guinan, she got busted for her efforts, but her fame also brought her bookings. In 1927, she gave the first of numerous performances at the Palace. Also, in that year, she created the role of Julie in the premier production of Show Boat, a role she later went on to play in the 1936 film version. The Show Boat songs “Bill” and “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” became a permanent part of her repertoire. Unfortunately, that song set got limited play. She was dead by the age of 41 of cirrhosis of the liver.
To find out more about these variety artists and the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.