Why Was She Born? The Legacy of Helen Morgan

11 Apr

Helen Morgan: a strong legacy for today's torch singers

It’s been a fine week on BBC4 for lovers of old- and new-style torch singing. The channel’s celebration of the Great American Songbook was stuffed with profiles, documentaries and performances rich in the genre, from a biography of Ella Fitzgerald to a welcome repeat of Walk on By, a series on the history of popular song.

One of the highlights was a BBC4 Sessions concert featuring Gwyneth Herbert giving an exemplary take on the Ruth Etting classic, “Love Me or Leave Me”, Melody Gardot’s exquisitely underplayed “Over the Rainbow”, and a great “September in the Rain” from Sharleen Spiteri – all demonstrating that the torch song has never been in better hands.

But most poignant of all was the excellent Clint Eastwood-produced exploration of the life of lyricist Johnny Mercer, The Dream’s on Me. One hundred minutes sped past in a succession of comments and performance snippets – Julie Andrews, Cleo Laine, Margaret Whiting, Maude Maggart (singing a wonderfully touching “Skylark”, accompanied by Jamie Cullum.)

During one of the numerous interview clips of Mercer talking about his craft he mentioned, in passing, Helen Morgan as an example of somebody you would write a particular type of song for. It struck a real chord. Morgan was briefly a huge Broadway star and created the role of Julie in Jerome Kern’s Showboat. But even by the time Mercer referred to her in the 1970s, she had been dead for more than 30 years, and today her name is scarcely heard.

Her style of singing in a light, throbbing soprano, is light years from modern popular taste. Yet Morgan was one of the first of the great torch singers. And a few weeks ago, I had no hesitation in drawing a comparison between Jessie Buckley’s intense, touching way with torch songs in her performance at Pizza on the Park, and Morgan’s way of luring the listener into her lamentations of love gone wrong.

When Helen Morgan’s picture flashed across the television screen, it reminded me of what sparked my interest in the torch idiom over two decades ago. So after focusing on some of the young singers who have piqued my curiosity in recent weeks, here’s a trip back to the roots of the genre.

Helen Morgan was a tragic figure – not in a hell-raising Amy Winehouse way, although she was equally profligate with her talent. When things got too troubled, she’d quietly have another brandy, eventually fulfilling a destiny that was pretty much prescribed in her first starring role as the doomed Julie. But it says much for her legacy that every now and then, a modern performance can still evoke her name and a nod back down the years to a great, if shooting, star.

Helen Morgan sings “Bill”

This is an article I wrote about her in the late 1980s, which hasn’t seen the light of day until now. It’s a bit stodgy and essay-ish in places – and naïve in its approach – but I’m posting it here because in many ways it sums up the elements of torch-singing that I continue to find so compelling – and because I can illustrate it with video, something that would have seemed impossible back then!

Why Was She Born? – The Legacy of Helen Morgan (1988)

Morgan's voice had a unique, pleading quality

Since its plaintive genesis in the early 1920s, the torch song has proved a consistent link between a galaxy of female singers who in other respects could hardly differ more greatly. As an idiom, it provides a historic, if unlikely bridge from Fanny Brice to Barbra Streisand, from Judy Garland to Kiri te Kanawa, from Ruth Etting to Shirley Bassey and from Jane Froman to Dusty Springfield. None of these ladies has ever limited themselves to the genre of the torch song. But each at one time or another has sung from the point of view of the woman on the losing side in love.

If Fanny Brice lit the first torch with her rendering of the classic “My Man”, (“Mon Homme”), consider how Billie Holiday interpreted the same song as a blues number and made it in turn her own. And if Edith Piaf ran the gamut of emotions, she certainly included in her repertoire chansons of a very torchy sentiment. All of these singers at one time or another have reflected through the torch song the suffering of a woman at the hands of a man who does nothing but let her down, but whom she can’t help loving.

Just as the idiom has become more lush and plangent, more downright dramatic, so it has tended to obscure its quieter and more tremulous origins. Now that Dame Kiri has extended her range to include classic torch by George Gershwin, and with a revival of interest in Dusty Springfield’s fulsome entreaty, “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me”, not to mention the interest that never went away in Garland bemoaning “The Man That Got Away”, it is high time to re-evaluate the contribution of the women who started it all with such sentiments as “Why Was I Born?”

With the release of a full-length, universally well-received recording of Showboat, it might be appropriate to focus on the woman who made its two classic torch songs, “Bill” and “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man of Mine” her own. Her name was Helen Morgan and she might be even less remembered here had not Robyn Archer selected her as an example for her show A Star is Torn.

Helen Morgan made these two songs her own by stamping the torch style with her own delicate lilting soprano. At least two recordings of her renderings survive and are reasonably available. The later pressings can be heard on what amounts to the first cast recording of Showboat which is actually a record of the show’s 1932 revival.

They are remarkable not only for their clarity but for the freshness and immediacy of Morgan’s performances at a distance of over half a century. Her voice has little in common with modern popular tastes but through its unique pleading quality and her astute use of a natural huskiness on key lyrics, it is quite heart-rending in its subtlety.

“I See Two Lovers” – a quintessential Helen Morgan performance

Anybody seeking for an introduction to her lamentably brief recording career should start right here. The extraordinary effect she achieved owes much to her own talent and the light orchestra or band backing favoured by artistes of the day, and little to the dramatic and histrionic lamentations of her future sisters in song. Perhaps the closest we can get these days is to listen to Julia McKenzie’s interpretation of Sondheim’s “Losing My Mind” in Follies. This is at once a pastiche and wholly authentic.

Song of  Dreamer: great close-ups of a troubled torch singer

Although tracks by Morgan turn up from time to time on compilation albums (FLAPPERS, VAMPS AND SWEET YOUNG THINGS, Living Era 1982, AJA 5015), it is largely thanks to the Take Two label that a sizeable volume of her work has been gathered together. They have compiled a generous selection for the album HELEN MORGAN-Legacy of a Torch Singer, (1986, TT220) although it is rather biased in favour of her earlier material. Much of this is of interest more for its definitive period flavour than as classic torch singing.

It is really in the sessions recorded in the thirties that the depth of Morgan’s voice had matured considerably from the tremulous high notes which mark songs such as “Just Like a Butterfly”. But there are some real gems on this album, most especially the hauntingly regretful “I See Two Lovers”, which also turns up on the album FALLING IN LOVE AGAIN – Classic Female Vocalists of the ‘30s (Conifer 1987, TQ 155). This recording demonstrates to perfection the wistful catch in Morgan’s voice, a sadness which she was able to convey through restraint rather than high drama.

For a more general introduction, Take Two dips into the careers of four singers including Helen Morgan on its album THE ORIGINAL TORCH SINGERS 91980 TT207). The others are Fanny Brice, Libby Holman and Ruth Etting. The latter was probably the most prolific female recording artist of the thirties and numerous collections of her material are widely available. She seems to have endured the test of time more readily than Helen Morgan, while Fanny Brice is better know as Funny Girl these days.

Helen Morgan was a performance chanteuse who, apart from her major stage roles, sang in nightclubs and starred in the Ziegfeld Follies. She might have been a great film actress but after an auspicious debut in Applause the right parts never came along. She might have been an even greater recording artist but performing was her forte and she did other things only as time permitted. Nevertheless diligent searching can result in the discovery of rare pressings, including previously unreleased radio broadcasts which are increasingly becoming a source for the nostalgia buff.

Perhaps the greatest torch song of all is Gershwin’s “The Man I Love”. Yet Morgan never recorded the song commercially. It would be nice to think that an unpublished pressing or wireless performance lurks in a vault somewhere awaiting discovery. In its original working, as sung by Morgan, it would undoubtedly be a far cry from the lavish interpretations of more recent times.

As it is, we can still appreciate the difference in concept between then and now by listening to Helen Morgan’s soufflé-light rendering of “Why Was I Born?” which in accordance with more modern tastes is usually belted out over a rich orchestral backing. Suddenly, to hear how it was originally performed is to hear how it should be performed. The surprise is genuinely moving.

And Helen Morgan perhaps more than any other singer of her generation comes closest to crossing the line between torch and blues. Not that her voice bore any resemblance to Bessie Smith or Billie Holiday. But listen to her interpretation of “Frankie and Johnny” and hear how the divide between them is not so great after all.

There was clearly a brief revival of interest in Helen Morgan’s career after her sad life was given typical Hollywood treatment in a 1954 biopic (The Helen Morgan Story, with Ann Blyth’s singing voice dubbed by Gogi Grant, herself a great torch singer of the 1950s). Collections of her rarer recordings including standards like “Body and Soul” and “More Than You Know” were issued, usually pairing her off with Fanny Brice. There is also a 1969 album issued by RCA Victor in its vintage series which boasts a very discering selection of her material.

These recordings are obviously harder to come by but well worth seeking out. In many ways the quality of these pre-digital mastering issues is clearer than more recent efforts, mainly because the sound is completely true to the original.

Helen Morgan in characteristic pose atop a grand piano

Despite the quality of her more obscure material, the greatest testimony to her rare talent as a torch singer is her legacy of the show-stopping standards which enraptured her audience wherever she was performing, usually characteristically perched atop a grand piano. That such a quality can still capture the imagination after so many years is surely a reason for restoring Helen Morgan to her rightful place in the gallery of all-time-great female performers.

Love Me or Leave Me – a feature I wrote for Gay Times on the classic torch singers, from December 1991 read

Handing on the Torch – a piece for The Wire magazine, tracing torch singing from its roots to modern smart pop read

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2 Responses to “Why Was She Born? The Legacy of Helen Morgan”

  1. Portcityrob April 13, 2011 at 8:31 am #

    Helen Morgan sings “The Man I Love” on track 3 of “Gershwin Performs Gershwin: Rare Recordings 1931-1935” by Music Masters Jazz. This is via: Fred Flaxman @ http://www.compactdiscoveries.com/CompactDiscoveriesScripts/27LoveMusic1.html. Merry Christmas!

    • Piers Ford April 13, 2011 at 10:21 am #

      Thank you for this – a 25-year quest is finally over! I can’t wait to hear it.

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