Helen Morgan (August 2, 1900 – October 9, 1941) was an American singer and actress who worked in films and on the stage. A quintessential torch singer, she made a big splash in the Chicago club scene in the 1920s. She starred as Julie LaVerne in the original Broadway production of Hammerstein and Kern's musical Show Boat in 1927 as well as in the 1932 Broadway revival of the musical, and appeared in two film adaptations, a part-talkie made in 1929 (prologue only) and a full-sound version made in 1936, becoming firmly associated with the role. She suffered from bouts of alcoholism, and despite her notable success in the title role of another Hammerstein and Kern's Broadway musical, Sweet Adeline (1929), her stage career was relatively short. Helen Morgan died of cirrhosis of the liver at the age of 41. She was portrayed by Polly Bergen in the Playhouse 90 drama The Helen Morgan Story and by Ann Blyth in the 1957 biopic based on the television drama.
She was born as Helen Riggin in 1900 in rural Danville, Illinois. Her father Frank Riggin, was a farmer in Davis Township of Fountain County, just outside Attica, Indiana. After her mother, Lulu Lang Riggin 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 variety of jobs 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.
Helen Morgan's high, thin, and somewhat wobbly voice was not fashionable during the 1920s for the kind of songs that she specialized in, but nevertheless she became a wildly popular torch singer. A draped-over-the-piano look became her signature while performing at Billy Rose's Backstage Club in 1925. In spite of the National Prohibition Act of 1919 outlawing alcohol in the United States, Morgan became a heavy drinker and was often reportedly drunk during these performances. 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. During this period several Chicago gangsters tried to help fund her various attempts to open her own nightclub. However, Prohibition agents kept too strict an eye on her and these attempts failed.