[MUSIC CLIP – OSCAR PETERSON, “MOONGLOW”]
MARK CHILLA: Welcome to Afterglow, I’m your host, Mark Chilla.
This week on the program, we celebrate one of the more elusive—yet still important—figures in early 20th century American music: songwriter Irene Higginbotham. Higginbotham, an African-American female songwriter in the 1940s, wrote several jazz standards, including the song “Good Morning Heartache.” This alone should make her an icon among American songwriters, yet little is known about her life, so little in fact that for years, there was confusion about which songs she actually wrote. Coming up, I’ll chronicle what we know about this mysterious yet legendary songwriter.
It’s the Life and Music of Irene Higginbotham, coming up next on Afterglow.
[MUSIC – ELLA FITZGERALD, “GOOD MORNING HEARTACHE”]
Ella Fitzgerald from her 1961 album Clap Hands Here Comes Charlie, with the song “Good Morning Heartache,” by Ervin Drake, Dan Fisher, and Irene Higginbotham. HIgginbotham wrote the music, which for me, is the most interesting part. It’s strangely complex, as it seems to start in a minor key, before shifting to a major key just a few bars later.
[MUSIC CLIP – MILT JACKSON, “GOOD MORNING HEARTACHE”]
[MUSIC CLIP – LOUIS ARMSTRONG, “HARLEM STOMP”]
Mark Chilla here on Afterglow. On this show, we’re celebrating the music of songwriter Irene Higginbotham, an African-American female songwriter working in the early 20th century, who still remains a bit of a mystery among many jazz aficionados.
Not much is known about Higginbotham's life, and what is known has been pieced together Higginbotham by different scholars like Ted Gioia, Will Friedwald, Chet Williamson, and even my colleague David Brent Johnson. Part of the confusion around Higginbotham has to do with attribution.
Take this song we’re hearing right now. It’s called “Harlem Stomp,” recorded by Louis Armstrong in 1940. ASCAP, the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers, lists Irene Higginbotham as the composer of this tune. But in all likelihood, it was J.C. Higginbotham, a trombonist in Armstrong’s band (and Irene’s uncle) who wrote the tune. More on some of these confusions later…
Here’s what we do know about Irene Higginbotham. She was born in Worcester, Massachusetts on June 11, 1918, and moved to Atlanta before finally settling down in New York when she was in her early 20s. While in New York, she established herself as a gifted pianist and composer and began to publish songs.
As an African-American female in the white male-dominated world of songwriting, Higginbotham faced some challenges. But her talent was undeniable, and she was able to get some songs published and performed by some of the most notable Big Bands of the day, including Benny Goodman, Stan Kenton, and Duke Ellington.
I’ll play two of her songs for big bands now, beginning with Peggy Lee with Benny Goodman and his Orchestra in November 1941 performing “That Did It Marie,” on Afterglow.
[MUSIC – BENNY GOODMAN, FEAT. PEGGY LEE, “THAT DID IT MARIE”]
[MUSIC – STAN KENTON, FEAT. ANITA O’DAY – “ARE YOU LIVIN’ OLD MAN”]
[MUSIC - DUKE ELLINGTON, FEAT. DOLORES PARKER – “IT’S MAD, MAD, MAD”]
Duke Ellington and his Orchestra, with singer Dolores Parker in October 1947, with the Irene Higginbotham song “It’s Mad, Mad, Mad,” a song she co-wrote with lyricist Sydney Shaw. Before that we heard Anita O’Day during her brief stint singing with the Stan Kenton Orchestra in 1944 and “Are You Livin’ Old Man,” a song by Higginbotham with Redd Evans and Abner Silver. That song was written for all of those young 1940s “hepsters.” And before that, we heard another early Irene Higginbotham song, something she wrote when she was 23 years old. That was “That Did It, Marie,” sung by Peggy Lee with the Benny Goodman Orchestra.
In the 1940s, Irene Higginbotham also wrote songs for individual artists not working in a big band setting. Some of these songs would go on to be popular beyond the 1940s, just because of the artist who was initially tied to it. That’s the case for this song we’re about to hear from Nat King Cole. Other songs would be mostly lost to history.
I’ll play some more Irene Higginbotham songs for you now, beginning with Nat King Cole and the King Cole Trio in 1941 performing “This Will Make You Laugh,” on Afterglow.
[MUSIC – NAT KING COLE TRIO, “THIS WILL MAKE YOU LAUGH”]
[MUSIC – ELLA MAE MORSE, “HELLO, SUZANNE”]
Ella Mae Morse, a country-blues and pop singer from the 1940s, with the little-known Irene Higginbotham song “Hello, Suzanne.” Morse was more well-known for songs like “Cow Cow Boogie,” a song which later became a hit for Ella Fitzgerald and the Ink Spots.
Before that, we heard Nat King Cole with “This Will Make You Laugh,” written by Higginbotham. Soul singer Marvin Gaye, himself a big fan of Nat Cole, would later record this same song in the 1970s.
By far, Irene Higginbotham’s most well-known song from the 1940s (and really her most well-known song in general) was “Good Morning Heartache.” We did hear a version of this earlier in the hour, but I want to play the original version by Billie Holiday because this is probably the definitive version of this song and the one that put Irene Higginbotham at least somewhat on the map.
Higginbotham wrote the haunting melody, and the lyrics came from lyricist Ervin Drake. After being dumped by a young showgirl, Drake heard Higginbotham’s brooding melody and wrote the words in about 20 minutes. Song-plugger and producer Dan Fisher received a co-writing credit on the song, although he likely had little to do with its creation. He is, however, the one who brought it to the attention of Billie Holiday, who recorded it in 1946. It was the first time Holiday recorded with a full string orchestra, and she created her iconic performance in only one take.
Here’s that song now. Billie Holiday in 1946 with “Good Morning Heartache,” on Afterglow
[MUSIC – BILLIE HOLIDAY, “GOOD MORNING HEARTACHE”]
Billie Holiday in 1946 with the Irene Higginbotham and Ervin Drake song “Good Morning Heartache.” That song later became a hit in 1973, as sung by Diana Ross, after she starred as Holiday in the film Lady Sings The Blues.
[MUSIC CLIP – GEORGE COLEMAN, “GOOD MORNING HEARTACHE”]
Coming up after a break, we’ll hear some more songs by Irene Higginbotham, including a few songs that were falsely attributed to her for many years. Stay with us.
I’m Mark Chilla, and you’re listening to Afterglow
[MUSIC CLIP – CARMEN MCRAE, “THIS WILL MAKE YOU LAUGH”]
[MUSIC CLIP – COLEMAN HAWKINS, “EVERY MAN FOR HIMSELF”]
Welcome back to Afterglow, I’m Mark Chilla. What you’re listening to right now is Coleman Hawkins and the song “Every Man For Himself,” written by songwriter Irene Higginbotham, and it’s Higginbotham who is getting the spotlight this week.
Higginbotham, despite being a somewhat prominent African-American female songwriter in the 1940s at a time when white males dominated the industry, remains to this day a bit of a mysterious figure. We know that she was a pianist and singer based in New York, the niece of trombonist J.C. Higginbotham, and she had over 50 songs published in her name.
Higginbotham also composed under some pseudonyms, most notably the pseudonym “Glenn Gibson.” You might think that this was a way for the female songwriter to get more attention by using this innocuous male name. That probably played a role, but some scholars argue that it was so Higginbotham could publish for competing copyright organizations without encountering any pushback.
But her use of a pseudonym was probably the source of the biggest mysteries surrounding Higginbotham’s music – and that is, which songs she actually wrote.
[MUSIC CLIP – ZOOT SIMS, “SOME OTHER SPRING”]
You see, around the same time that Billie Holiday had recorded Higginbotham’s most famous song “Good Morning Heartache,” Holiday had also recorded several other songs by another woman named Irene.
This other Irene also went by several names: Irene Wilson, Irene Armstrong, and most frequently Irene Kitchings. Irene Wilson/Armstrong/Kitchings was actually a personal friend of Holiday’s and was married briefly to Holiday’s frequent collaborator Teddy Wilson. This other Irene wrote several songs with songwriter Arthur Herzog, Jr, another frequent Holiday collaborator, including “Some Other Spring” and “Ghost Of Yesterday” both recorded by Holiday.
Since the music both Irenes were associated with Holiday, and since both Irenes had used different names, many scholars have mistakenly conflated the two into one Irene with many names. You’ll find in liner notes and biographies that Higginbotham wrote “Some Other Spring,” or that she was once married to Teddy Wilson, when in fact it was the other Irene (Irene Kitchings) who did both of those things.
I’ll play some Irene Kitchings and Arthur Herzog Jr songs now. Here’s Billie Holiday with “Some Other Spring” and “Ghost Of Yesterday,” on Afterglow.
[MUSIC – BILLIE HOLIDAY, “SOME OTHER SPRING”]
[MUSIC – BILLIE HOLIDAY, “GHOST OF YESTERDAY”]
Billie Holiday with two songs not written by Irene Higginbotham. That was “Ghost of Yesterday” and “Some Other Spring” written instead by Irene Kitchings and Arthur Herzog Jr. The two Irenes, Higginbotham and Kitchings, have been sometimes confused for one another in liner notes and Billie Holiday biographies.
Irene Higginbotham, the subject of this episode, had a much more expansive career beyond her association with Holiday. For one, as she moved into the 1950s, she became more and more tied to the burgeoning rhythm and blues and early rock and roll scene. She was the composer of bluesy songs for artists who worked on the cusp between jazz, boogie-woogie, jump blues, and R&B, including Dinah Washington, Fats Waller, and Louis Jordan.
Here now are a few songs from the 1940s that foreshadow Higginbotham’s transition to an R7B songwriter. I’ll begin with a song she wrote for Dinah Washington called “Mean And Evil Blues.” In fact, Washington recorded two different versions of this song for Mercury, one in 1946 and 1947, and I’ll play both for you now.
Here’s Dinah Washington with Irene Higginbotham’s “Mean And Evil Blues,” on Afterglow
[MUSIC – DINAH WASHINGTON, “MEAN AND EVIL BLUES”]
[MUSIC – FATS WALLER, “LIVER LIP JONES”]
[MUSIC – LOUIS JORDAN AND HIS TYMPANY FIVE, “NO SALE”]
Louis Jordan in 1946 with the bluesy Irene Higginbotham song “No Sale.” Before that, we heard another novelty blues record written by Higginbotham from around 1941. That was Fats Waller with “Liver Lip Jones.” And starting that set, two versions of “Mean And Evil Blues” by Dinah Washington, also written by Higginbotham.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Irene Higginbotham proved to be a chameleon of a songwriter and musician, In 1944, she performed all kinds of odd jobs that played to her strengths, like having a hand in creating an early boogie-woogie piano instruction book. And while she wrote jazz standards like “Good Morning Heartache” for Billie Holiday, her songs were also laying down the groundwork for the birth of rock and roll.
She had worked under manager and promoter Joe Davis, and during that time, she wrote a number of boogie-woogie and jump blues songs for the band Steve Gibson and the Red Caps, a 1940s R&B that paved the way for groups like Bill Haley & His Comets.
Here’s an Irene Higginbotham song performed by the Red Caps called “Boogie Woogie on A Saturday Night,” on Afterglow.
[MUSIC - STEVEN GIBSON AND THE RED CAPS, “BOOGIE WOOGIE ON A SATURDAY NIGHT”]
Steve Gibson and the Red Caps in 1948 with “Boogie Woogie on A Saturday Night,” written by Irene Higginbotham.
After the 1940s, Higginbotham’s name was mostly forgotten, and she passed away in New York City at age 70 in 1988. And while details of her life and clarity about which songs she actually composed have only come out in the last few years, her contributions to American Popular Song are undeniable. Hundreds of artists have performed her songs over the decades, possibly without ever knowing her name.
I’ll close off this hour by performing one more song of hers, recorded years after she had retired from the music industry. Here’s Nina Simone in 1961 with the Irene Higginbotham song “No Good Man,” on Afterglow.
[MUSIC - NINA SIMONE, “NO GOOD MAN”]
Nina Simone with Irene Higginbotham’s “No Good Man,” and thanks for tuning into this look at the songs of Irene Higginbotham on Afterglow.
[MUSIC CLIP – COLEMAN HAWKINS, “LOOK OUT JACK”]
Afterglow is part of the educational mission of Indiana University and produced by WFIU Public Radio in beautiful Bloomington, Indiana. The executive producer is John Bailey.
Playlists for this and other Afterglow programs are available on our website. That’s at indianapublicmedia.org/afterglow.
I’m Mark Chilla, and join me next week for our mix of Vocal Jazz and popular song from the Great American Songbook, here on Afterglow