This week on the program, we celebrate the centennial about 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 who would have turned 100 on June 11, 2018, 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. On this episode, I’ll chronicle what we know about this mysterious yet legendary songwriter.
Early Success In New York
Not much is known about Higginbotham's life, and what is known has been pieced together 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.
For instance, take the song “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. This is just one issue with the confusion around which songs Irene wrote.
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. Over the course of her career, she had over 50 songs published in her name. Early on, 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.
For Goodman, she wrote the song "That Did It, Marie" when she was 23 years old, a song performed by Goodman's singer Peggy Lee in November 1941. For Stan Kenton, she wrote the song "Are You Livin' Old Man," a song for all of the young 1940s "hepsters." Redd Evans and Abner Silver wrote the lyrics to this song, and Anita O'Day sang it with Kenton in 1944. And for Duke Ellington and his Orchestra she wrote the song "It's Mad, Mad, Mad" sung by Dolores Parker in October 1947.
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 Will Make You Laugh,” performed by the Nat King Cole and the King Cole Trio in 1941. This song was re-recorded several timse by people paying tribute to Nat King Cole, including by Marvin Gaye in the 1970s. However other songs, like "Hello Suzanne" sung by the "Cow Cow Boogie" singer Ella Mae Morse, would be mostly lost to history.
Irene And Billie
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," recorded famously by Billie Holiday in 1946 and again by Diana Ross in the 1972 Billie Holiday biopic Lady Sings The Blues. Higginbotham wrote the haunting melody, which is also strangely complex. In the opening bars, it seems to start in a minor key, but then shifts unexpectedly to a major key just a few bars later.
The lyrics came from lyricist Ervin Drake. The story goes according to a 2009 interview Drake had with Will Friedwald, 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.
Holiday recorded other Higginbotham songs, including the song "No Good Man," later recorded by Nina Simone. Higginbotham's connection to Billie Holiday is also the source of the biggest mystery around her life and career. Around the same time that Holiday recorded Higginbotham’s most famous song “Good Morning Heartache,” she 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.
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 (white) male name. That probably played a role, but some people like biographer Eugene Chadbourne argue that it was so Higginbotham could publish for competing copyright organizations without encountering any push back.
Since the music of both Irenes was 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 (that shows up in that same biography by Eugene Chadbourne), when in fact it was the other Irene (Irene Kitchings) who did both of those things.
Blues and R&B Pioneer
Irene Higginbotham had an expansive career beyond her association with Holiday. 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.
For Washington, Higginbotham wrote the song “Mean And Evil Blues,” which Washington recorded twice for Mercury, once in 1946 and again in 1947. For Louis Jordan, she wrote the bluesy song "No Sale," which he recorded in 1946. And for Fats Waller, she wrote the novelty blues number “Liver Lip Jones" back in 1941.
In 1944, Higginbotham performed all kinds of odd jobs that played to her strengths, like having a hand in creating an early boogie woogie piano instruction book. She had also 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, like the song "Boogie Woogie On A Saturday Night." The Red Caps were a 1940s R&B group that paved the way for early rock and roll groups like Bill Haley & His Comets.
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 has 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.