Her songs have been covered by the likes of Nat Cole, Anita O’Day and Louie Armstrong. She is the author of â€œGood Morning Heartache,â€ one of the most emotionally searing ballads in all of jazz. She was a close personal friend to Billie Holiday. The jazz history books have her born in Worcester on June 11, 1918. To say that Irene Higginbottam is one of our lost treasures would merely be stating the obvious.
Like a lot of jazz women of her day, very little is written about her. She is, in fact, sometimes considered to be two different people. Here in Worcester, the name Higginbotham has disappeared from local directories, only Higgenbottom and Higginbottom appear and are of no relation. The name Kitchings is absent as well. Local bassist Bunny Price, who is now in his 70s, says that there were some black folk in Worcester with the name Higginbotham but moved out of town a long time ago.
Musician Eugene Chadbourne has given us something to work with to help bring Irene Higginbotham’s identity into focus. In his biographical sketch written for All Music Guide, he writes: â€œWhile her closest connection in the popular music of the ’30s and ’40s was the great jazz singer Billie Holiday, prolific songwriter Irene Higginbotham was also related by blood and marriage to several famous musicians from this genre.
â€œThe songwriter was the niece of classic jazz trombonist J.C. Higginbotham. She was also the ex-wife of Teddy Wilson by the time he provided piano accompaniment for some of Holiday’s most deeply romantic performances. In a not particularly rare example of jazz combining with soap opera, some of these were Higginbotham’s ballad masterworks, haunting tales of hearts that albeit broken can still be syncopated. Chances are these songs would be on the list of any Holiday fan’s favorite records, including “Some Other Spring” from 1939 and “Good Morning Heartache” from three years later.
Chadborne also notes that in a period of several decades, Higginbotham wrote enough songs to fill the pages of her own biographical volume. See ASCAP pages for a partial list.
Chadborne goes on to say, that despite the association with songs of love and loss, Higginbotham’s songs show a wide range in subject matter and singers who delivered them. He says that “In the Quiet of the Dawn,” is especially worth mentioning because it established her as a seminal presence in the creation of early doo wop.
â€œShe also had a humorous side,â€ Chadborne says, â€œconcocting material combining on-stage antics and music for the vaudeville team of Stump and Stumpy. Her collaborations with co-writer Syd Shaw were in demand as jumping jive reached up to the R&B shelf.â€ He cites such witty songs such as “No Pad to Be Had,” “It’s Got a Hole in It,” and “The Bottle’s Empty.”
Evidently, Higginbotham could also write hit material for dancers. â€œIn the early ’50s some of the latter material such as a toll-free “Jersey Turnpike” was published under the pseudonym of Glenn Gibson due to shenanigans involving a BMI contract,â€ Chadborne reports. â€œNot every song attributed to Glenn Gibson is Higginbotham vintage, however. Joe Davis — A&R man, record label manager, and one of Higginbotham’s publishers — also used the name Glenn Gibson to copyright songs, some of which were actually in the public domain.â€ In the 1950s, Davis also recorded Stump and Stumpy singing Higginbotham’s “Two Thirds Dead.”
In closing, Chadborne compliments our lost hero by saying, â€œIn general, high quality is the proof of an Irene Higginbotham composition. Her songs routinely stood out, sparkling with something special, at recording sessions where several sets of writers participated.â€
A few years ago, jazz radio host David Brent Johnson on his show â€œNight Lights,â€ heard over WFIU 103.7 FM in Bloomington, Indiana presented a fascinating show called “Ghosts of Yesterday: Billie Holiday and the Two Irenes (a Jazz Mystery).” In his commentary on the program he claims to have solved the riddle of the two Irenes.
Building his show around the inquiry, Johnson presented a program that featured the Irene Wilson/Kitchings and Higginbotham compositions recorded by Billie Holiday, as well as songs that Holiday co-wrote with Arthur Herzog Jr., the man who supplied the lyrics for Irene Wilson’s songs. In “Ghosts of Yesterday,” he thanked jazz writers Chris Albertson and Chuck Nessa for their assistance in the matter.
An important link to Higginbotham may be traced to Joe Orange, a retired health insurance executive, who is currently running his own health insurance consulting firm near his home in Columbia, Maryland. Orange is a relative of Irene. A jazz musician himself, Orange was born and raised in the Bronx. He is also a noted trombonist who has worked with among others, Lionel Hampton, Eddie Palmieri, Charlie Palmieri, Lloyd Price and Herbie Mann. In a musical memoir written as a project for Fordham College, Orange wrote: “Music was also always part of my home life. My mother played piano and Hawaiian guitar, and I had an uncle and cousin that were prominent jazz musicians. My Uncle, J.C. Higginbotham was considered the greatest jazz trombonist, of the 1930â€™s and 40â€™s. He had played with Fletcher Hendersonâ€™s band, and recorded ‘Saints Go Marching In’ with Louis Armstrong.
“My cousin Irene Higginbotham was a great Boogie Woogie pianist and songwriter. She composed the words and music to Good Morning Heartache’ that was made famous by Billie Holiday in the 1940â€™s, and again by Diana Ross in the 1970â€™s. Today the song is considered a standard in the jazz repertoire.”
To be continued …
Here’s a link to a boogie woogie songbook adapted by Higginbotham.
Check out this clip of Joe Lovano, Bill Frisell and Paul Motian performing “Good Morning Heartache,” live.