In part one I mentioned that jazz radio host David Brent Johnson presented a show called â€œGhosts of Yesterday: Billie Holiday and the Two Irenes (a Jazz Mystery)â€ that dealt with the confusion about Irene Higginbotham and Irene Kitchings-Wilson. You can find the program archived on line.
After playing the music of both Irenes, he adds historical notes on each songwriter. Towards the end of the show he gets to the heart of matter. He says one of the first telling leads in separating fact from fiction came from Bessie Smith biographer Chris Albertson, who actually knew Higginbotham in the 1960s. Albertson says she was holding down a government office job at the time and had given him a tape of her songs. Albertson said Higginbotham was always trying to come up with another “Good Morning Heartache.” Johnson also mentioned that Albertson confirmed that she was J.C. Higginbotham’s niece.
Johnson also emailed author Donald Clarke, who penned the Billie Holiday biography, Wishing on the Moon. “Clarke’s book had drawn upon interviews done by Linda Kuehl, a woman who interviewed nearly 150 of Holiday’s associates and friends in the early 1970s for a projected biography of Lady Day,” Johnson says. “Kuehl committed suicide before she was able to write the book. When Clarke took on the project he gained some access to Kuehl‘s research, which was now held by a private collector.”
Beginning to make the distinctions more evident, Johnson says, “According to his book Irene Wilson had become ill and moved by to Cleveland in the 1940s, where she married an Ohio State Youth Commissioner named Eldon Kitchings in the 1960s. She had seen Billie Holiday for the last time in the late 1950s, after Billie’s book Lady Sings the Blues had come out when Billie was passing through Cleveland. Her eyesight was failing when Kuehl interview her in 1971.”
Johnson then notes a key discrepency. “But Clarke’s book had identified the Irene of “Good Morning Heartache” with the early Irene of “Some Other Spring.” He then mentions Jay Maynard, a Ohio lawyer and jazz fan, who poses the question: “How could Irene Wilson have been Irene Higginbotham in New York when Chris Albertson knew her in 1960s — if she were Irene Kitchings in Ohio at the sametime?
“In addition,” Johnson asserts, “Chris Albertson said that while Irene Higginbotham regularly brought up her involvement in â€œGood Morning Heartacheâ€ to him, she never mentioned any of the other songs, which are now semi-attributed to her and were recorded by Billie Holiday.”
Johnson says, “They were two different people. Donald Clarke wrote back to confirm that he had made a mistake in his discussion of the mid-1940s Decca recordings. In addition, Linda Dahl’s online essay Jazz Hers, identifies them distinctly as two different people and said, that Irene Higginbotham had been a concert pianist.”
In his closing remarks on the show, Johnson notes that it’s hard to say where and how the confusion began saying, “The fact that both women were named Irene and wrote signature heartbreak songs for Billie Holiday. They were each women songwriters in a time when the jazz world discriminated fiercely against women. Only in the past two decades has jazz history become sensitive to the troubled issue in jazz.”
Okay, there it is. So let’s focus on Irene Higginbotham. We still know very little about her time in Worcester. In the 1944 version of the ASCAP Biographical Dictionary, she is listed as a composer born June 11, 1918 in Worcester, MA. They say she was educated privately with piano lessons. As a songwriter her chief collaborators were Ervin Drake, Dan Fisher, Sammy Gallop, Fred Meadows, Andy Razaf, Bob Hilliard, Syd Shaw, Jay C Higginbotham. At the time, they cite her songs only as “This Will Make You Laugh,” but list her compositions as “Goodmorning Heartache,” “No Good Man,” “That Did It, Marie,” “Typewriter Serenade,” “Harlem Stomp,” a “Boogie Woogie on a Saturday Night.” Lyrics and music: Itâ€™s Mad, Mad, Mad.â€
Higginbotham is also listed in the U.S. Copyright Office. In addition to many of the tunes above, here are some others: “Love is a Frustrated Thing,” “Get out of the Phone Booth Buster,” “Look at Them,” “Any Gal At All,” “Be Good To Me, Baby,” “Blue Enchantment,” “Blues for Higgie” (written with J.C. Higginbotham), “Late for Work,” “Anna Lucasta” (w/J.C.), and “A Woman’s Got A Right To Change Her Mind.”
In the 1980 ASCAP version of the bio dictionary, Irene Evelyn Higginbotham’s married name is listed parenthetically as â€œIrene H. Padellan.” According to the Social Security Death Index Interactive Search (SSDI) she died on August 27, 1988. Her last known address was in Brooklyn, Kings, NY.
After posting part one, I received a couple of interesting comments. Here’s one from Rosemary Orange Brown: “Irene Higginbotham was my first cousin and lived with my family in the Bronx for a while. She wrote “Good Morning Heartache” while living with us. I remember this clearly because I was fascinated with the last words â€œGood Morning Heartache, sit downâ€ Her parents were Garnet and Carrie Higginbotham. She has a sister Violet and a nephew still living in the Atlanta, GA area. Irene was married at the time of her death and has a step son with whom I have lost contact. One of Ireneâ€™s greatest compositions (in my opinion) was “This Will Make You Laugh” recorded by Nat King Cole and later, Natalie Cole. Irene was in a class by herself.”
Upon receiving her comment, I emailed her asking for additional information, especially about the Kitchings-Wilson confusion. Here’s what she said, “I am not familiar with the Kitchings name and I don’t think it is part of our family.Â It might have been Irene’s mother’s maiden name. Unfortunately, Irene’s sister Violet isÂ elderly andÂ not in the best of health,Â butÂ I will send your e-mail to her son (Irene’s nephew).Â There are several other cousins named HigginbothamÂ on the east coast and I am forwarding the article to them.”Â
Another interesting note can be found at the online jazz site, Organissimo. Back in February of 2006, someone with the tag of “Christiern,” posted this: “I knew Irene Higginbotham fairly well–was introduced to her by J.C. This was in the 1960s and she had a government office job. She wrote tons of songs, always trying to come up with another “Good Morning Heartache.” Somewhere, in my jumbled closet, there are a couple of audio cassettes with songs written by her, but none that I found interesting–at least not back then, when she gave me the tapes.”
In part one, it was mentioned that Higginbotham also used the pseudonym, Glenn Gibson. A little confusion lies in this possibility as well. However, certain evidence make it quite plausible. In All Music Guide, Eugene Chadbourne says, “Glenn Gibson shows up as the composer of material in styles such as classic blues, jazz, R&B, and doo wop in the late ’40s and throughout the ’50s. To suggest that the name was larger than life is totally appropriate, since Glenn Gibson represented the publishing interests of more than one person. For a while, Glenn Gibson was Irene Higginbotham. Around 1954, Glenn Gibson turned into Bertha Knapp (aka Bert Knapp, Phoebe Snow, Rinky Scott Jones, and Adrienne Garblikand).
Chadbourne goes on to explain that Higginbotham became Gibson in order to place material with both competing performing rights societies, ASCAP and BMI. “She was under contract to Joe Davis, whose activities in the music business included management, A&R, running record labels, publishing, and songwriting,” he says. “For Davis, subterfuge with songwriting credits was simply a way of collecting publishing money without revealing whose pocket it was going to. One obvious advantage would be that funds would thus accumulate in a tidy row of smaller pools rather than an enormous one that might be heavily taxed. A case could also be made that the pseudonyms were an attempt to avoid responsibility for the material.”
Checking ASCAP’s listing of Higginbotham tunes, none of these novelty numbers are listed under her name. However, there are a parade of others that could fill the bill, including “Fat Meat is Good Meat,” “Liver Lipped Jones,” “Mama Put Your Britches On,” and “No Pad To Be Had.” ASCAP has Higginbothan, not Gibson as the co-writer of “No Pad To Be Had” and “It’s Mad, Mad, Mad” with Syd Shaw. They also list Joe Davis writing “Last Thing at Night” with her.
If its true that Higginbotham continued throughout her life to try and write another “Good Morning Heartache,” who could blame her? It is a masterpiece as evidenced by the number and quality of singers who cover the classic. A partial list includes: Alicia Keys, Tony Bennett, Ruth Brown, Carmen McRae, Rosemary Clooney, Natalie Cole, Diana Ross, Sam Cooke, Johnny Adams, Dinah Washington, Ella Fitzgerald, Joe Williams and, of course, Billie Holiday.
In an article that accompanied the CD box: Billie Holiday – The Complete Original American Decca Recordings, Steve Lasker wrote: “On January 22, 1946, Billie cut three numbers for Decca with a band directed by reedman Bill Stegmeyer. Two of the songs, ‘Good Morning Heartache’ and ‘No Good Man’ are stunning marriages of poetry and melody written expressly for Billie by her close friend Irene Higginbotham.”
Given the list of all-stars who covered “Good Morning Heartache,” it’s fair to say that if she had never written another song, Higginbotham’s contribution to the jazz literature would be recognized. Thankfully, she gave us others. As her cousin has said, “This Will Make You Laugh,” sung by Nat and Natalie Cole is a good place to start. It was also recorded by Marvin Gaye, by the way. Another strong piece is “Are You Living Old Man,” as recorded by Stan Kenton with vocalist Anita O’Day. “Harlem Stomp” was recorded by Louis Armstrong. “It’s Mad, Mad, Mad,” was covered by Duke Ellington. Saxophonist Coleman Hawkins released a version of Higginbotham’s “Look Out Jack” and trumpeters Wingy Manone and Rex Stewart covered her “Mr. Boogie Man.” In 1941, Benny Goodman recorded Higginbotham’s “That Did it, Marie” wth Peggy Lee on vocals.
It should also be noted that Higginbotham co-wrote with some of the best musicians of her day, including J.C. Higginbotham, Sammy Price, Al Sears, Don Redman and Louie Jordan, among others.
There are so many questions still to be answered about Higginbotham. Any information towards answering these questions would be greatly appreciated. Please leave comments.
I would especially like to thank Sven Bjerstedt for his research assistance.
This is a picture of one of the two Irenes.
Additional information on Irene Higginbotham can be found in the following sources:
Claghorn, Charles Eugene, Women composers and songwriters: A concise biographical dictionary
Lanham, Md: Scarecrow Press, 1996, 247 p.
Bloom, Ken, American song: The complete musical theater companion: 1877-1995. Volume 2: T-Z and indexes. Second edition
New York: Schirmer Books, 1996, 2093 p.
Walker-Hill, Helen S., Music by black women composers. A bibliography of available scores
Chicago: Center for Black Music Research Columbia College, 1995, 110 p.
Cohen, Aaron I., International encyclopedia of women composers : classical and serious music New York: R. R. Bowker, 1981, 597 p.
Southern, Eileen, Biographical dictionary of Afro-American and African musicians Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1981, 478 p.
Press, Jaques Cattell, ASCAP biographical dictionary of composers, authors and publishers:
Fourth edition New York: R. R. Bowker, 1980, 589 p.
Perlman, William J. & Spaeth, Sigmund, Music and dance in the New England states New York: Bureau of Musical Research, 1953, 374 p.
Handy, William Christopher, Negro authors and composers of the United States New York: Handy Brothers Music Co. Inc., 1938, 24 p.