by Larry Reni Thomas
Lee Morgan, the fiery-hot, extremely talented jazz trumpet player, died much too soon. His skyrocketing career was cut short, at age 33, one cold February night in 1972 at a Manhattan, N.Y. club called Slug's. He was shot to death by his 46-year-old common-law wife Helen. At the time, Morgan was experiencing a comeback of sorts. He had been battling a serious heroin addiction problem for years, but, by most accounts, was drug-free.
His gig at Slug's was the talk of the jazz world and was a must-see for all of those in the know. There was always a packed house during his engagements at Slug's. He looked good, was well-groomed, sounded great and seemed destined for a fantastic future. Then the unthinkable happened.
How could it be? Why would Helen Morgan kill her constant companion? What happened in their decade long relationship that would cause her to do something that devastating to Lee and herself, and to Lee Morgan's legion of fellow musicians, friends, and adoring fans?
The only person who could answer such questions was Helen Morgan (aka Helen More or Helen Moore). She was arrested that day, February 19, 1972, served time in prison, and was later paroled. She lived in the Bronx, Mount Vernon, and Yonkers, New York, until 1978, when she moved back to her hometown of Wilmington, N.C. to be near her mother who was very ill and later passed away in 1980. Helen became heavily involved in the Methodist Church, spent time with her grandchildren, took classes at a local college and received a degree.
No one knew about her past other than some members of her family. She almost never talked about it. Yet, she still had friends in New York, like the late vocalist Etta Jones, whom she would telephone frequently to talk about old times. But almost no one, especially in the jazz scene, knew where she was.
How did a country girl from rural North Carolina end up in this situation?
She talked about her life with Lee Morgan in a rare and exclusive interview in February 1996, about a month before she passed away of heart problems in a Wilmington, N.C. hospital. Her health had been in decline for years, and she explained that she wanted to do her one and only interview because she wanted to tell her side of the story. She was tired, she said, and knew she didn't have long to live.
Helen Morgan was born in 1926 in Brunswick County, N.C. on a farm near Shallotte, about 50 miles across the Cape Fear River, from the coastal city of Wilmington. By the time she was 13, the attractive, talkative, bronze-colored skin girl had her first child. A year later, she had another child. Both of her children were raised by her grandparents. She left them and moved to Wilmington at age 15 to live with her mother. When she was 17-years-old, she started dating a local bootlegger who was 39-years-old.
A few months later, they were married. Two years later, her husband drowned and she became a 19-year-old widow. Her late spouse was a New Yorker. When his relatives came down to take care of the funeral, they took her back to New York, when they finished with their business. She arrived in New York, in 1945, with the intention of staying two weeks. She ended up staying there for over 30 years.
She met and fell in love with Lee Morgan in the early 1960s when he was a full-fledged junkie. After he moved in with her, she helped him get off of drugs, cleaned him up and became his manager. Helen helped him restore his career. The good years for them were when Lee was working. He was making good money, had a young-much-in-demand band, appeared on TV, released several excellent recordings. and was touring all over the United States and aboard. They were meeting and greeting people who were mostly high-profile, show business personalities who they would sometimes entertain in their apartment. Late in their decade-long relationship, however, she noticed that his attitude changed and that he became more distant. Helen suspected that he was seeing a younger woman who she said she saw hanging around.
Lee started to run the streets a great deal and sometimes he wouldn’t come home for days. She began to wonder if their wonderful, fun-filled fast times were about to end. It was around that time that Helen began to ask herself: “Did I love him (Lee)? Or did I think of him as my possession? And I think part of that might have been my fault because I might have started being too possessive or too much like a mother to him. I was much older than Morgan. I thought about it. Like I made him. You know. I brought you back. You belong to me. And you are not supposed to go out there and do this,” she cited in the book, The Lady Who Shot Lee Morgan.
On February 19, 1972, she went to see Lee at Slug’s. During intermission. Helen saw that he was with a young lady whose name was Judith Johnson. Lee and Helen had an argument. He pushed her and escorted her out of the club. She came back in and shot him. He bled to death because the ambulance took over an hour to get there, due to the snowy blizzard conditions the city had experienced that day.
In 2014, Helen and Lee Morgan’s time together was published in the book The Lady Who Shot Lee Morgan (KHA Books) written by Larry Reni Thomas. The following year (2015), their story was the subject of an award-winning documentary movie titled “I Called Him Morgan” (www.icalledhimmorgan.com), which was directed and produced by the Swedish filmmaker Kasper Collin.
About the Author
Larry Reni Thomas is a veteran jazz writer, radio announcer and historian from Wilmington, N.C. with a M.A. in history from UNC-Chapel Hill. Larry has had a busy, colorful career that has spanned close to three decades, and has included stints at seven, mostly non-commercial radio stations, including WHQR-FM, WNCU-FM and WCOM-FM, where he is presently host of Sunday Night Jazz. He has written for downbeat, Urban Journal and All ABout Jazz.com and was appointed a North Carolina Humanities Council Road Scholar. Dubbed "Dr. Jazz," by musician Bro. Yusuf Salim, Thomas, who is the host and producer of The Carolina Jazz Connection, considers himself foremost "a gentleman and a scholar and a servant of the people." He is also the author of several books including Rabbit! Rabbit! Rabbit!: A Tale of the Wilmington Incident of February 1971 (2006).