My brother and I have been playing a game this week which I'll call WikiLists, trading the longest, strangest or most surprising lists we can find on Wikipedia. We've found some good ones—Hats! Treaties! Fallacies!—but my new favorite is the brilliant, distressing list of entertainers who died during a performance. Some highlights:
We all know Molière died on stage, and it should be no surprise that daredevil Sam Patch died in pursuit of his art. I remember when Owen Hart and Steve Irwin bit it—I've never quite gotten over either of those, even though I was never into human wrestling or, uh, crocodile wrestling. But I didn't know that two opera singers died on stage at the Met—a tenor and a baritone—and both of them after singing lines that touched on the transience of life.
That last bit seems a bit too opera legend perfect though, don't it? It helps, of course, that your average aria is chock full of death.
There are lots of heart attacks on that list. As always, it gets more interesting when a gun comes onstage.
Memphis blues singer Johnny Ace was only twenty-five, and had just bought a brand new Olds, when he made the mistake of playing around with a gun after a performance. Blind drunk and cheerful, he smiled when his friends told him to be careful and pointed the gun at his head. According to Big Mama Thornton, Ace's last words were, "It's okay! Gun's not loaded...see?"
Trumpeter Lee Morgan, who was so talented it hurts, was shot through the heart by his common law wife in 1972, just after finishing a show at an East Village jazz-pit with the unlucky name of Slugs. The bar stood at 248 East. 3rd, between Avenues B and C. It appears there's a community garden there. Morgan was 33 and was working on a comeback when he died. As shocking as that is, the life of the woman who killed him beats all.
A mother at 13, a widow at 19, Helen Morgan was never going to let life kick her around. She moved to New York in 1945, and quickly fell in with the after-hours jazz scene, carrying heroin for the musicians who trusted her with their horse because they knew she didn't use. When she met Morgan, in the early '60s, he was dead broke and freezing, having pawned his trumpet and coat to buy drugs. Helen got his stuff out of hock and, according to an interview which she gave shortly before her death, did her best to keep him out of trouble.
Helen got Morgan into rehab in the Bronx. When he got out, they moved to an apartment on the Grand Concourse—far from his old haunts. He took methadone to stay off heroin, and kept himself amused by shooting cocaine. (Kids—this is not a good trade-off.) He started staying out all night, and finally picked up a coke-addict girlfriend who was, unlike Helen, younger than him. As Helen tells it, she tried to end the relationship without quitting her work as his business partner, but he refused to leave their apartment, because "he had sense enough to know that what he was doing with her would do nothing but bring him down."
Finally, Helen's patience ran out, and she went to confront him at Slugs, carrying the gun he had bought her in her purse. The show was over when she arrived on Third Street, and Morgan was with his girlfriend. Then...well, I'll let Helen tell it.
And about that time I hit him. And when I hit him I didn’t have on my coat or nothing but I had my bag. He threw me out the club. Wintertime. And the gun fell out the bag, and I looked at it. I got up. I went to the door.
I guess he had told the bouncer that I couldn’t come back in. The bouncer said to me, "Miss Morgan I hate to tell you this but Lee don’t want me to let you in." And I said, Oh, I’m coming in! I guess the bouncer saw the gun because I had the gun in my hand. He said, "Yes you are." And I saw Morgan rushing over there to me and all I saw in his eyes was rage.
Helen Morgan only served a few years in jail for shooting Lee through the heart. The way she tells the story, at least, you can hardly blame her.
There's one more killer story on that list—one more at least!—but I've got a date with a buddy of mine to eat brisket and watch baseball, so y'all are on your own for the rest of the afternoon.