Marion Morgan

aka Blair Lee

Photo of Marion Morgan
  • Birth Name

    Marion Swires
  • Born

    December 14, 1923
    Michigan
  • Died

    October 21, 2013 (age 89)
    Los Angeles, California
  • Orchestras

    Sonny Dunham
    Harry James
    Art Mooney

A native of Detroit, Marion Morgan spent most of the late 1940s as vocalist for Harry James. The strawberry blonde singer had a mildly successful solo career but never managed to break out on her own, despite a boost from actress Joan Crawford. Morgan eventually settled on the West Coast, where she continued singing into the early 1960s, appearing regularly on local television.

Morgan grew up in the Detroit home of her uncle and aunt, where she lived with her mother and older sister, and in the early 1940s she married Detroit police officer Keith Pillsbury. Morgan’s mother, Ruth Swires, had been a singer, and Morgan decided to follow in her footsteps, working under the stage name Blair Lee until bandleader Russ Morgan convinced her to adopt his last name and use her given first name.[1] In early 1944, she briefly sang with Sonny Dunham’s orchestra, taking over for Pat Cameron in either March or April and remaining with the band until late May. After departing from Dunham, Morgan sang in Detroit night clubs and on radio station WJR until being discovered in late 1945 by budding agent Tim Gayle, who signed her to a multi-year contract and brought her to the East Coast.[2]

Gayle quickly found Morgan work on both New York radio station WHN and the Mutual network. She also spent a short time with Art Mooney’s band. In January 1946, she became staff vocalist for Chicago radio station WBBM, where she remained four months and had her own program. Her big break finally came in June when Harry James lost singer Ginnie Powell, who quit to stay on the West Coast when the band traveled east. Gayle sent James a transcription of Morgan’s radio show, and James hired her based solely on that recording.

When James disbanded for a six-week break in November 1946, he arranged for Morgan to make her first solo recordings on the Jewel label, which he co-owned at that time with Ben Pollack.[3] Morgan also tried to look for “picture work” during the downtime.[4] As six weeks turned into more than five, however, Morgan had to seek other opportunities, and when James finally reorganized in April she wasn’t available, requiring him to hire Pat Flaherty in her place. When Flaherty left in July, Morgan returned, temporarily at first due to other commitments. Those commitments ultimately fell through, and she remained with the orchestra through the end of 1948, becoming an integral part of its late 1940s sound.

While with James, Morgan made several solo appearances on radio, including two guest spots on Mark Warnow’s program, and in 1948 she provided the singing voice for actress Dorothy Malone in the film One Sunday Afternoon. In mid-1947, Morgan sued Gayle to be released from her management contract. At the same time, she also filed for divorce from Pillsbury. Gossip columns had her dating actor Mickey Rooney, but she soon traded him for James road manager Sid Beller. She and Beller married in September 1949, six months after her divorce from Pillsbury was finalized.

Solo Career

In January 1949, James modernized his sound, replacing Morgan and male vocalist Vinni De Campo with the Skylarks vocal quartet. Down Beat reported that the two singers were “dumped.” Morgan took exception with their wording, saying that she had left the orchestra of her own accord.[5]

Morgan’s solo career got off to a slow start. Though she recorded on Columbia with Bob Crosby in early 1949 and landed her own radio program, Take a Chorus, club bookings proved hard to secure. In mid-1949, she lucked into an opening at Ciro’s in Hollywood after one of the scheduled acts cancelled. Actress Joan Crawford sat at a ringside table that night and took a liking to Morgan. Crawford invited the singer to her table, and the next day Morgan went to Crawford’s house, where the actress gave her instructions on clothing, make-up, hair, and posture. She also put Morgan on a reducing diet. On Morgan’s second night at Ciro’s, she appeared wearing one of Crawford’s own gowns. Crawford’s coaching, and the publicity surrounding it, helped boost Morgan’s prospects, and later that year she signed with Decca, making her first recordings on that label in November.

Despite the attention she had received, opportunities in Hollywood continued to prove scarce, and at the beginning of 1950 Morgan moved to New York, which at the time was home to the majority of radio and television production. She quickly found work, appearing on Betty Furness’ Television Party in January and becoming the regular vocalist on radio’s Salute the Reservists. In June, Morgan earned a spot as the female vocalist on the television version of ABC’s popular radio program Stop the Music, where she remained through at least May 1951. She appeared on Saturday Night at Meadowbrook in June of that year.

In early 1951, Morgan signed a multi-faceted contract with MGM. In March, the company promoted her with a fifteen-minute sustaining program on their New York radio station, WMGM, and sent her on a tour of the Loew’s theater chain, who at that time owned MGM.[6] In addition, she began recording on the firm’s label, both solo and as a duo with Art Lund. She also recorded on the Atlantic label that year and appeared on television’s Cavalcade of Bands as well as the programs of Steve Allen and Jackie Gleason. All in all, Morgan proved quite busy during 1950 and 1951, touring and commuting back and forth to New York for her radio and television commitments. Morgan appeared on the television program Juke Box Jury in late 1952.

Morgan was back on the West Coast in 1953 as a regular on the syndicated program Bandstand Revue, produced by independent Los Angeles television station KTLA. MGM announced plans that year for more Morgan recordings and a night club push. For unknown reasons, however, Morgan disappears after 1953, not re-emerging again until 1956, when she became female vocalist on Curt Massey’s CBS radio program. In August 1957, she served as a regular on the network’s Matinee radio show, hosted by Harry Babbitt. That November she gave birth to her first child, a son. Remaining with CBS radio, Morgan joined the cast of Pat Buttram’s Just Entertainment in 1958, where she remained through at least early 1960.[7] Morgan recorded on Decca in 1960 and had her second child, a daughter, early that year.[8]

In 1961, Morgan began an association with Los Angeles television station KNXT, appearing on several musical specials over the next two years. In spring 1963, she was back at KTLA on a short-lived musical game show, Sing Ahead, again working with Babbitt. She returned to KNXT in 1963 as co-host of the morning talk show Pacific Panorama, where she remained into 1964. In January 1964, she appeared on another local Los Angeles station, KABC, as part of a salute to big bands. Beyond that, she disappears into the mists of time. Morgan passed away in 2013 at age 89.

Aside from her singing talents, Morgan reportedly could play the piano well enough to make a living from it. In the early 1950s, one newspaper article credited her with starting the ponytail “hair do fad” that became popular that decade.

Notes

  1. Marion never worked for Russ Morgan. ↩︎

  2. One source says it was a five-year contract, another says seven years. ↩︎

  3. Morgan’s Jewel recordings were re-released by Columbia in 1948 during the musicians’ union strike of that year. Pollack conducted the backing orchestra. ↩︎

  4. The James band was based in Hollywood. ↩︎

  5. It’s likely Morgan is telling the truth, that she left James rather than being released. Both she and the Skylarks appeared on the same local television program during the month that James revamped the band. It’s also possible, though, that James gently pushed her out. 1949 saw a major shift in popular music away from the standards that had defined the swing era and towards novelty tunes. Vocal groups were a part of this trend. There were clearly no ill feelings between James and Morgan. He was regularly seen “applauding loudly” at her solo shows in 1949 and even threw her a cocktail party that year. ↩︎

  6. Radio station WMGM was the same station, then called WHN, where Morgan had sang when she first arrived in New York in late 1945. ↩︎

  7. Actor and comedian Pat Buttram is perhaps best known as Gene Autry’s cowboy sidekick and later as Mr. Haney on television’s Green Acres. ↩︎

  8. Morgan’s husband, Beller, at this time owned a swimming pool company. ↩︎

Sources

  1. “Chicago Band Briefs.” Down Beat 15 Jun. 1944: 4.
  2. “Night Club Reviews: Lou Walter's Latin Quarter, Detroit.” Billboard 26 May 1945: 30.
  3. “Up And Coming.” Down Beat 1 Dec. 1945: 1.
  4. “Art Mooney Stays At Lincoln 'till Feb.” Down Beat 15 Dec. 1945: 3.
  5. “What's on the Air.” Wisconsin State Journal 16 Jan. 1946: 15.
  6. “Around the Dial.” Kenosha Evening News [Kenosha, Wisconsin] 12 Feb. 1946: 13.
  7. “No Title.” Billboard 29 Jun. 1946: 45.
  8. Carroll, Harrison. “Hollywood.” Massillon Evening Independent [Massillon, Ohio] 8 Jul. 1946: 4.
  9. “James Band Is Versatile.” The Amarillo Globe 2 Oct. 1946: 19.
  10. “James Cohorts Are All Smiles.” Down Beat 4 Nov. 1946: 10.
  11. “Chicago Band Briefs.” Down Beat 28 Nov. 1946: 4.
  12. “Strictly Ad Lib.” Down Beat 28 Nov. 1946: 5.
  13. “Music As Written: Hollywood.” Billboard 30 Nov. 1946: 32.
  14. “Good Year.” Down Beat 16 Dec. 1946: 1.
  15. “On Air.” The Circleville Daily Herald 9 Jan. 1947: 11.
  16. “Music As Written.” Billboard 21 Jun. 1947: 37.
  17. “Marion Morgan Returns To James Ork.” Down Beat 2 Jul. 1947: 1.
  18. Hopper, Hedda. “Hedda Hopper's Hollywood.” Berkeley Daily Gazette 12 Jul. 1947: 14.
  19. “Strictly Ad Lib.” Down Beat 10 Sep. 1947: 13.
  20. Winchell, Walter. “On Broadway.” Kingsport News [Kingsport, Tennessee] 12 Sep. 1947: 4.
  21. “Strictly Ad Lib.” Down Beat 24 Sep. 1947: 5.
  22. “On the Stand: Harry James.” Billboard 25 Oct. 1947: 36.
  23. Long, Victor. “Radio Around Here.” The Amarillo News-Globe 21 Mar. 1948: 21.
  24. “Radio Timetable.” Syracuse Herald-Journal 11 Sep. 1948: 5.
  25. Ronan, Eddie. “Blazing Brass Sparks James' Band.” Down Beat 15 Dec. 1948: 2.
  26. “Radio and Television Program Revews: The Picture Album.” Billboard 22 Jan. 1949: 8.
  27. “James Shuffles, Deals New Rhythm.” Down Beat 25 Feb. 1949: 2.
  28. Ronan, Eddie. “On the Sunset Vine.” Down Beat 25 Mar. 1949: 9.
  29. “Today's Radio Highlights.” Wisconsin State Journal [Madison, Wisconsin] 23 Apr. 1949: 5.
  30. “Stars Billed for Benefit.” Long Beach Press-Telegram 8 May 1949: C-2.
  31. Carroll, Harrison. “Behind the Scenes in Hollywood.” The Bradford Era [Bradford, Pennsylvania] 11 Jul. 1949: 4.
  32. Carroll, Harrison. “Behind the Scenes in Hollywood.” Washington Daily News [Washington, North Carolina] 13 Jul. 1949: 4.
  33. Carroll, Harrison. “Behind the Scenes in Hollywood.” Hamilton Daily News-Journal [Hamilton, Ohio] 25 Jul. 1949: 5.
  34. Callin, Owen. “Record Rendezvous.” The Bakersfield Californian 25 Aug. 1949: 20.
  35. “Lost Harmony.” Down Beat 21 Oct. 1949: 1.
  36. “Marion Morgan Gets A Manager.” Down Beat 21 Oct. 1949: 1.
  37. “Marriages.” Billboard 22 Oct. 1949: 28.
  38. Callin, Owen. “Record Reviews.” The Bakersfield Californian 28 Nov. 1949: 8.
  39. “6 Fem Vocalists Added by Decca.” Billboard 10 Dec. 1949: 14.
  40. “Vaudeville Reviews: Orpheum, Los Angeles.” Billboard 24 Dec. 1949: 43.
  41. “Tied Notes.” Down Beat 18 Nov. 1949: 10.
  42. Clary, Patricia. “Theater News: Hollywood Film Shop.” The Bakersfield Californian 31 Dec. 1949: 29.
  43. “KLUF to Broadcast Salute to Reservists.” The Galveston News 28 Jan. 1950: 14.
  44. “Dial Lites.” Long Beach Press-Telegram 11 Mar. 1950: B-3.
  45. Foster, Bob. “Radio Plans Holy Week Broadcasts.” San Mateo Times [San Mateo, California] 1 Apr. 1950: 12.
  46. Raine, Francis. “RadiOpinion - TV.” The Cincinnati Times-Star 20 May 1950: 18.
  47. “Marion Morgan Gets 'Stop Music' Spot.” Down Beat 30 Jun. 1950: 13.
  48. “Marion Morgan To Appear On Kintner Award Show Broadcast Here Next Week.” The Stroudsburg Daily Record [Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania] 9 Oct. 1950: 2.
  49. “TV Best Bets.” San Antonio Light 1 Dec. 1950: 6-B.
  50. Kilgallen, Dorothy. “Dorothy Kilgallen.” The Lowell Sun [Lowell, Massachusetts] 23 Jan. 1951: 14.
  51. Niccoll, Ria A. “Manhattan Televiewpoint.” Down Beat 9 Feb. 1951: 5.
  52. “Television-Radio Reviews: Marion Morgan Show.” Billboard 3 Mar. 1951: 6.
  53. “Another Look: Stop the Music.” Billboard 3 Mar. 1951: 7.
  54. “Music As Written: New York.” Billboard 24 Mar. 1951: 16.
  55. Callin, Owen. “Record Rendezvous.” El Paso Herald-Post 17 May 1951: 22.
  56. “Television.” Syracuse Herald-Journal 19 Jul. 1951: 59.
  57. “Advanced Record Releases.” Billboard 24 Nov. 1951: 44.
  58. “TV Guide-Book for This Week.” Billboard 8 Jul. 1951: 4-11.
  59. “Music Scene in Focus.” Down Beat 21 Mar. 1952: 11.
  60. Vernon, Terry. “Tele-Vues.” The Long Beach Independent 1 Nov. 1952: 11.
  61. “Top Recording Artists Sing At N.J. Guild.” Billboard 10 May 1952: 90.
  62. Ballance, Bill. “Off-Ballance.” Down Beat 7 Oct. 1953: 2.
  63. “Independent Fete to Hear TV Stars.” Billboard 16 Feb. 1956: 1-A.
  64. “Sunday on Radio.” The Pasadena Independent Star-News 11 Aug. 1957: TV Week 11.
  65. “Singer Marion Morgan Gives Birth To Boy.” La Crosse Tribune [La Crosee, Wisconsin] 22 Nov. 1957: 9.
  66. “Reviews in Brief: Just Entertainment.” Billboard 25 Aug. 1958: 10.
  67. “Radio.” The Pasadena Independent Star-News 4 Jan. 1959: TV Week 8.
  68. Parsons, Louella. “Hollywood Talk.” The Sarasota News [Sarasota, Florida] 13 Sep. 1959: 14.
  69. “Radio Highlights.” The Arizona Republic [Phoenix, Arizona] 21 Sep. 1959: 28.
  70. “Radio Highlights.” The Arizona Republic [Phoenix, Arizona] 16 Feb. 1960: 27.
  71. “Record Reviews.” Billboard 4 Mar. 1960: 61.
  72. “Monday.” The Long Beach Independent Press-Telegram 31 Dec. 1961: Tele-Vues 4.
  73. “Molly Bee Salutes Springtime USA.” The Pasadena Independent 31 Mar. 1962: 6.
  74. “Tuesday.” The Long Beach Independent Press-Telegram 3 Jul. 1962: Tele-Vues 8.
  75. “Friday.” The Long Beach Independent Press-Telegram 14 Apr. 1963: Tele-Vues 13.
  76. “Music As Written: Hollywood.” Billboard 28 Dec. 1963: 20.
  77. “The Modernaires.” The Long Beach Independent Press-Telegram 5 Jan. 1964: Tele-Vues 11.
  78. “Marion Morgan Turned Deaf Ear to Top Brass.” The Long Beach Independent Press-Telegram 26 Apr. 1964: Tele-Vues 13.
  79. “United States Census, 1930,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:X79D-5ZW : accessed 14 June 2023), Marion Swires in household of Howard R Stark, Detroit (Districts 0251-0500), Wayne, Michigan, United States; citing enumeration district (ED) ED 296, sheet 5A, line 32, family 35, NARA microfilm publication T626 (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 2002), roll 1043; FHL microfilm 2,340,778.