Emotional, Sensual Vocal Performance
Helen Merrill was born on July 21, 1929, in New York City. She is a first generation American, her parents immigrated from what is now known as Croatia. She began singing as a teenager in the late 1940s. In 1951, she was a vocalist with the Earl Hines band. She recorded two songs on the Roost label in 1953, ‘My Funny Valentine’ and ‘The More I See You’, which mark the beginning of her long recording career. These recordings led to her being signed to a contract on the newly launched EmArcy label of Mercury Records. The first single released by EmArcy Records (EmArcy 16000) was by Helen Merrill. She recorded five albums for EmArcy from 1954-1958. Her debut album, “Helen Merrill” has never been out of print. Her recordings of this period were with highly regarded and talented musicians including Clifford Brown, Barry Galbriath, Frank Wess, Marian McPartland, Bill Evans, Quincy Jones, Hal Mooney, Gil Evans, Milt Hinton, and Osie Johnson.
In 1959, she moved to Europe where she continued to record and perform. The move exposed her to a greater world-view and her music began to reveal this, recording several folk songs on the 1964 album “The Artisrtry of Helen Merrill”. In the early 1960s she made her first tour of Japan as a musician. This would have a major influence on her career later. In the mid-1960s she collaborated with Dick Katz on two memorable albums “The Feeling Is Mutual “and “A Shade of Difference.” Both of these albums are striking in the creativity of all the musicians involved. Besides Mr. Katz these included Thad Jones, Jim Hall, Ron Carter, Arnie Wise, Hubert Laws, Gary Bartz, Richard Davis, Elvin Jones, and Pete LaRoca. Moving to Japan in the late 1960s, due to her husband’s career, she recorded several albums for the Japanese Victor label working with Japanese musicians including Sadao Wantanabe, Norio Maeda, Masahiko Satoh, Takeshi Inomata, and Hozan Yamamoto. Two of these albums included collaborations with American musicians Teddy Wilson and Gary Peacock. While residing in Japan she also hosted a program for a Tokyo radio station.
Miss Merrill returned to live in the United States in the mid-1970s. Her first recording upon her return was the 1976 album, “Helen Merrill/John Lewis”. It was nominated for a Grammy award as was her 1980 album “Chasin’ The Bird’. In the late 1970s she took on a new role as the producer for albums by pianists Tommy Flannagan, Roland Hanna, Al Haig, and Dutch vocalist Ann Burton.
Her career continued in full swing during the 1980s. Early in the decade she recorded albums once again in Japan. Other recording sessions during this time include a composer series, albums of the music of Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, and Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein. Her wonderfu 1980 album, “Casa Forte”, was produced and arranged by Torrie Zito, who she had a long marriage to until his death in 2009. Mid-decade she recorded two notable albums for the Owl label in France with pianist Gordon Beck and others. From 1987 to the present, she has recorded a number of albums of high merit, both musically and artistically. These include a collaboration with Gil Evans as they revisited their 1956 recording “Dream of You.” The new album entitled “Collaboration.” She recorded “Brownie,” a tribute to Clifford Brown. With Ron Carter she recorded “Duets,” an album with only bass and vocal. Other albums of this period, “Clear Out of this World” and “You and the Night and the Music”, reveal her maturity and what it brought to her music and interpretations, strengthening her legacy as a jazz original.
In the late 1990s recordings continue. In 1998, she recorded “Carrousel” with Finnish composer Heikki Sarmanto, he specifically desiring to work with her. In 1999, she released “Jelena Ana Milcetic aka…Helen Merrill.” This album is an intertwining of her Croatian heritage with her musical history. It is a marriage of music and art of the highest degree.
Her last album to date, “Lilac Wine,” is of songs that she had never recorded with the exception of ‘Lilac Wine.” On this album she continues to push to the future as she took the composition, ‘You,’ from the English rock band Radiohead, and gave it her own interpretation, accompanied by her son, rock singer and composer, Alan Merrill.
It should be noted that during this long career, 60 years plus, Helen Merrill has and continues to perform live at various venues throughout the world, as well as participating on panels and discussion groups with respect to music and her experiences as a jazz musician. In 2014 was was inducted into ASCAP’s Jazz Hall of Fame as a Living Legend. Her three nights of ‘Sayonara’ performances in Tokyo, Japan at the Blue Note Club in April, 2017, were standing room only.
Written by Michael Griffes