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Helen Merrill

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Helen Merrill
Birth nameJelena Ana Milcetic[1]
Born (1929-07-21) July 21, 1929 (age 94)
New York City, New York, U.S.
Years active1944–present
LabelsEmArcy, Verve

Helen Merrill (born Jelena Ana Milcetic; July 21, 1929)[2] is an American jazz vocalist. Her first album, the eponymous 1954 recording Helen Merrill (with Clifford Brown on EmArcy), was an immediate success and associated her with the first generation of bebop jazz musicians.[3] After an active 1950s and 1960s, Merrill spent time recording and touring in Europe and Japan,[4] falling into obscurity in the United States. In the 1980s and 1990s, she was recorded by EmArcy, JVC and Verve, and her performances in America revived her profile.[3][5] Known for her emotional, sensual vocal performances, she continues to perform today, her career now in its sixth decade of concerts and recordings.

Early life and career[edit]

Jelena Ana Milcetic was born in New York to Croatian immigrant parents.[6] She began singing in jazz clubs in the Bronx in 1944 when she was fourteen.[7] She had three sisters and a brother who died before she was born. By the time she was sixteen, Merrill had taken up music full-time.[8] In 1952, Merrill made her recording debut when she was asked to sing "A Cigarette for Company" with Earl Hines; the song was released on the D'Oro label, created specifically to record Hines' band with Merrill. Etta Jones[9] was in Hines' band at the time and she, too, sang on this session, which was reissued on the Xanadu label in 1985.

Merrill was signed by Mercury Records to their EmArcy label. In 1954, Merrill recorded an eponymous LP, which featured trumpeter Clifford Brown[10] and bassist Oscar Pettiford.[11] The album was produced and arranged by Quincy Jones, who was twenty-one years old.[10] The success of Helen Merrill prompted Mercury to sign her to an additional four-album contract.[12]

Merrill's follow-up was the 1956 LP Dream of You, which was arranged and conducted by Gil Evans. His arrangements for Merrill laid the foundation for his work with Miles Davis.[13]


After recording sporadically through the late 1950s and 1960s, Merrill spent much of her time touring Europe, where she enjoyed more commercial success than she had in the United States. She settled for a time in Italy, recording an album there and doing concerts with jazz musicians Piero Umiliani,[14] Chet Baker,[15] Romano Mussolini,[16] and Stan Getz. In 1960, arranger and film composer Ennio Morricone worked with Merrill on an EP, Helen Merrill Sings Italian Songs, on the RCA Italiana label.

Parole e Musica: Words and Music was recorded in Italy with Umiliani's orchestra in the early 1960s while Merrill was living there. Merrill sings in English, but each song is preceded by an Italian translation of its lyrics, spoken by Fernando Caiati.[17]

She returned to the U.S. in the 1960s but moved to Japan in 1966, staying after touring there and marrying Donald J. Brydon,Tokyo-based Asia Bureau Chief of United Press International, in April 1967.[18] She developed a following in Japan that remains strong decades later. In addition to recording while in Japan, Merrill became involved in other aspects of the music industry, producing albums for Trio Records[19] and co-hosting a show on FEN (Armed Forces Radio and Television Service) with Bud Widom in Tokyo.[20]

Later career[edit]

Merrill returned to the U.S. in 1972. She recorded a bossa nova album, a Christmas album,[21] and a Rodgers and Hammerstein album.[22] In 1987, she and Gil Evans recorded fresh arrangements of Dream of You, which they released under the title Collaboration. It was the bestreceived of Merrill's 1980s albums.[23]

In 1987, she co-produced Billy Eckstine Sings with Benny Carter.[24] In 1995, she recorded Brownie: Homage to Clifford Brown.[25] In 2000, she released Jelena Ana Milcetic a.k.a. Helen Merrill, which drew on her Croatian heritage as well as her American upbringing. The album combines jazz, pop, and blues songs with traditional Croatian songs sung in Croatian.[6] She released the album Lilac Wine in 2003.

In his Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers, jazz critic Will Friedwald writes that Merrill "improved with age," and that her "albums of the nineties and aughts represent a dramatic improvement over her vintage work."[26]

Personal life[edit]

Merrill has been married three times, first to musician Aaron Sachs (1948–1956),[27] then to UPI vice president Donald J. Brydon (1967–1992),[18] and finally to arranger-conductor Torrie Zito , a marriage that lasted until his death in 2009.[28]

She is the mother of one child, Allan Preston Sachs, born in New York in 1951 from her first marriage to Aaron Sachs. He was later known professionally as Alan Merrill, and was a successful singer and songwriter who wrote and recorded the original (1975) version of the rock classic "I Love Rock N Roll" as lead vocalist of the British band Arrows. He died in 2020.[29][30]


As leader/co-leader[edit]

As guest[edit]

With Billy Eckstine and Benny Carter


  1. ^ Bahl, Mathew (September 1, 2000). "Helen Merrill: Jelena Ana Milcetic aka Helen Merrill". All About Jazz. Retrieved April 8, 2017.
  2. ^ 'New York, New York, U.S., Birth Index, 1910-1965' at ancestry.com, in which she is listed as 'Hellen A Milcetic'.
  3. ^ a b Cook, Richard; Morton, Brian (2008). The Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings. London: Penguin Books. p. 993.
  4. ^ Helen Merrill Live In Japan 1990, retrieved January 6, 2023
  5. ^ Palmer, Robert (March 31, 1986). "Helen Merrill, 50's Jazz Singer, Creates an 80's Stir". The New York Times. Retrieved May 30, 2018.
  6. ^ a b Henderson, Alex. "Aka Jelena Ana Milcetic - Helen Merrill". AllMusic. Retrieved April 8, 2017.
  7. ^ Jackson, Grant (September 24, 2010). "Helen Merrill On Piano Jazz". NPR. Retrieved April 8, 2017.
  8. ^ Kato, Yoshi (July 31, 2000). "Helen Merrill Delivers Tribute To Croat Heritage". MTV. Retrieved April 8, 2017.
  9. ^ Merrill, Joan. "NPR's Jazz Profiles: Etta Jones". NPR. Retrieved April 8, 2017.
  10. ^ a b Mortifoglio, Richard. "Helen Merrill - Helen Merrill". AllMusic. Retrieved July 17, 2018.
  11. ^ "Dream of You". J-DISC. Columbia University. Retrieved April 8, 2017.
  12. ^ Yanow, Scott. "Complete Helen Merrill on Mercury (1954–1958)". AllMusic. Retrieved April 8, 2017.
  13. ^ Cook, Stephen. "Dream of You". AllMusic. Retrieved April 8, 2017.
  14. ^ Jurek, Thom. "Parole e Musica". AllMusic. Retrieved April 8, 2017.
  15. ^ Jurek, Thom. "Smog (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)". AllMusic. Retrieved April 8, 2017.
  16. ^ "Helen Merrill - Parole e Musica". Jazz Record Center. Archived from the original on March 15, 2017. Retrieved April 8, 2017.
  17. ^ "Helen Merrill – Parola e musica – 1960". Music Club. December 5, 2010. Archived from the original on December 3, 2013. Retrieved September 19, 2012.
  18. ^ a b "Former UPI news executive Don Brydon dies". UPI.com. January 16, 2003. Retrieved April 8, 2017.
  19. ^ Yanow, Scott. "Helen Merrill Presents Al Haig Plays the Music of Jerome Kern". AllMusic. Retrieved April 8, 2017.
  20. ^ Whetston, Thomas (May 13, 2010). "Small World - 1965". AFRTS Archive. Archived from the original on January 1, 2019. Retrieved April 8, 2017.
  21. ^ Yanow, Scott. "Christmas Song Book". AllMusic. Retrieved April 8, 2017.
  22. ^ Ruhlmann, William. "Helen Merrill Sings Rodgers & Hammerstein". AllMusic. Retrieved April 8, 2017.
  23. ^ Yanow, Scott. "Collaboration". AllMusic. Retrieved April 8, 2017.
  24. ^ Yanow, Scott. "Billy Eckstine Sings with Benny Carter". AllMusic. Retrieved April 8, 2017.
  25. ^ Yanow, Scott. "Brownie: Homage to Clifford Brown". AllMusic. Retrieved April 8, 2017.
  26. ^ Will Friedwald, A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers (New York: Pantheon Books, 2010), page 331, ISBN 9780375421495
  27. ^ "Reedman Aaron Sachs R.I.P. The surefire command..." Mosaic Records Daily Jazz Gazette. Archived from the original on March 16, 2017. Retrieved April 8, 2017.
  28. ^ Grimesdec, William (December 8, 2009). "Torrie Zito, Pianist and Jazz-Pop Arranger, Dies at 76". The New York Times. Retrieved April 8, 2017.
  29. ^ "I Love Rock And Roll by Joan Jett Songfacts". Songfacts.com. Archived from the original on February 26, 2017. Retrieved April 8, 2017.
  30. ^ "Alan Merrill obituary". the Guardian. April 5, 2020. Retrieved January 6, 2023.


  • Dahl, Linda (1984). Stormy Weather: The Music and Lives of a Century of Jazz Women. New York: Pantheon Books. ISBN 0-87910-128-8.
  • Owens, Thomas (1995). Bebop: The Music and Its Players. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-505287-0.

External links[edit]