Helen Merrill

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For the mathematician, see Helen Abbot Merrill.
Helen Merrill
Birth name Jelena Ana Milčetić
Born (1930-07-21) 21 July 1930 (age 86)
New York City
Genres Jazz
Occupation(s) Musician
Instruments Singing
Years active 1950s–present
Labels Emarcy, Verve
Associated acts Clifford Brown, Gil Evans, Oscar Pettiford
Website www.helenmerrill.com

Helen Merrill (born Jelena Ana Milčetić, July 21, 1930) is an American jazz vocalist.

Merrill's recording career has spanned six decades and she is popular with jazz fans in Japan and Italy (where she lived for many years) and in her native United States. She has recorded and performed with some of the most notable jazz musicians.

Youth and early career[edit]

Merrill was born in New York City in 1930, to Croatian immigrant parents. She began singing in jazz clubs in the Bronx at the age of fourteen. By the time she was sixteen, Merrill had taken up music full-time. In 1952, Merrill made her recording debut when she was asked to sing "A Cigarette For Company" with the Earl Hines Band; the song was released on the D'Oro label, created specifically to record Hines' band with Merrill. Etta Jones was in Hines' band at the time and she too sang on this session, which was reissued on the Xanadu label in 1985.[1]

At this time she was married to musician Aaron Sachs. They divorced in 1956.

As a result of the exposure she received from "A Cigarette for Company" and two subsequent singles recorded for the Roost record label, Merrill was signed by Mercury Records for their new Emarcy label.

In 1954, Merrill recorded her first LP, an eponymous record featuring trumpeter Clifford Brown and bassist/cellist Oscar Pettiford, among others. The album was produced and arranged by Quincy Jones, who was then twenty-one years old.[2] The success of Helen Merrill prompted Mercury to sign her for an additional four-album contract.

Merrill's follow-up to Helen Merrill was the 1956 LP, Dream of You, which was produced and arranged by bebop arranger and pianist Gil Evans. Evans' work on Dream of You was his first in many years. His arrangements on Merrill's laid the musical foundations for his work in following years with Miles Davis.

Success abroad[edit]

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, Chet Baker, Romano Mussolini, and Stan Getz. In 1962 arranger composer Ennio Morricone worked with Helen Merrill on an EP "Helen Merrill sings Italian Songs"on the RCA Italiana label.[3]

Parole e Musica: Words and Music was recorded in Italy with Umiliani's orchestra in the early 1960s while Merrill was living there. The LP features the unusual additions preceding each song, of spoken translations of eloquent Italian word lyrics, complementing the ballads and torch songs. The album has an atmospheric edge in the style of a street busker, provided by a solo musician backing up Merrill's performance, which is brooding, smoky, increasingly foreboding, regretful, mournful, desolate, and finally, melancholy yet hopeful. The many standard songs are elevated to classic status by Merrill's perfect phrasing, sublime high notes, and emotionally flawless renditions.[4]

Merrill returned to the U.S. in the 1960s, but moved to Japan in 1966, staying after touring there due to a romantic involvement that resulted in her marrying Donald J. Brydon (of United Press International, then Vice President, Asian Division chief) in April 1967. Merrill developed a following in Japan that remains strong to this day. In addition to recording while in Japan, Merrill became involved in other aspects of the music industry, producing albums for Trio Records and hosting a show on a Tokyo radio station.

Later career[edit]

Merrill returned to the US in 1972 and has continued recording and regular touring since then. Her later career has seen her experiment in different music genres. She has recorded a bossa nova album, a Christmas album and a record's worth of Rodgers and Hammerstein, among many others.

Two albums from Merrill's later career have been tributes to past musical partners. In 1987, Merrill and Gil Evans recorded fresh arrangements of their Dream of You; the new recordings were released under the title Collaboration and became the most critically acclaimed of Merrill's albums in the 1980s.

In 1987 she co-produced a CD Billy Eckstine sing with Benny Carter and sing in duet with Mr.B two ballads.

In 1995 she recorded Brownie: Homage to Clifford Brown as a tribute to the trumpeter.

One of Merrill's millennium released recordings draws from her Croatian heritage as well as her American upbringing. Jelena Ana Milčetić, a.k.a. Helen Merrill (2000), combines jazz, pop and blues songs with several traditional Croatian songs sung in Croatian.
Helen Merrill has been married three times, first to musician Aaron Sachs, second time to UPI vice president the late Donald J Brydon, and third to arranger-conductor the late Torrie Zito. She has one child, a son, Allan P Sachs, also a singer, who is professionally known as Alan Merrill.

Partial discography[edit]

With Billy Eckstine and Benny Carter
With Ron Carter
  • The Duets (Verve, 1988)



  • 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]