By 1953, singer Helen Merrill had become a favorite of major jazz musicians in New York. There was something endearing about the young fearless woman with the pretty face and honest voice. She had a smoldering intensity on ballads and took chances vocally on swingers. What's more, Helen was introspective and simpatico with musicians' emotional intensity. She was neither a diva nor a phony. There was no agenda. She merely wanted to express the pain and solitude she felt inside accompanied by musicians whose art she respected and revered. [Photo: Helen in the early 1950s]
In return, jazz musicians, arrangers and A&R executives increasingly sought her out in the 1950s for recording sessions and gigs. Helen was an adventurous singer without airs, and her lack of pretension and grit was unusual in a decade when female vocalists were groomed for commercial pop.
In Part 2 of my conversation with Helen, the legendary singer talks about her work in the early 1950s and reflects on Charlie Parker, Jimmy Raney, Red Mitchell, Johnny Richards, Quincy Jones and her breakthrough recording with Clifford Brown.
JazzWax: You had a lot of moxie coming up as a singer.
Helen Merrill: I did, yes. Nothing fazed me. The thing is, all I ever wanted was the approval of musicians. So it wasn’t a matter of moxie like wanting to become Patti Page or something like that. It was more the beauty of being part of the world of music, of really good musicians. I always had that. I don’t know if it was moxie. Just a sense of belonging. And musicians took care of me. When I was a kid, I wasn’t allowed in the clubs at night on 52d Street. But I still could stand outside and listen to Billie Holiday [pictured]. I thought all musicians sounded like that. I had no idea that the people I knew so well were the greatest musicians ever.
JW: Did Charlie Parker ever hear you sing?
HM: Oh, yeah [laughing]. Etta Jones and I were in a Los Angeles club listening to Bird when we were on the road with Earl Hines’ sextet. At one point, Charlie went over to the mike and said, “OK Helen, come on up and show them how we sing in New York.” I knew Charlie from Club 845 in the Bronx and other spots. So I went up on stage, so full of myself, and sang I Cover the Waterfront and Lover Man [laughs]. It was a lot of fun. I was included, and it was great. I was so proud. When I got back to the table, Etta was so mad that she didn’t get called up. But we were good friends and got along really well. She was happy for me. [Pictured: Charlie Parker in California in 1952]
JW: What was it like singing with Bird?
HM: Oh it was great. People with talent are not interested in showing off behind another person. They’re more interested in the music. Bird was playing with me. That’s the difference between the kind of musician I like to work with and singing with a musician who thinks he has to accompany me. That is so annoying I cannot tell you.
HM: Because I have to wait emotionally until they stop whatever they’re doing. I cannot stand when a piano player starts running lines behind me while I’m singing [sings piano lines to illustrate her point]. What am I supposed to do over that? With a sensitive pianist and arranger, like my husband Torrie Zito [pictured], for example, he’s always with you. With you, not behind you. There's a big difference.
JW: in 1953 you recorded your first two sides with guitarist Jimmy Raney.
HM: Oh, Jimmy Raney. I loved him. He was a beautiful guitarist. That record I did with him was done in New Jersey, at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio, in his living room. It was a demo of The More I See You and My Funny Valentine. It was just Jimmy and me and Red Mitchell on bass, though I think Red heard we were recording and sat in. When they re-issued it, the original sound Rudy captured was lost. Roost Records had burned down and the recordings weren't on tape or anything.
JW: Your first session for EmArcy Records was with Johnny Richards in January 1954.
HM: [Laughs] We did four songs. Again, I was testing my ability to hear things. Johnny liked atonal music, so that’s what we did. I thought it was so cool I could sing the entrance to Alone Together. On those recordings, I wanted to put my career emphasis not on money-making but on music. Working with Johnny [pictured] was scary but it forced me to learn, and I did. [Photo by William P. Gottlieb, 1947]
JW: How were you able to get your ear around those Richards arrangements?
HM: I loved being challenged. I thought being challenged was proving talent to yourself and to other musicians. It’s such an idiotic thought today. I loved the challenge of walking into a session and hearing what it is I’m supposed to do in the first run-down of the song. That’s how naive I was. And I could do it. I had listened to Boyd Raeburn’s band in the mid-1940s, to his vocalist Ginny Powell [pictured]. She’d sing Trouble Is a Man, and I'd hear her get around all those notes—and in tune. All those things impressed me.
JW: Did Quincy Jones pave the way for that session?
HM: I’m not sure Quincy had anything to do with that one. I think it was Bob Shad, the director of A&R at Mercury. Bob had started EmArcy as a jazz division that year. Quincy wasn’t there yet. He came later in the year. On his first albums for the label Quincy put [trumpeter] Clifford Brown together with Dinah [Washington], Sarah [Vaughan] and me. I already knew Quincy. He lived in New York nearby with his former wife. He was an up and coming young man at the time. He didn’t have any money. He lived in a basement apartment of a brownstone. Everyone loved him. What a wonderful mind he had and has.
JW: You recorded your now-famous album with Clifford Brown in December 1954.
HM: Clifford was at the same point in his career as I was. He was known among musicians but not famous yet. That would come in 1955. Quincy pulled together great songs. He always understood what he was doing.
JW: What do you think of the record?
HM: Oh I love it still. It continues to be a huge hit in Japan. Whenever the group I'm with plays the intro to You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To, audiences go nuts. They know what's coming. That song is my I Left My Heart in San Francisco. It’s my signature tune. Gosh, I was so shy on that date. I thought I was going to have a heart attack. So did Clifford.
HM: I wasn’t at all a sophisticated person. I always remained inner rather than outer. I also loved the family of musicians I belonged to. When you listen to Clifford play on that date, it’s his best playing, I think. He’s so warm on there. He loved what I was doing so much, that’s how he responded. We were both a little frightened by it all, I think. [Pictured: Helen Merrill at her recording session with Clifford Brown]
JW: Musically, he
sounds like he's treating you tenderly, like his kid sister.
HM: Exactly. And we were the same age. I think he felt the same shyness that I did. So he was very protective of me, musically. Later on, of course, he didn’t play that way. He played stronger and bolder. On my album, he played beautifully. There's a certain warm honesty on that record that I love. I'm not perfect on there, but he is. His playing doesn’t have any pretense to it.
JW: What was Brown like for people who don't know?
HM: He was a sweetheart with a soft side that wasn’t visible really. But when he picked up his instrument, forget about it. He knew he was on the right path. He really had a command of who he was and what he was doing. And what he was doing was playing fantastic jazz. We didn’t talk much at those sessions. We just smiled at each other a lot. What we had to say to each other was unspoken. It came through the music, and you can still hear that unspoken conversation on there today. [Pictured, from left: Oscar Pettiford, Jimmy Jones, Clifford Brown and Helen Merrill]
JW: Was the studio big?
HM: You know, thinking back I thought from my eye that Clifford was miles away from me. In fact, he wasn’t. When I saw the room later in the photos, it was smaller than I remembered it.
JW: Who picked the musicians for the date?
HM: Quincy had a way of getting just the right people together. But I picked Osie [Johnson] and Barry [Galbraith], and Quincy agreed. I always loved Barry—and Osie. Both had enormous taste. Not many people are aware Osie was a great singer. Danny Bank also was there, on flute.
JW: Based on discographies, S’Wonderful took about 10 takes. Was it a tricky arrangement?
HM: I don’t recall. Sometimes the band wouldn’t get things right and they had to start again. Or maybe it was tricky. I know I didn’t call for retakes, I thought I had to be responsible vocally the first time out [laughs]. I wasn’t from this world. I was very young and a late bloomer, shall we say.
JW: Yet you were dealing with some pretty serious heavyweights on that date.
HM: [Laughs] Always. But I never looked at the session that way. It was always about the music, not the reputations.
Tomorrow, Helen talks about recording Dream of You with Gil Evans, the complexity of Evans' arrangements, her At Midnight strings album arranged by Hal Mooney, and The Nearness of You date that included Bill Evans.
JazzWax tracks: The demo Helen recorded for Roost with Jimmy Raney is not available on LP or CD. Helen's four sides with Johnny Richards are available on The Complete Helen Merrill on Mercury, which is out of print but available from independent sellers for around $150. You can hear samples of the Johnny Richards tracks here. Helen's power, phrasing and complete emotional exposure on the Johnny Richards session is still stunning. As you'll hear, she holds nothing back on these.
Helen Merrill Accompanied by Clifford Brown is a classic. The album was unusual at the time and remains so. Rather than a slick, commercial outing, what you hear is Helen falling emotionally in sync with the extraordinary players, most notably Brown and Jimmy Jones. As you listen closely, you'll hear Helen use her voice like a trumpet, providing the female counterpart to Brown's round horn. A fascinating date by any measure.
JazzWax clip: I've always found that each song on the Clifford Brown album has a completely distinct personality and that no two tracks sound alike. To prove this point, dig this YouTube clip of What's New and S'Wonderful. On the former song, Helen has a soft, pained approach while on the latter, she's carefree and swinging. And listen how Helen breaks off on S'Wonderful just as Jimmy Jones' magnificent chord solo comes in. And how she holds that note at the end! Wow...