Unlike many singers of her generation, Helen Merrill was never big on tabloid drama. No tell-all books by people who knew her. No hurled drinks. And no airport tantrums, tawdry busts or overdoses. Just a lifelong commitment to jazz, singing and musicians.
But Helen's love of jazz faced strong cultural headwinds in the 1970s. Acoustic jazz and the jazz vocal idiom in general began losing widespread appeal. Synthesizers, electric pianos, rubbery electric bass lines and heavy drumbeats dominated the music scene while female vocals shifted to gospel-influenced soul. Fusion became the new jazz, and disco, soul and rock concept albums captured the most sales. The 1980s weren't much better for jazz, with advent of a third British pop invasion. It was during this period of diminished jazz record-company budgets and public disinterest that Helen began producing her own recordings in earnest, thanks in some measure to Japanese record companies.
In Part 5 of my interview with Helen, the legendary vocalist talks about returning to the U.S. in the mid-1970s after living in Japan since the mid-1960s, producing albums that she wanted to record, her flowering relationship with pianist-arranger Torrie Zito, and the story about her Stan Getz session that she has never told until now:
JazzWax: I bet living in Japan for so many years was tough on your spirit.
Helen Merrill: In a way. Because my husband at the time headed up United Press International’s Asia bureaus, we spent much of our social life at parties. I liked socializing, but I found that I was uncomfortable in that environment. You have to understand that my loneliness had nothing to do with the country, which I love deeply to this day along with the people. I just wasn’t able to be me living there. I always felt like a stranger, and I missed New York terribly.
JW: You recorded an unusual Beatles tribute album over there.
HM: [Laughs] I think it’s a good album. It was recorded with fabulous Japanese jazz musicians. [Pianist-arranger] Masahiko Satoh is a genius, and I don’t use that word often. He was a brilliant musician. We came at those songs from a jazz sensibility. I listen to the recording now, with me overdubbing on some tracks and think I could never do that today. Those were all spontaneous.
JW: What triggered your move back to the U.S.?
HM: My then husband was re-assigned by UPI to Chicago. So we came back. I didn’t prefer Chicago as a place to live, but that’s where he was assigned. I would have rather been in New York.
JW: Did you break up soon after you returned?
HM: We separated in 1979.
JW: The first album you recorded after you returned was with pianist John Lewis in 1976. Was John a good piano partner?
HM: Of course. I produced that album myself with a sponsorship from Japan's Trio Records. John was a wonderful musician and an old, dear friend. I remember John saying before we started that session, "Now remember Helen, I'm not an accompanist. I don't play for singers normally. It's not what I do best." He was so cute. He played beautifully.
JW: In the late 1970s you produced a series of albums, for three great jazz pianists. How did that come about?
HM: When I came back to the States, I might as well have been a brand new person. I hadn’t lived here for a long time, and the public is very fickle. Jazz audiences had forgotten about me. So I had a tough re-entry. I had to reinvent myself in the music world. Trio, the Japanese record label, gave me these assignments to produce recordings. I did three piano dates, one with Sir Roland Hanna [pictured, with Helen], one with Tommy Flanagan and another with Al Haig. I sang a few tracks on each album.
JW: What was your role as producer?
HM: I left the composer and song choices to the musicians. I sat in the booth and determined the takes and the track order. It’s my taste on there. But I didn't have to do much with those guys, they were so brilliant. I loved each of the musicians I chose to record. And each approached the material so differently. Al Haig [pictured] was a surprise. He liked cabaret music as well as bop and came at the album from a jazz cabaret sense. He was a great and underrated musician. I still don’t understand why he wasn’t better appreciated. I don’t think people realized what a great musician he was. I think it was his personality. To me he was wonderful. But he had a lot of problems and turned off a lot of musicians. He didn’t turn off Charlie Parker, though. Charlie understood that with great talent comes a certain amount of personality issues.
HM: Yes. I had known Torrie's work for years with Tony Bennett and others. As soon as I had heard his arrangements for them, I knew he was sensitive and perfect for my sensibilities. I produced the album with a stipend from Trio Records. When Torrie and I got together for that session and worked through the arrangements, all kinds of sparks were flying between us. But our relationship developed slowly. Ultimately we decided to live together for 12 years and then we got married. I took 12 years to say "yes." He's really the love of my life.
JM: Why does the album sound so good?
HM: It was pure magic and we were very excited. We recorded live, meaning all the musicians were right there in the studio. There was no overdubbing. We even did the mixing ourselves. Torrie's arrangements are pure genius. And we had Frank Laico, the engineer, who is terrific. What you're hearing is a perfect combination of instruments, my favorite songs and Torrie's delicate touch.
JM: My favorite track is Wave, which is the album's only duet with you and Torrie. How did that come about?
HM: That's funny you should say that. Wave is Torrie's and my favorite, too. We didn’t have enough material for an album when we finished. We were short by a track. So we just did Wave. We didn’t even rehearse the tune. I picked the song, Torrie's playing swept me away, and we had it in one take. He's something on there, isn't he?
JW: In 1987 you and Gil Evans reunite for Collaboration to re-record the original Dream of You charts from 31 years earlier. Soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy plays on just one track, Summertime. Why?
HM: Steve wasn’t supposed to be on the date. He was in town and loved the original recording. So Gil told him to bring his soprano and sit in with me. Gil told Steve, “Play whatever you want,” and he was fabulous. But there was no budget to pay Steve. So Gil took several hundred-dollar bills out of his moccasin at the session and paid Steve. That’s the kind of person Gil was. The producer on that date, Kiyoshi Koyama, was great, too.
JW: What was it like recording with Stan Getz in 1989?
HM: I had already performed a lot with Stan before then. We did concert tours in Scandanavia. Our families even went skiing together in Norway.
JW: He was notorious for being a nasty guy.
HM: Not to me. Again, he was my big brother. He was married to a wonderful woman. A beautiful woman. He was very sweet. When we worked together on Just Friends, he was already sick, you know. But he didn’t act it. He had a big belly and he bumped me with his big belly [laughs]. To tell you the truth I was extremely nervous working with him.
HM: I felt the record date had become more about him than me, which broke my spirit. But it wasn't his fault.
JW: How did that happen?
HM: I wasn’t treated the way I should have been. Most of the album was recorded in Paris, and the people associated with the date were so taken by Stan it made me feel very insecure about who I was and what I was doing there. Stan deserved all of that adulation. But I should have been treated with a little more respect.
HM: Stan was given a huge hotel suite and I was told there weren't any rooms available in Paris. Instead, I was shoved into a disgusting room in a small hotel with just a bed. This isn’t diva stuff. I just needed to be treated equally well in order to feel good on my own record date. How they treated me hurt my feelings. I'm very sensitive and felt ignored and slighted, which in turn affected my confidence on the record date.
JM: Did Stan sense what was going on?
HM: To Stan's credit, he did. You hear all these things about Stan being unpredictable, but he was very protective of me. I remember one of the musicians there was so excited to work with him that he kept telling Stan that he knew all of his records while completely ignoring me. Stan sensed the problem and responded to the guy sharply by saying things like, "Yeah, right, I'm sure you do," Stan looked out for me. In retrospect I can't blame them. Everyone was in awe of Stan. So was I. But showing me a little respect as an artist on my own date wouldn't have killed anyone. So I was feeling a little off when I recorded the Paris tracks. [Laughs] Actually, I never told anyone that story. I’m glad I finally did.
JM: What’s coming this year?
HM: I’m planning a tour to Tokyo, to the Blue Note and Billboard Jazz Club. I’ll be singing with Ted Rosenthal on piano, Terry Clarke on drums and a bass player we'll decide on soon.
JW: Looking back on your career, any regrets?
HM: I don't know. I don't think so. I've managed to keep my very heavy personal feelings inside and express them in my music. Sometimes I regret some of the decisions I made, but not really. I had the best musical experiences in the world and was close with all of the greats. Recently I went to hear guitarist Jim Hall at a club. He saw me at a table and said over the mike, “My favorite singer in the world is in the audience tonight.” That knocks me out more than money.
JazzWax tracks: Helen Merrill Sings the Beatles is still in print, though it's available only as a $30 import. Like all Beatles tribute albums, your ear can't help comparing the interpretations with the originals. Yet this album remains rather interesting for the approach Helen took on the material. Go here to sample tracks.
Sadly, John Lewis/Helen Merrill is out of print. The album includes a beautiful rendition of Angel Eyes, with just Helen singing and Lewis using compelling chord changes behind her. The other musicians on the date are Hubert Laws on flute, Richard Davis on bass and Connie Kay on drums.
Casa Forte is a stunning work. The spiritual and creative togetherness of Helen and Torrie Zito is instantly apparent. It's a perfect match, and the entire album is terrifically produced, with Wave and Like a Lover as dreamy standouts. Three of the tracks feature a band that includes Urbie Green on trombone, Sal Nistico on tenor sax and Bucky Pizzarelli on guitar. The album was recently remastered and is available ($15) from Mosaic Records here.
Just Friends: Helen Merrill, Featuring Stan Getz is out of print, but used copies are available for about $14 here. The album has a rich mood, and Helen and Stan sound rich together. Now that you have the back story to the session, you'll find the recording is an even more dynamic listen.
JazzWax clip: Here's an abbreviated clip of Helen with Torrie Zito on piano in Japan singing I'm a Fool to Want You. Listen to what Torrie is doing on the keyboard and how he interacts with Helen's vocal.