With the advent of the 12-inch LP in 1956, record companies quickly recognized the value of turning young female jazz vocalists into commercial pop singers. Bigger record covers meant glossier photos and increased sales. In the months after her 10-inch record with Clifford Brown, Helen Merrill was nudged by EmArcy Records toward minks-and-drinks album concepts: She was depicted as the girl next door, a girl dolled up on a date, a girl in love, and so on. For a time Helen obliged (fresh from a divorce, she had a son, Alan, to raise). But she also pushed hard for the kind of high-risk sessions that challenged her creative sensibilities.
The mid-to-late 1950s was a period of transition for Helen. Viewed as a jazz musician's vocalist, she increasingly grappled with album settings that were a bit out of character for her voice and self-image. Most of all, Helen worried that her commitment to jazz and her reputation as a jazz singer would be undercut by these lavish orchestrations.
In Part 3 of my interview series with Helen, the legendary vocalist talks about her professional dilemmas, why she was and remains nervous before performing on stage, the story behind one of her most dynamic albums with Gil Evans, her impact on Miles Davis, and why pianist Bill Evans phoned her in the spring of 1958:
Helen Merrill: I cried. I didn't think I looked like that when I sang. But I did. As a woman, I thought I was prettier. I don't mean that in a vain way. It's just that you have a certain vision of how you look, and when that image is different, you feel sort of vulnerable.
HM: Oh, absolutely. That was a breakthrough record for me. My big mistake was not continuing with similar recordings. [Pianist] Dick Katz said to me at the time, “Helen, you have to continue with the jazz thing.” But the next album that [Mercury Records' chief] Bob Shad offered me was an album with strings under the direction of Dick Heyman. While this wasn’t pure jazz, I viewed it as another challenge. Hank [Jones] and Barry [Galbraith] were on there, and I loved them both. It’s a very pretty album. But in retrospect I probably should have continued with another pure jazz album.
JW: There's a year separating the Brown and Heyman albums. Were you also singing in clubs?
HM: Yes, and raising my son, Alan. I sang at Birdland many times during this period. The first time my knees were knocking. I was terrified of singing live. I still am. [Pictured: Helen and her son Alan in the 1950s]
HM: I was appearing at Birdland. I was starting my performance career at a top club. That was chutzpah and I didn’t have chutzpah. I used to arrive from the Bronx in a taxi every night because I was late. I had to build in time to get to work and have pennies to give to the driver. [Birdland’s owner] Morris Levy [pictured] said to people in the beginning, “Oh my god, leave her alone. Don’t judge her now. Look, her knees are knocking.” And they were! Morris was sympathetic [laughing]. I still feel shy and emotionally exposed before going on.
JW: But once the music starts...
HM: I fall deeply into the music. I hear a lot of information when I sing. Back then and today, I'm able to go into a hypnotic state when performing. Even to this day it takes me about 15 minutes to come out of whatever it is that permits me to go up there. It’s kind of a self-hypnosis that I think a lot of performers probably have. I don’t do it knowingly, you know. It just happens. I start out nervous but then just close my eyes, start singing and that fearful part of me disappears. But I’m still terrified before I go out on stage. On the positive side, that feeling, as painful as it is, keeps your adrenaline in the right place and keeps your passion alive.
JW: How did you come to the attention of Gil Evans?
HM: Again, it goes back to being in music circles in New York then. I had known Gil [pictured] for some time. He was the talk of the underground music world for years, you know. He was always The Man. People would meet at his apartment to talk about music and socialize. It was a very warm scene.
JW: But whose brilliant idea was it pairing your voice with his breakthrough orchestrations in 1956?
HM: Actually, it was mine. Gil was so gifted. I had remembered his beautiful music for Claude Thornhill, and I thought his music would be beautiful to sing against. When I mentioned Gil's name to Bob Shad, I thought Bob was going to have a heart attack. At first Bob said, “No,” firmly.
HM: Because Gil was so particular. He was famous for keeping orchestras overtime, and studio time and musicians were very expensive. Bob said “No” again, but I said, “You have to.” Eventually Bob gave in. On the day we started that session, we received news that Clifford Brown had died in a horrible auto accident in Pennsylvania. So we stopped the session. Nobody could play. You couldn't feel a thing emotionally. That’s how much Clifford was loved by everyone. Even Bob said we should stop the session. Clifford was on his label, and Bob loved him, too.
JW: How did you feel when you found out?
HM: I was devastated. I'm still devastated to this day. When talent like that disappears in a flash, you can't believe it. You deny it. Max Roach, who, of course, played with him on all those EmArcy recordings, held a concert in Baltimore for Clifford long after Clifford died. Max was still disbelieving so many years later. The concert was supposed to bring closure. But Max was so outrageously emotional that day. He had quite a few eruptions and was very emotional about what had happened so many years earlier. Like everyone, he remained disbelieving. [Photo of Clifford Brown and Max Roach by Herman Leonard]
JW: How did you ever sing those Gil Evans arrangements on Dream of You?
HM: Don’t ask [laughs]. They were tough but so beautiful. A year later I tried to take the arrangements on the road but the performances were a disaster. The band sounded like a freight train instead of music. That's when I realized you can’t do those arrangements live. Only Gil could make them work.
JW: But you did use them again, much later.
HM: Yes, in Los Angeles, a few years ago, in fact. All of the studio musicians there were great, and all of them were on stage. The result was terrific. I think they were even better than the original studio musicians. I also performed some of the string arrangements in Germany, and the musicians loved doing them, too.
JW: You don’t read music. How did you remember those complex melodies?
HM: Gil helped me on the session. I didn’t work with him beforehand. The session was like any other—like falling off a cliff and learning to fly. I came in and we did it.
JW: One run through and you had it down?
HM: Yeah, I’m afraid so. Down, I don’t know. But I had it. I had this ability to hear things once and remember everything in detail.
JW: Did Gil complete the arrangements on time?
HM: [Laughs] As I recall, he was a little late. He was a wonderful man.
HM: I have no idea. Miles used to love my sound and always came to hear me sing. We were dear friends. He told me he loved my whisper sounds. That's a technique I used by getting up real close to the microphone. I'd sing almost in a whisper, which created a very intimate sound. I developed this by listening to my voice and trying different things with the mikes.
JW: Do you think Miles learned from your whisper technique?
HM: Miles learned from everyone. He was incredible. He took the best from everyone and threw away the rest. He was brilliant. One of the things he told me he loved about my voice was how I used space—both in music and between my voice and the mike.
HM: It was always hard. We didn't make any real money, which created all sorts of pressure and strain.
JW: How did you come to record Merrill at Midnight in the fall of 1956 with Hal Mooney?
HM: That was another strings date. It was Bob Shad’s idea. Hal was a movie man, but a great musician. By late 1956, they were determined to try and have me become a pop singer.
JW: Yet you never became a full-blown commercial pop singer. How did you avoid it?
HM: By being a fool. I had every door open at many, many junctions. I could have been a pop singer and made much more money, I suppose. I’ve never been without the possibility of recording wherever I go in the world. But I was always in pursuit of something better. I think I thought that I’d become more famous and make more money by going my own way and avoid pop. It didn’t quite work out that way [laughs] but I regret nothing.
JW: Your last date for Mercury was The Nearness of You in 1957, with Johnny Frigo, Bill Evans, George Russell and others.
HM: That was a fun date. More along the lines of what I had originally wanted to do in terms of ensemble work. Bill had been a close friend for years. He was so sensitive and supportive of me. And I was there for him when he needed to talk. He called me the night Miles asked him to join his group. Bill said, "Helen, do you really think I'm good enough? Do you think I'm good enough to play with Miles?"
HM: [Laughs] I said of course. Bill knew he was great but needed the encouragement. I was very touched by what he asked me, and I knew exactly how he felt. It was a big move for him. Even when you know you can do something, you want to hear it from someone who feels the way you do, someone who understands what you're going through inside.
JW: Up to this point in your career, what do think set you apart from other singers?
HM: Unlike many singers, I didn't become famous with one single. The Clifford Brown album was a musicians' favorite but it didn't become widely known until later. Throughout the '50s, I just kept on going with things that were different for me or that I wanted to do. As a result I worked with the greatest jazz musicians in the world. I felt most comfortable around them.
Tomorrow, Helen talks about what it was like to be a woman in the mostly male-dominated jazz world, why she broke her contract with Atlantic Records and moved to Italy in 1960, and her years spent working with Italian jazz and studio musicians.
JazzWax tracks: If Helen Merrill recorded just Helen Merrill Accompanied by the Clifford Brown Sextet and Dream of You with Gil Evans, she'd be a jazz legend. Dream of You is one of the finest jazz vocal albums of the period and largely underrated and overlooked. Hearing it today, you're reminded how risky and fascinating the date was. You also hear Helen blaze a breathy, tart trail for Miles Davis' groundbreaking work with Gil Evans starting a year later.
Gil Evans' arrangements for the album are beyond belief, and listening to Helen ride those orchestrations is thrilling. All of the tracks are special (it's a concept album, really). But in particular, listen to what she does on Where Flamingos Fly, I'm Just a Lucky So and So and He Was Too Good to Me. By any measure, that's jazz singing at its passionate best. To hear Helen's "whisper sounds," listen with your eyes closed to Troubled Waters. You can hear that soft, breathy technique Helen refers to in many places on the track.
In 1987, a year before Gil Evans died, Helen re-recorded the tracks on Dream of You with Evans conducting. The album, Collaboration, serves as a creative bookend to the original and contains equally evocative renditions.
Helen Merrill with Strings and Merrill at Midnight are available as downloads at iTunes.
Last night I noticed that The Nearness of You is being re-issued on February 17 by LoneHill and will be available on CD here.
JazzWax clip: While there are no clips on YouTube of Helen's recordings with Gil Evans, here's a live clip from 1988 of People Will Say We're in Love, which she recorded on both albums...