Helen Merrill

Helen Merrill (born Jelena Ana Milcetic July 21, 1930) is an American jazz vocalist. Her first album, the eponymous 1955 release Helen Merrill, was an immediate success and associated her with the first generation of bebop jazz musicians.[2] After a prolific 1950s and '60s when she recorded with Charlie Parker and Clifford Brown, Merrill spent time recording and touring in Europe and Japan, falling into obscurity in the United States. In the 1980s and '90s, a contract with Verve Records and high-profile performances in America returned her to prominence.[2][3] Noted for her emotional, sensual vocal performances, her career continues in its sixth decade with concerts and recordings.

Helen Merrill
Birth nameJelena Ana Milcetic [1]
Born (1930-07-21) July 21, 1930
New York City, New York, U.S.
Years active1944–present
LabelsEmarcy, Verve
Associated actsClifford Brown, Gil Evans, Oscar Pettiford

Early life and career

Jelena Ana Milcetic was born in New York City in 1930 to Croatian immigrant parents.[4] She began singing in jazz clubs in the Bronx in 1944 when she was fourteen.[5] By the time she was sixteen, Merrill had taken up music full-time.[6] 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 [7] was in Hines' band at the time and she too sang on this session, which was reissued on the Xanadu label in 1985. At this time Merrill was married to musician Aaron Sachs. They divorced in 1956.[8]

Merrill was signed by Mercury Records to their EmArcy label. In 1954, Merrill recorded her first LP, an eponymous record featuring trumpeter Clifford Brown[9] and bassist Oscar Pettiford.[10] The album was produced and arranged by Quincy Jones, who was twenty-one years old.[9] The success of Helen Merrill prompted Mercury to sign her for an additional four-album contract.[11]

Merrill's follow-up to Helen Merrill was the 1956 LP, Dream of You, which was produced and arranged by arranger and pianist Gil Evans. His arrangements for Merrill laid the foundation for his work with Miles Davis.[12]


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,[13] Chet Baker,[14] Romano Mussolini,[15] and Stan Getz. In 1960 arranger and composer Ennio Morricone, noted for his film scores, 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. The LP features the unusual additions preceding each song, of spoken translations of eloquent Italian word lyrics, complementing the ballads and torch songs.[16]

She returned to the U.S. in the 1960s, but moved to Japan in 1966, staying after touring there and marrying Donald J. Brydon (of United Press International) in April 1967.[17] She 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 [18] and co-hosting a show on FEN (Armed Forces Radio and Television Service) with Bud Widom in Tokyo.[19]

Later career

Merrill returned to the U.S. in 1972. She recorded a bossa nova album, a Christmas album,[20] and a Rodgers and Hammerstein album.[21] In 1987, she and Gil Evans recorded fresh arrangements of Dream of You released under the title Collaboration, becoming the most critically acclaimed of Merrill's albums in the 1980s.[22]

In 1987 she co-produced Billy Eckstine Sings with Benny Carter.[23] In 1995 she recorded Brownie: Homage to Clifford Brown.[24] Jelena Ana Milcetic a.k.a. Helen Merrill (2000) draws from her Croatian heritage as well as her American upbringing. The album combines jazz, pop, and blues songs with traditional Croatian songs sung in Croatian.[4] She released the album Lilac Wine in 2003.

Personal life

Merrill has been married three times, first to musician Aaron Sachs,[25] second to UPI vice president Donald J. Brydon,[17] and third to arranger-conductor Torrie Zito.[26]

She has one child from her first marriage, known professionally as Alan Merrill, who is a 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.[27]


As guest

With Billy Eckstine and Benny Carter


  1. Bahl, Mathew (2000-09-01). "Helen Merrill: Jelena Ana Milcetic aka Helen Merrill". Allaboutjazz.com. Retrieved 2017-04-08.
  2. Cook, Richard; Morton, Brian (2008). The Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings. London: Penguin Books. p. 993.
  3. Palmer, Robert (31 March 1986). "Helen Merrill, 50's Jazz Singer, Creates an 80's Stir". The New York Times. Retrieved 30 May 2018.
  4. Alex Henderson. "Aka Jelena Ana Milcetic - Helen Merrill". AllMusic. Retrieved 2017-04-08.
  5. Grant Jackson. "ksfr: : Helen Merrill On Piano Jazz (2010-09-24)". Publicbroadcasting.net. Retrieved 2017-04-08.
  6. Yoshi Kato (2000-07-31). "Helen Merrill Delivers Tribute To Croat Heritage". MTV. Retrieved 2017-04-08.
  7. Joan Merrill. "NPR's Jazz Profiles: Etta Jones". Npr.org. Retrieved 2017-04-08.
  8. HaarFager (2008-11-11). "Jazzy Lady". Musicforeverymood. Retrieved 2017-04-08.
  9. Mortifoglio, Richard. "Helen Merrill - Helen Merrill". AllMusic. Retrieved 17 July 2018.
  10. "Dream of You". Jdisc.columbia.edu. Retrieved 2017-04-08.
  11. Scott Yanow. "Complete Helen Merrill on Mercury (1954–1958)". AllMusic. Retrieved 2017-04-08.
  12. Stephen Cook. "Dream of You". AllMusic. Retrieved 2017-04-08.
  13. Thom Jurek. "Parole e Musica". AllMusic. Retrieved 2017-04-08.
  14. Thom Jurek. "Smog [Original Motion Picture Soundtrack". AllMusic. Retrieved 2017-04-08.
  15. "Helen Merrill - Parole e Musica". Jazzrecordcenter.com. Retrieved 2017-04-08.
  16. "Helen Merrill – Parola e musica – 1960". Finnr.org. 2010-12-05. Archived from the original on 2013-12-03. Retrieved 2012-09-19.
  17. "Former UPI news executive Don Brydon dies". UPI.com. 2003-01-16. Retrieved 2017-04-08.
  18. Scott Yanow. "Helen Merrill Presents Al Haig Plays the Music of Jerome Kern - Al Haig | Songs, Reviews, Credits". AllMusic. Retrieved 2017-04-08.
  19. Whetston, Thomas (2010-05-13). "AFRTS Archive: Small World - 1965". Afrtsarchive.blogspot.com. Retrieved 2017-04-08.
  20. Scott Yanow. "Christmas Song Book". AllMusic. Retrieved 2017-04-08.
  21. William Ruhlmann. "Helen Merrill Sings Rodgers & Hammerstein". Retrieved 2017-04-08.
  22. Scott Yanow. "Collaboration". AllMusic. Retrieved 2017-04-08.
  23. Scott Yanow. "Billy Eckstine Sings with Benny Carter". AllMusic. Retrieved 2017-04-08.
  24. Scott Yanow. "Brownie: Homage to Clifford Brown". AllMusic. Retrieved 2017-04-08.
  25. "Reedman Aaron Sachs R.I.P. The surefire command... | Mosaic Records Daily Jazz Gazette". Mosaicrecords.tumblr.com. Retrieved 2017-04-08.
  26. William Grimesdec (2009-12-08). "Torrie Zito, Pianist and Jazz-Pop Arranger, Dies at 76 - The New York Times". Nytimes.com. Retrieved 2017-04-08.
  27. "I Love Rock And Roll by Joan Jett Songfacts". Songfacts.com. Archived from the original on 2017-02-26. Retrieved 2017-04-08.


  • 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.
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