If you were a jazz singer in the 50s, regardless of your color and gender chances were your manager and producer would have pushed you into releasing a pop album. The returns on a successful then-new LP format were just too good to pass by.
Many great singers like Peggy Lee and Nat King Cole went that route and over time became popular music entertainers. Others like Sarah Vaughn and Dinah Washington were able to keep a double musical identity for a while and remain popular with both jazz and pop audiences. If you were a girl, white and pretty, the pressure to produce a successful pop album would double and triple given the potential of TV exposure, a medium that sidelined black artists at the time. Very few of those groomed early in their recording career to switch from jazz to pop resisted the fame and success promised by turning pop. One of them is Helen Merrill. She is also one of the most underrated singers in the history of jazz.
In 1954 Merrill got signed to EmArcy records to a 3-year, 5-album contract. She was only 24 that year, but a 10-year jazz veteran after performing in New York clubs and singing with Earl Hines. Earlier in 1954 Mercury Records started EmAarcy (EmArcy = “MRC” Mercury Record Company) as its jazz division. They modeled the label after Verve, which was very successful in its ability to produce quality jazz records that were also popular with a wider audience. Bob Shad who was director of A&R at Mercury Records became the main guy at EmArcy, recruiting talent and producing the records. After a test-bed session with Johnny Richards in January 1954, Shad was ready to record a full LP with Merrill. He brought in 21-year old Quincy Jones after the young arranger proved more than able on earlier recordings for EmArcy with singers Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughn. Jones had a formula for working with singers: pickup good songs, team the singers up with Clifford Brown and the rest is gravy.
Brown was then a known entity within the jazz musicians community but still a few months away from stardom. He functions as the designated soloist on the record, and his solos provide beautiful segues to Merrill’s vocal performances. On her interview to JazzWax Helen Merrill said this of his playing on the album: “We were the same age (Both were 24 at the time of the recording). 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.”
Helen Merrill’s first album gave Shad an appetite to try another album, this time more commercial. At the time this meant hooking up the singer with a string section and an orchestrated arrangement. While this was sometimes done tastefully and did produce classy recordings, it was so overused that it was not considered “serious” jazz. However Merrill was young and in need of money and for a few recordings in the mid 50s went along with the scheme. She did manage one additional great record with EmArcy, collaborating with Gil Evans on the album Dream of You, released in 1956. That album has a great version of Where Flamingos Fly, which sounds a lot like the albums that Gil Evans would record with Miles Davis starting a year later. Helen Merrill knew Miles, and said this about her possible influence on the trumpeter: “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.” After her contract with EmArcy ended, Merrill kept recording great jazz records on various labels, never compromising her integrity and love of jazz. She even united again with Gil Evans a year before he passed away, revisiting the material she recorded with him in 1956.
The participants on those 1954 sessions that produced the Helen Merrill debut record went on to great achievements in the music business. Bob Shad continued to produce jazz records with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Roy Haynes and crossed the genre divide into rock and roll, including the debut album of Janis Joplin with Big Brother & the Holding Company in 1967. Quincy Jones went on to become a legend of jazz orchestration (Sinatra at the Sands), film score composition (In the Heat of the Night, The Color Purple) and of course producing the king of pop in the late 70s and 80s.
Immediately after recording with Helen Merrill, Clifford Brown formed the legendary quintet with Max Roach and released a number of albums with that group between 1954 and 1956. Ironically in a period when drug addiction was a standard habit for jazz musicians, Brown who stayed away from Heroin and alcohol, died in a tragic car accident in 1956. He was only 25 when he died.
What’s New is my favorite song on that debut album from 1954. The song was written as an instrumental in 1939 and a year later received its lyrics, depicting a conversation between two former lovers. Helen Merrill sings the bitter and nostalgic lyrics as if she was 20 years older than she really was. I love how she lets certain words linger to a whisper, hinting at the aching memory as she reminisces on the fading love affair. Interestingly the original instrumental was written with a trumpet solo in mind, and Clifford Brown does it justice with a soulful double-time solo between Merrill’s verses. Almost 30 years later the song received another great recorded performance, this time by Linda Ronstadt on her first album with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra. Given the pop star stature of Ronstadt, that recording did much better and made it into Billboard’s Hot 100 list.
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