Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

Helen Merrill: Big in Japan

James Gavin profiles the legendary if still underrated vocalist

Helen Merrill
Helen Merrill mid-flight, c. 1974 (Photo courtesy of the artist)

In April, Japan’s favorite jazz singer for more than 50 years returned for what she called her “sayonara” engagement. As Helen Merrill stepped onstage at the Blue Note Tokyo, her 1954 recording of “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To”—the standout of her now-iconic debut album with trumpeter Clifford Brown—filled the club to a roaring ovation. That track, which appeared in a Seiko commercial, had made the Manhattan-born blonde an idol of the Japanese. They were mesmerized by her foggy-sweet tone and stark minimalism, and by a delivery both confidential and mysterious. In Japan, she was called “the Sigh of New York.”

Back home, she hadn’t fared so well. Musicians embraced her, but her subtle approach and introverted stage presence were drowned out in noisy clubs and overshadowed by more flamboyant divas. “I remember once having seven dollars in the bank,” she says. “A lot of people didn’t believe in what I did.” Though painfully shy, Merrill followed her heart at all costs. She has lived a cinematic life, from sitting in with Charlie Parker to touring Italy with pianist Romano Mussolini, the son of Italy’s executed dictator, to moving to Japan and becoming the socialite wife of a newsman. “I was a very brave girl,” she says. “There’s a certain arrogance in youth. You don’t know how frightened you’re gonna get later on.”

Start Your Free Trial to Continue Reading

Become a JazzTimes member to explore our complete archive of interviews, profiles, columns, and reviews written by music's best journalists and critics.
Originally Published