Helen Merrill is a great vocalist.
She could sing anything.
And she has proved it time and again … over 60+ years of professional recording.
She does country tunes here but she has done smooth jazz, swing, pop, trad pop, an album of Beatles tunes, Broadway numbers, film songs, Tin Pan Alley and even Croatian folk songs.
That’s not to say she doesn’t have her style.
This I find infinitely more interesting and superior to a vocalist who hops from style to style without taking their musical personality along with them.
She is an effortless note bender who emphasises a lyric to extract complete meaning and emotion from it whilst singing in harmony with her accompaniment.
Her voice is so evocative that even if she wasn’t using words the mood and the meaning of the song would be clear.
I’m not sure of the logic of this “country” album apart from Helen proving she can do country but I welcome it nevertheless.
There may have been commercial considerations. This was Helen’s seventh album and she hadn’t achieved the crossover mainstream popularity of Peggy Lee of Julie London in her previous albums, as good as they were (and they were / are good). So, perhaps, it was time for a change. Country music was on an upswing at the time, there were many country musicians with jazz leanings incorporating some of the same in their music, jazz legend Sonny Rollins released his “Way Out West” album to critical acclaim in 1957, so, perhaps, it seemed a good idea.
And it was.
But, at the time, it may have alienated her traditional listeners. Certainly today, jazz vocalist aficionados, when commenting on this album, usually mention they “have no time for country music”, so, I suspect, that prejudice is the same one that affected the albums potential sales in 1959.
But, a good vocalist should be able to tackle all material and a great vocalist should be able to do it successfully.
And here I am full circle … Helen Merrill is a great vocalist.
She sticks within the jazz vocalist medium but isn’t afraid of introducing any other sound into the mix and if that isn't jazz, what is?
Some songs make work better than others but everything she records is worthy.
Despite the big city in her, Helen has a beautiful, slightly smoky voice that is ideally suited to country songs (as well as urban songs).
Country music is about hard times, love, lost love, getting drunk, your wife leaving you, your husband leaving you, infidelity, chasteness, sex. Basically, the lives of everyday people.
The liner notes refer to the same, "Many country songs are considered "earthy", inasmuch as their lyrics deal with life's realities. This is a true appraisal; however, a listener to this record will surely note another quality of the great county song – the liberal use of poetic language and imagery".
Helen’s voice captures the various emotions of those in love and her phrasing and tone is both sexual and full of understanding. This may not be a pure country record but she nails these songs.
There are five Hank Williams tunes, three Eddy Arnold songs, some standards and, interestingly (but not inappropriately), a couple of Everly Brothers songs.
An interesting aside is that Helen, with this album, was both part of a trend and ahead of the curve.
Trad pop singer Patti Page had successfully incorporated country sounds into her music in the 50s (as had Frankie Laine and Guy Mitchell) and jazz pop vocalists like Bing Crosby, and Hoagy Carmichael had done the same going back to the 30s whilst Tony Bennett had done the same in the early 50s but it was unusual for a pure jazz vocalist like Helen to do a whole album of the same.
This is referred to in the liner notes (by Paul Ackerman of Billboard), where he says: "The recording art has its adventurous moments. This album is one of them, for it strikes out in new directions. it does this by presenting a dozen of the greatest country songs in arrangements which are quite new to the genre … It is known that several record producers have been grappling with the same idea – that is, to invest the country song with a new dimension through sophisticated arrangements and scoring. This is the first album to come to our attention which has actually done the trick – and it points the way towards future treatment of this music, much of which derives from the heartland of America."
Later, in the 1960s, Peggy Lee, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and Julie London dipped their toes in the country pool whilst Kay Starr (and trad pop singers like Dean Martin and soul singer like Ray Charles) would record whole albums of country songs.
The world was all about, and comfortable with, fusion but here it was novel.
It's tempting to say the music here is not country, not jazz, but trad pop with country and jazz overtones, but, "Nashville sound" countrypolitan country music star Jim Reeves was riding the same range (sic) though with less (jazz) quirkiness. And, perhaps, that's the market Helen was aiming for.
I don’t have jazz chart details but even with a major label release (Atlantic records) the album did not sell well enough to crossover to the mainstream charts.
Check out my other comments for biographical detail on Ms Merrill.
Tracks (best in italics)
- Maybe Tomorrow – (Don & Phil Everly) – originally by the Everly Brothers from their 1958 debut album. Gentle and dreamy.
- I'm so Lonesome I Could Cry – (Hank Williams) – recorded by Hank in 1949. Covered by everyone else (I love the Elvis version from 1973). Very quirky with a snappy back beat at odds with the traditional interpreted tempo, but it works. Helen nails the song. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I%27m_So_Lonesome_I_Could_Cry
- You Don't Know Me – (Cindy Walker-Eddy Arnold) – the liner notes refer to Eddy who had a #10 country hit with this in 1956 but trad pop singer Jerry Vale had a #14 in 1956 also. This is quite beautiful with a jazz guitar gently punctuating the proceedings. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/You_Don%27t_Know_Me_(Eddy_Arnold_song)
- Condemned Without Trial – (Hal Blair-Don Robertson) – an Eddy Arnold song from 1952. Lots of strings and things and well sung.
- You Win Again – (Hank Williams) – a Hank Williams song from 1952. Sweet strings are added. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/You_Win_Again_(Hank_Williams_song)
- I'm Here to Get My Baby out of Jail – (Karl Davis – Harty Taylor) – Originally by Davis & Taylor in 1934 but recorded by the Everly Brothers for their 1958 album “Songs Our Daddy Taught Us”. A wonderful song though with a great country whistling accompaniment. The song is quite existential and haunting.
- A Heart Full of Love – (Eddy Arnold-Steve Nelson-Ray Sochnel) – Eddy Arnold's #1 Country (#23 Pop) from 1948. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Heart_Full_of_Love_(For_a_Handful_of_Kisses)
- Cold, Cold Heart – (Hank Williams) – Hank's #1 Country hit from 1951 it was also a #1 Pop hit for Tony Bennett in 1951. The poetic language of the song works with Helen's vocals. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cold,_Cold_Heart
- Devoted to You – (Boudleaux Bryant) – the Everly brothers #10 from 1958. Almost a deconstruction of the song. I like it. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Devoted_to_You_(song)
- My Heart Would Know – (Hank Williams) – recorded by Hank in 1951. Pretty. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/My_Heart_Would_Know
- Any Time – (Herbert Lawson) – First recorded by Emmett Miller in 1924. Eddy Arnold released a version in 1948 that reached #1 on the US country chart (#17 Pop US) and Eddie Fisher released a version in 1951 that reached #2 Pop US). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anytime_(1921_song)
- Half as Much – (Curley Williams) – first recorded by Hank Williams (no relation to Curley) who had a #2 Country hit with it in the US in 1952. The trad pop treatment works really well on this song. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Half_as_Much
An individual quirky joy. Everything Helen does is a pleasant revelation. This album is no different. This is wonderful … I'm keeping it.
I'm so Lonesome I Could Cry
Condemned Without Trial
Cold, Cold Heart
Devoted to You
Half as Much
- Personnel: Bernie Leighton (piano) / Mundell Lowe (guitar) / Bill Suyker (guitar), Milt Hinton (bass), Bobby Rosengarden (drums). Arranged and conducted by Chuck Sagle. Recorded in New York, May 25, 1959
- "The Nashville sound originated during the mid 1950s as a subgenre of American country music, replacing the chart dominance of the rough honky tonk music which was most popular in the 1940s and 1950s with "smooth strings and choruses", "sophisticated background vocals" and "smooth tempos"". https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nashville_sound also see http://www.allmusic.com/subgenre/nashville-sound-countrypolitan-ma0000002739
RIP: Harry Dean Stanton (1926-2017)