Helen Merrill was born on July 21, 1929, in New York City. She is a first generation American, her parents immigrated from what is now known as Croatia. She began singing as a teenager in the late 1940s. In 1951, she was a vocalist with the Earl Hines band. She recorded two songs on the Roost label in 1953, ‘My Funny Valentine’ and ‘The More I See You’, which mark the beginning of her long recording career. These recordings led to her being signed to a contract on the newly launched EmArcy label of Mercury Records. The first single released by EmArcy Records (EmArcy 16000) was by Helen Merrill. She recorded five albums for EmArcy from 1954-1958. Her debut album, “Helen Merrill” has never been out of print. Her recordings of this period were with highly regarded and talented musicians including Clifford Brown, Barry Galbriath, Frank Wess, Marian McPartland, Bill Evans, Quincy Jones, Hal Mooney, Gil Evans, Milt Hinton, and Osie Johnson.
In 1959, she moved to Europe where she continued to record and perform. The move exposed her to a greater world-view and her music began to reveal this, recording several folk songs on the 1964 album “The Artisrtry of Helen Merrill”. In the early 1960s she made her first tour of Japan as a musician. This would have a major influence on her career later. In the mid-1960s she collaborated with Dick Katz on two memorable albums “The Feeling Is Mutual “and “A Shade of Difference.” Both of these albums are striking in the creativity of all the musicians involved. Besides Mr. Katz these included Thad Jones, Jim Hall, Ron Carter, Arnie Wise, Hubert Laws, Gary Bartz, Richard Davis, Elvin Jones, and Pete LaRoca. Moving to Japan in the late 1960s, due to her husband’s career, she recorded several albums for the Japanese Victor label working with Japanese musicians including Sadao Wantanabe, Norio Maeda, Masahiko Satoh, Takeshi Inomata, and Hozan Yamamoto. Two of these albums included collaborations with American musicians Teddy Wilson and Gary Peacock. While residing in Japan she also hosted a program for a Tokyo radio station.