NPR.org, July 10, 2007 - Johnny Hartman was the quintessential romantic balladeer. The only singer to record with John Coltrane — on the iconic album John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman — his fame was limited mainly to true jazz lovers during his lifetime.
It took a movie soundtrack — released 12 years after his death — to move Hartman to the top of the jazz charts. Actor, producer and director Clint Eastwood chose several of Hartman's recordings for the dreamy romantic scenes in his film The Bridges of Madison County and its sequel, Remembering Madison County.
Hartman was a master of emotional expression, putting a wealth of subtle nuance into every word he sang. With any other vocalist, performing love songs with that kind of intensity could easily come across as being over the top or gushing, but Hartman's rich, baritone voice never wavered in its sincerity.
Born John Maurice Hartman on July 23, 1923 in Chicago, Johnny sang in church choirs and the high school glee club before receiving a scholarship to study voice at the Chicago Musical College. After a tour of duty in the Army during World War II, he won a singing contest conducted by pianist and bandleader Earl "Fatha" Hines. Hartman later joined Hines' band.
Hines' group disbanded a year later, but trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie soon recruited Hartman for his big band. The singer's cool, understated voice was a dramatic contrast to Dizzy's rapid-fire bebop style.
Though Hartman didn't feel entirely at home with bebop, he continued performing with Gillespie's band until it broke up in 1949. He later joined pianist Erroll Garner's trio, but his tenure there lasted only two months.
Throughout most of the 1950s, Hartman struggled as a solo artist, recording several noteworthy albums that never broke into the mainstream. While he always seemed on the verge of greater success, he never got the commercial push he needed.
Some speculate that Hartman came on the scene at the wrong time, and that racism denied him potential opportunities for him. He was a handsome black man, whose voice somewhat resembled those of many successful white vocalists. The idea of a black man singing love ballads and swooning white females didn't sit well in 1950s America, particularly in the Deep South. Billy Eckstine was a black vocalist who had successfully crossed over to the mainstream, but not without backlash from white listeners who rejected his music.
Hartman's career turned a significant corner in 1963 when he recorded his classic duet album with saxophonist John Coltrane. They performed stunning renditions of ballads such as "They Say It's Wonderful" and Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life."
Critics raved about the album, but the collaboration with Coltrane also had a down side. Hartman was now labeled a jazz singer by record executives and club owners. Despite his mastery of romantic ballads with potentially popular appeal, he had trouble getting work in big rooms like the Copacabana in New York.
John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman did, however, help Johnny secure additional recording contracts. Shortly thereafter, he was back in his element doing pop-oriented recordings with leading orchestras like those of Oliver Nelson and Gerald Wilson.
By the mid-1960s, popular tastes had shifted toward rock and roll, and Hartman's style had far less commercial potential. Still, he refused to compromise his own love of the romantic ballad and went abroad, where his style was still appreciated. He did a television special in Australia and recorded several albums in Japan, including a tribute to Coltrane after the sax player's death in 1967.
After a break, Hartman would record again in the late 1970s, his album Once In Every Life was nominated for a Grammy in 1981. Still loved by jazz enthusiasts, he would eventually achieve cult status after his death in 1983. And thanks to Eastwood's movie soundtrack, Hartman is finally getting the wider recognition he richly deserves.
Today, Johnny Hartman ' while still a relatively obscure figure ' is better known than at any time during his life. The CD era resurrected him, and his records are heard by jazz fans the world over. He is still best known for John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, but several other albums ( I Just Stopped By To Say Hello, And I Thought About You , The Voice That Is ) have joined that classic in the pantheon of great vocal jazz recordings.
Hartman is considered an acquired taste by some. His romantic sound isn't to everyone's taste, yet the best of his work lives on in boudoirs everywhere. One might call Hartman the thinking person's Barry White. I can tell from personal experience that the first two bars of 'They Say It's Wonderful' are enough to melt any woman. Still, there is more to the Hartman revival than superb mood music. This music endures because Hartman was an artist of the highest order. His elegant phrasing enlivens any tune. Take, for example, Fats Waller's 'Ain't Misbehavin'', which Hartman recorded twice (once for Bethlehem on Songs from the Heart and again for ABC/Paramount on The Unforgettable Johnny Hartman ). As recorded by Waller on RCA in 1943, 'Ain't Misbehavin'' is a transparent lie. One imagines Waller's fingers crossed behind is back as he tells his love that he's 'got no place to go' and that he is 'home about eight, just [him] and [his] radio.' 'Of course I'm faithful, sugar!' Waller's classic tune declares with a wink, 'Don't you believe me?' By contrast, Hartman's rendition is jaded, yet sincere. It is a declaration of fidelity from a world-weary playboy. 'Your kisses are worth waiting for,' he sings, 'Why don't you believe me?' The real difference lies in the way Waller and Hartman pronounce the word 'believe' in their recordings. Waller razzes the word, blubbering his lips over the initial 'b'. Hartman caresses the word, extending it over three beats. The singer in Hartman's version is wounded when his beloved doesn't buy his story. Waller is a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar.
In the decades that followed Hartman's collaboration with Coltrane, he made a number of albums designed to capitalize on that success. The best were the ones that immediately followed it on the Impulse! label. I Just Dropped By To Say Hello follows the formula of the Coltrane album, and does so with considerable success. The Voice That Is is marred by trendy arrangements on the second side, but succeeds overall despite this, thanks largely to the strength of the material. After a string of disappointing attempts to lend his sound to contemporary pop tunes (a strategy that worked for very few of Hartman's generation) and a few strong collaborations with Japanese musicians (although never a household name in the United States, Hartman was ' in the immortal words of Tom Waits ' big in Japan), Hartman had receded from the public's ear. The man who had once seemed the natural heir apparent to Billy Eckstine was fast becoming an invisible man.
In August of 1980, three years before his death, Johnny Hartman entered a New York City recording studio to create one of his last great albums. Once In Every Life is a recording that delivers what even the best of Hartman's post-Coltrane albums only promised. Fronting a small jazz combo, the context that best captured his unique sound, Hartman is completely at his ease. He is a little older, perhaps, but certainly wiser. The musicians on the date, particularly the great Billy Taylor on piano, compliment Hartman's maturity. Their playing displays great artistry and great taste. These are gentlemen of the old school, completely at home in one another's company. The atmosphere is one of romance, but not that of a schoolboy crush. It is the sound of something more adult; something that only comes from years of experience. The ballads, particularly “Wave”, “I See Your Face Before Me”, and “Moonlight In Vermont”, display Hartman's mellow vocals to perfection. His duet with Al Gafa's guitar on the aforementioned “Moonlight In Vermont” stands as one of the albums most beautiful and satisfying moments. Once In Every Life will never displace John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman for most listeners, yet it stands among Hartman's best and most consistent work. His voice is deeper and richer than before. His readings of familiar material (Hartman had recorded 'I See Your Face Before Me' and 'Moonlight In Vermont' while on Bethlehem nearly thirty years before) become definitive.
Sadly, Once In Every Life has been out of print in the United States for years, and has never been released on CD in its original form. Fortunately, the entire album is available spread out over two CDs: The 1995 soundtrack album to Clint Eastwood's The Bridges of Madison County and a second collection titled Remembering Madison County. While the two soundtrack discs can be enjoyed in their own right (the first disc features, in addition to the Hartman numbers, three recordings by Dinah Washington while the second includes two gems from Ahmad Jamal), the enterprising Hartman fan can, with the aid of a CD burner, reconstruct the album in its original sequence. Once In Every Life can then be enjoyed as nature intended. It is a fine addition to Hartman's discography, and we can only hope that it will be reissued under its own title in the near future.
Hartman's legacy will always be one of artistic triumph balanced against commercial disappointment. Thankfully, there are plenty of excellent recordings for future generations to discover and enjoy. So long as they do, Hartman's ghost will never completely fade.