Editor’s Note: Welcome to the third and final piece in a series from G. Bruce Boyer, to whom we are grateful for allowing us to share. The accompanying playlist can be found by clicking here. Please enjoy.
Johnny Hartman was John Coltrane’s favorite singer, and the smoothest cat with the warmest voice there ever was. It’s just that there didn’t seem to be quite enough room for him coming up in the post-World War II music scene. He had to fight for attention with Billy Eckstine and Nat Cole, not to mention all the white crooners and jazz singers crowding the microphone. Black singers just didn’t cross over to white audiences that easily back in the day. There were the aforementioned Cole and Eckstine, a few quartets (The Ink Spots, The Four Tunes) and a handful of Blues singers who might have had a song or two make it into the mainstream pop charts.
For a long time, if you mentioned the name Johnny Hartman, most people didn’t seem to know who the hell you were talking about. And he remains, as critic A. B. Spellman says in one of his liner notes, “one of the most neglected singers of the middle Bop era.” Neglected would seem to be the right word. Even though preeminent jazz writer Will Friedwald gave his authoritative vote to Hartman as “ one of the greatest interpreters of love songs that ever lived,” Johnny Hartman was not a name on everyone’s list as a great American singer of ballads.
I was among the vast crowd that knew nothing of Hartman til I was in my twenties and a friend turned me towards that incredibly smooth, warm, sensually undulating voice that must have been heavily influenced by both Eckstine and Cole, with a dash of Sinatra and maybe Billie Holiday thrown in. I quickly realized that the Coltrane-Hartman album was one of the greatest jazz presentations ever committed to recording. Their rendition – for it is a collaboration – of the searingly poignant “Lush Life” – the song Billy Strayhorn was said to have written when he was seventeen — is a highly prized work of art among aficionados. It’s doubtful there will ever be a better version of that haunting song, you can trust me on this one.
I keep mentioning Nat Cole because he and Hartman had a lot in common. Hartman was born in Chicago in 1923, the same year a four-year-old Nathaniel Cole’s family moved there from Montgomery, Alabama. Both men would grow up on the Southside, study the piano, and later sing. The road that Nat “King” Cole took was to form his own jazz trio and cause minor sensations in the small clubs around town. Hartman did a stint in the army, and then started gigging jobs fronting for jazz musicians like Earl “Fatha” Hines, then Dizzy Gillespie. He cut a few sides with Errol Garner. Finally he took a chance and went out on his own.
His career was full of long pauses between recordings and he made albums sporadically; one in ’47, another in ’65, played the Newport Jazz Festival in ’75, and made his last recordings in ‘80. The great collaboration with Coltrane – the only time the John Coltrane Quartet ever backed a singer to my knowledge – came in a single-session taped on March 7, 1963, every song but one reputedly done in a single take. There’s more sensitivity, more emotional subtlety, more musical finesse in that collection of one-take songs than any ballad album I can think of. And that includes Sinatra’s “In the Wee Small Hours” album, which many listeners think is as good as it gets in recorded American Songbook ballads.
But for much of his career, Hartman couldn’t seem to crack the mass record-buying audience. He spent several years working in England. When he finally returned stateside, he recorded with several labels, albums that went nowhere. He seemed to be always scuffling. When Johnny Hartman died in New York City in 1983 he was just sixty years old. But his body of work, while nothing as vast and prolific as Cole or Sinatra, is not unsubstantial, and he never made a bad album. Like Sinatra, he had impeccable taste and relied mainly on the Classic American Songbook for his material. His way with a ballad like “You are Too Beautiful”, “My One and Only Love”, “My Ship”, or his sublime version of “It Never Entered My Mind” is simply incomparably cool, lush, and heartfelt. What a shame, for him and for us, he never got that more immediate recognition he so richly deserved.
For Trane, Blue Note.
… And I Thought About You, Fresh Sound Records.
The Voice That Is!, Impulse.
Songs from the Heart, Bethlehem.
Johnny Hartman & John Coltrane, Impulse.
Johnny Hartman Collection: 1947 – 1972, Hip-O.
by G. Bruce Boyer