I urge you to listen to listen to the velvet voice of this man. It’s like listening to honey…
At the time of his death in 1983, Johnny Hartman was already a ghost. A supreme interpreter of ballads with a lush, velvety baritone, Hartman combated indifference for nearly forty years, his one moment in the sun a 1963 collaboration with saxophonist John Coltrane’s classic quartet. That album, the superb John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, is Hartman’s definitive statement and remains, along with a glass of white wine and a crackling fire, an essential aid to seduction. For all that, Hartman’s post-Coltrane efforts, on the Impulse! label and otherwise, failed to earn him the fame he deserved. His passing was a murmur; a whimper rather than a bang. The anonymity he struggled against claimed him, and the world was none the wiser.
Though he was never the most distinctive vocalist, Johnny Hartman rose above others to become the most commanding, smooth balladeer of the 1950s and ’60s, a black crooner closely following Billy Eckstine and building on the form with his notable jazz collaborations, including the 1963 masterpiece John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman.
Born in Chicago, he began singing early on and performed while in Special Services in the Army. Hartman studied music while at college and made his professional debut in the mid-’40s, performing with Earl Hines and recording his first sides for Regent/Savoy. After Hines’ band broke up later in 1947, Hartman moved to the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band and stayed for two years, recording a few additional sides for Mercury as well.
Johnny Hartman’s first proper LP came in 1956 with Songs from the Heart, recorded for Bethlehem and featuring a quartet led by trumpeter Howard McGhee. He recorded a second (All of Me) later that year, but then was virtually off-record until 1963, when his duet album John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman appeared on Impulse. A beautiful set of ballad standards, including top-flight renditions of “Lush Life” and “My One and Only Love,” the album sparked a flurry of activity for Hartman, including two more albums for Impulse: 1963’s I Just Dropped by to Say Hello and the following year’s The Voice That Is. During the late ’60s and early ’70s, he recorded a range of jazz and pop standards albums for ABC, Perception, and Blue Note. Hartman recorded sparingly during the 1970s, but returned with two albums recorded in 1980, one of which (Once in Every Life) earned a Grammy nomination just two years before his death in 1983.
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 Impulse albums 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.
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.