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Book Excerpts

The Last Balladeer: The Johnny Hartman Story

By Published: July 3, 2012
Other artists on the bill included Zoot Sims with Jim Hall, Cy Coleman, Helen Humes, Margaret Whiting, and Chet Baker. With such a stacked billing, the evening received copious press coverage and was well attended. Considering the importance of the concert for Hartman, it's inexplicable that he chose to stray from the assigned Ellington material and thus raise the ire of several men with mighty pens. New York Times critic John S. Wilson was in attendance and, although he often made vociferous efforts to praise Hartman, of this night he wrote, "Johnny Hartman, an effective singer who was scheduled to do Duke Ellington's music, fluffed off the Duke with only two songs and filled out his segment with such things as "On a Clear Day."(1) Respected jazz writer Whitney Balliett dryly recalled several reasons the evening was a let down, among them Hartman, who, "struggling with his intonation, celebrated Duke Ellington by singing two Ellingtons, one Billy Strayhorn, one Kurt Weill, a blues, and "On a Clear Day."(2) Photographer/graphic designer Burt Goldblatt, who had a soft spot for Hartman since their days with Bethlehem Records, couldn't bring himself to specifically criticize the singer and instead simply lamented, "It was not one of jazz's finest hours."(3)

In Hartman's defense, these gentlemen missed the mark on several points. Of the six songs performed by Hartman, two were by Ellington and an argument could be made that Strayhorn's "Lush Life" counted as a third. Second, Hartman justified his inclusion of Weill's "September Song" by sharing how Duke had specifically requested that he sing it at a previous gig. Third, Hartman's intonation was excellent throughout the concert (better than many instances heard on the recently released I've Been There anyway) and what may have sounded to the audience like pitch problems was more likely the result of technical troubles mixing the voice in the sound system. Another irritation to the crowd might have been the awful jokes and abrasive voice of the emcee, Phyllis Diller. One journalist wrote, "She was vulgar, tasteless, [and] foolish. A complete waste of time on everyone's part."(4)

Before introducing Hartman, Diller attempted to ingratiate herself to the audience with some of her nightclub punch lines but the crowd's response was tepid at best. Faced with the difficult task of following Diller's stale humor, Hartman led off with a rare (for him) reading of Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady." Opening with a ballad is always a challenge but, making matters worse, several phrases went by before Hartman's microphone level was adjusted loud enough to be clearly heard over the piano of Ellis Larkins. The audio mix was corrected by the song's bridge section but Hartman elected to only present one full chorus so by the time bassist Milt Hinton and drummer Walter Bolden joined in, it was nearly time to finish. Hartman's last note could be interpreted as off-pitch but the problem is more accurately placed in Larkin's choice of improvised chords that didn't support the sustained vocal note. This kind of spontaneous imperfection is an undesired but typical aspect of live jazz performances where rehearsal might consist of nothing more that a "talk through" moments before taking the stage. Perhaps Larkins played a chord sequence that was perfect for a typical last note from Ella Fitzgerald (for whom he often played) on the same song but not the one Hartman chose.

Hartman's second selection for the evening was puzzling. With well-known Ellington rhythm tunes available like "Satin Doll" or "You Better Know It," (both of which Hartman would record for a radio broadcast the following year) it made no sense that he so quickly abandoned Duke for a rendition of "Sometimes I'm Happy." The opening sixteen bars featured only vocals and walking bass and if anyone was having intonation problems at that point, it was the normally impeccable Milt Hinton. The veteran pro played as if he couldn't properly hear Hartman's voice, or his bass had simply gone out of tune in a hall packed with heat-emanating bodies. He faired better on "Don't You Know I Care," just as he had on 1963's I Just Dropped By to Say Hello. Hartman's confident and rich delivery of the clever lyric only raises the question, "Why isn't this song performed more often?" His ruminative take on the melody was probably all it took for Balliett to confuse it later for a slow blues.

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