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Alas, Poor Ghost: Echoes of Johnny Hartman

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At the time of his death in 1983, Johnny Hartman was already a ghost.
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.



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.

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