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.