When you hear the words “Great American Songbook,” which artists immediately leap to mind? Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, and Tony Bennett, to name a few, would be the most likely candidates. But one more worthy singer can be added to the list: Johnny Hartman, an under appreciated baritone jazz singer who never experienced the success he deserved.
Born in Chicago in 1923, Hartman began singing in the church choir and high school glee club before receiving a scholarship for the Chicago Musical College. However, he was soon drafted into the Army, serving during World War II. After his tour of duty he resumed his music career, winning a singing contest run by pianist and bandleader Earl “Fatha” Hines. Subsequently he joined Hines’ band,; after that group disbanded, he toured with legends Dizzy Gillespie and Erroll Garner. Not feeling comfortable with bebop, he established a solo career and recorded several respected but low-selling albums.
The turning point in his career arrived when he recorded an album with John Coltrane; their stunningly bare arrangements lent new emotion to songs such as “Lush Life” and “Isn’t It Wonderful.” Despite the album’s accolades, Hartman still struggled to find success, but he kept recording until his death in 1981.
I first encountered Hartman when watching the film The Bridges of Madison County (a rare instance of a film dramatically improving upon the novel, but I digress). During the scene where Meryl Streep’s and Clint Eastwood’s characters finally succumb to temptation, Hartman’s “I See Your Face Before Me” plays in the background. His deep, rich voice immediately captured my attention; his simple but effective phrasing conveys unabashed romanticism and desire. When that film ended, I knew I had to delve into the Hartman catalog to explore further.
A wonderful starting point is Priceless Jazz Collection: Johnny Hartman, which provides a complete overview of his most important recordings. “The More I See You” demonstrates that he can swing as well as croon ballads, while “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” contains a perfectly sleepy, lonely, late night feeling with Hartman’s warm vocals. The Johnny Hartman Collection also culls material from his many albums, particularly his early material. As previously mentioned, The Bridges of Madison County soundtrack includes many Hartman recordings, including “I See Your Face Before Me” as well as the breathtakingly gorgeous “For All We Know.” His smooth, deep voice drips with sensuality and pure romance, which makes this version among the best.