I wished I could have written this book. I couldn't because I was entirely too close. Johnny Hartman was my uncle and I adored him. He was a jazz singer and recorded one of the most notable jazz albums in musical history -- Lush Life with John Coltrane.
Greg Akkerman, a jazz professor at the University of South Carolina has written a book on his life, The Last Balladeer scheduled to be released later this month.
What follows is an interview with Akkerman.
Why did you write this book?
I was dismayed that there was no book on Johnny Hartman. I decided I would take the task on. I gave him the book he deserves.
Why did he deserve this book?
In my opinion he is one of the great Jazz vocalists in the 20th century and has been overlooked in past decades. He was part of one of the most important jazz albums every made with saxophonist John Coltrane. His story has never been told before.
Why the Last Balladeer?
He was the last singer that held to the tradition of singing. He was one of the last ones to hold on to singing ballads from the beginning to the end of his career, exclusively. Others would sing one ballad in a set, he wanted to express the romantic ballads.
Who is Johnny Hartman?
I think first and foremost he was a husband and father, that's what gave him the most happiness in his life. But then he gave the world a beautiful voice. A great all around singer. He didn't try to be what other people wanted him to be. He sang the way he wanted to sound.
Who was Johnny Hartman the singer?
His biggest priority was to communicate the story of the lyric and never to disturb that with singing technique that would get in the way. He was very careful about his enunciation and acknowledging the original melody. He respected the song writer.
What did you learn that you didn't know about him?
How hard he worked his entire life to make a career and take care of his family. His successes were not handed to him, he worked very hard.
His complete musical catalog. The totality of his portfolio is very good, few misfires but compared to others in his genre and time frame, the quality of his work was exceptionally high.
Why in your opinion was he not a household celebrity success?
It's a combination of the time that the lived in, when a black artist didn't have all of the opportunities afforded a white artist. He was also shy, so he may not have always asked for help. He never had the right management. However, at one time, John Levy was his manager and it didn't work out. Didn't know how to get along with a manager. Didn't trust the concept of management. (Nancy Wilson, George Shearing, Joe Williams were among the late John Levy's client base.)
What is the major take away from this book?
Johnny Hartman is the voice of romance for me and I think lots of people have heard his music and now I want to add a face to the voice. Now they know who is singing. I want to make that connection.
His voice is being used in Victoria Secrets Commercials, Clint Eastwood used his music as a soundtrack to his movie, Bridges of Madison County and now the TV program, CSI.
His music is still being used today and people are loving what they hear. His voice is used to sell romance and sophistication.
Were there any surprises for you?
I uncovered lost recordings and I found out how many people he touched -- he influenced a lot of careers. He advanced a lot of working musicians careers in the '70s and '80s.
How does the jazz world record Johnny Hartman?
All have the greatest respect for him as a jazz singer. He is recognized as a talented jazz vocalist. Jon Hendrick, Kurt Elling, Kevin Mahogany for example, hold him in high regard. Tony Bennett says he is one of the greatest singers of his period.
What are the negatives. What didn't you like?
He did some projects that he probably should NOT have not done. Some things he did in the '50s and the bubble gum music and rock and roll that were not his best.
What are your proud moments of the book?
I was proud to research and uncover his army days.
I am proudest of the book's timeline, what he did and when he did it. I have provided a correct history.
What was the surprise finding?
I learned how much he loved cooking. Repeatedly I found out that he was a chef. I was surprise that he wasn't on TV more often.
What did you find about his journeys to London, Japan and Austria?
He was in England for 10 months in 1959. He was in Japan three different times. He was in Australia once for about a week. He did a show on Australia's TV network, several night clubs and featured concerts. He recorded three albums from Japan, The Tokyo Album and For Trane for Blue note. His first trip to Japan was in 1963, when he was singing with Art Blakely Jazz Messengers (a progressive jazz group). This is a little-known fact. And he was once contacted by Coltrane, saying that they wanted to make an album with a singer.
Who were his greatest influences?
Frank Sinatra, Perry Como. He loved the traditional pop singers from the '40s.
What are your final thoughts?
It was a wonderful time writing the book and learning about the Hartman family and the musicians he worked with.
Ralph Shearing played on his first album and said he was the best male vocalist he ever worked with.
He recorded the first digital album in Canada, released as a vinyl record, the masters was on digital recorded album in Canada, This One Is for Tedi. This is his last album and was released after he died. He was very excited about this project.
The one album to get that sums up his romantic singing is Songs From the Heart, recorded in 1955. It represents his romantic style.