Johnny Hartman: One and Only

The making of the singer's 1963 album with John Coltrane, told for the first time

John Coltrane, Johnny Hartman and Elvin Jones in 1963
John Coltrane with Johnny Hartman and McCoy Tyner, Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, NJ 1963
Johnny Hartman at Sabin's Records, Washington, D.C., 1974

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In this exclusive excerpt from The Last Balladeer: The Johnny Hartman Story, author Gregg Akkerman gets inside the making of the singer’s legendary 1963 summit with John Coltrane-and offers revelatory insights as to what’s still locked in the vaults.

In 1961, jazz writer John Tynan scathingly referred to John Coltrane’s recent recordings as “anti-jazz,” “horrifying” and “gobbledegook.” Taking umbrage at this criticism and others similar in tone, Impulse Records producer and chief executive Bob Thiele steered Coltrane toward making a series of albums featuring ballads and standard tunes. As described in his autobiography, What a Wonderful World, Thiele said, “We decided to straighten these guys out once and for all by showing them that John was as great and complete a jazz artist as we already knew, and it was one of the few times he accepted a producer’s concept.” The first offering, Ballads, featured instrumentals performed by Coltrane’s classic quartet consisting of pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones. The second album paired the seemingly disparate styles of Coltrane and Duke Ellington. It was during the sessions with Ellington that Coltrane became comfortable recording only one or two takes of a song. According to Thiele, this was an important step in Coltrane’s development, because previously, “[He] would ask for one take after another, with each subsequent take inevitably less exciting and genuine than the previous attempt.”

After the success of these two albums, Coltrane described why he felt a follow-up was necessary: “And these ballads that came out were definitely ones which I felt at this time. I chose them; it seemed to be something that was laying around in my mind-from my youth, or somewhere-and I just had to do them. They came at this time, when the confidence in what I was doing on the horn had flagged; it seemed to be the time to clean that out.” To further this act of cleansing, Coltrane and Thiele began considering another album of ballads but this time with a vocalist, something Coltrane had never done on recordings under his own name (and would never do again). According to one account, all of Thiele’s early vocalist suggestions, including Sarah Vaughan, were declined by the saxophonist. Coltrane later described how he came to decide on the right singer: “Johnny Hartman-a man that I had stuck up in my mind somewhere-I just felt something about him, I don’t know what it was. I liked his sound, I thought there was something there I had to hear.” On another occasion, Coltrane offered simple but heartfelt reasoning for seeking out Hartman: “He’s a fine singer, and I wanted him to make a comeback.”

Thiele gave his own recollections of the circumstances: “We had both agreed on some singers, but one night, John says, ‘There’s a guy that I think is great,’ and he described the background-where he heard him and why he liked him. So I contacted Johnny and that was the Hartman-Coltrane album.” Thiele provided further details in his autobiography: “Trane, who always wanted to record with a singer, chose as his collaborator an old comrade who was experiencing some hard times, the veteran balladeer Johnny Hartman.” Referring to both personal and musical reasons for the choice, Thiele continued, “Aside from the generous friendly gesture, Coltrane considered Hartman’s rich baritone and musicianly phrasing of lyrics to be the closest approximation of his saxophone sound.” As record producer and friend of Coltrane, Thiele’s comments must be seriously considered, but he was certainly incorrect on one point-Hartman and Coltrane were not old comrades. The myth that the two performed together in Dizzy’s orchestra perpetuated over the years, in no small part because of Thiele, but Hartman had left the group several months before Coltrane joined. Although they would have had the opportunity to hear each other perform at the Apollo Theater in March 1950, according to Hartman’s 1978 interview with Frank Kofsky (the only man to interview the two principals and producer of John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman), he and Coltrane had never met or performed together before the 1963 album project.

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