Johnny Hartman has gained posthumous fame as one of the warmest ballad singers of this century. His deep baritone voice is well showcased on this 1997 CD, which emphasizes slower tempos with a couple of exceptions ("Sunday" and "After You've Gone"). Accompanied by a subtle orchestra arranged by Rudy Traylor (the personnel is unknown), Hartman is in such fine form that it seems sad that this obscure effort was his only studio date of the 1957-62 period. Highlights of the brief (33-minute) set include "To Each His Own," "Little Girl Blue" and "There's a Lull In My Life."
- Scott Yanow (All Music Guide)
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Okay, as ersatz French chansons go, "Mam'selle" isn't too bad. Ifs really just a straight ahead love song, with only one obligatory term thrown in en francais (namely the title phrase). But the fact remains that it's far from the great Mack Gordon's most poignant lyriclines like "the violins were warm" and "violins will cry" make one suspicious that the veteran cinema librettist has mistaken his French subjects for a bunch of gypsies. But consider what Johnny Hartman makes of it: he uses the verse to set the scene as descriptively as stage instructions in a play. Then, by the first two lines of the refrain ("A small cafe, Mam'selle / A rendezvous, Mam'selle"),he's really got us hooked. Apart from the minor task of sneaking some more franglais by us, Hartman brilliantly capitalizes on Gordon's wisdom in counterbalancing his lofty foreign terms with the most conversational of phrases. As the lyricist surely intended, these two lines read less like a pre-written script than a spontaneously-occurring thought. He doesn't even think in whole sentences, just random-seeming patches of a picture that flicker in his headand, naturally, in ours.
Virtually every crooner of the '40s had a hit with "Mam'selle." Both Art Lund and Frank Sinatra enjoyed a number one record with this song, originally written for the Tyrone Power-Somerset Maugham melodrama The Razor's Edge. It also moved a lot of product for Dick Haymes, the little-known Ray Dorey (in his sole appearance on the Billboard charts), and the Red Pipers vocal group. The song also boosted the careers of Dennis Day and Frankie Laine (who were, perhaps, too piercing and too hysterical, respectively, to be classified as "crooners"). But even though "Mam'selle" all but made the career of Lund, and the Sinatra version has been almost perpetually in print, no one has been able to get as much out of the song as Hartman. Taking a tip from The Voice, when, in the verse (not sung by FS),he sings "Come to think of it / It was spring," we're utterly convinced that he really is just thinking of it. All the crying violins in the world can't break the spell. It's moments like these when Hartman could be called the greatest male singer of his epoch, possessing the sensitivity of Sinatra, the richness of Billy Eckstine and the warmth of Nat Cole. It's impossible to explain why Hartman's career never even began to enjoy the productivity of his three above-named peers (and a lot less even, than too many inferior talents to name). Hartman was permitted to weave his spell of magic and romance on only a handful of records, so you would think that virtually all of his albums would today be well-known. But no, this 1959 Roost album his only recording (apart from two singles) in between the 1956 Bethlehem masterpieces and the 1963 classic John Coltrane And Johnny Hartman is known only to the most thorough of Hartman-itarians. The original was in print only for a minute and a half (even then Roost was overshadowed by its ujber-label, Roulette) and a Spanish reprint came and went even more quickly.
The roots of And I Thought About You go back a decade: Hartman probably first met Roost entrepreneur Teddy Reig in 1948, when he was part of Dizzy Gillespie's big band, and that band played at Reig's club. The Royal Roost. (That club was a progenitor of the Morris Levy-backed Birdland, just as Roost Records was a progenitor of the Morris Levy-backed Roulette Records. Reig may have also been involved with Hartman's sessions, which were produced for the Regent label by Freddy Mendelsohn, at a time when Reig still worked for Regent's sister company. Savoy). It's unfortunate and somewhat mysterious that neither Reig nor Levy saw the obvious advantage of keeping Hartman on their labels. He would have fit right into a talent roster that included such equals as Joe Williams, Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington and Eckstine. (There was always something that came between Hartman and his potential audiences).
Reig loosely supervised this Roost recording, but the man who did the most to put it together was arranger, conductor and A&R guy Rudy Traylor. Although not a well-known pop orchestrator, the late Mr. Traylor had considerable experience in both classical music and jazz. Born in Rhode Island, he had worked with symphony orchestras in Philadelphia before becoming a producer-arranger and general factotum for Roulette. Because Roost was far from one of your better-heeled recording concerns, (even the low-budgeted Bethlehem gave Hartman the Ernie Wilkins Orchestra on All Of Me), Traylor came up with an orchestral format that would give Hartman everything he needed to create a romantic mood but wouldn't be so expensive as to make Reig choke on one of his infamous cigars. Traylor and Hartman took their cue from both Cole and Sinatra. As with Cole's early work, the basic unit would be a rhythm section of piano, bass and guitar. If there are any drums present, they're subdued, and the bass takes over most or the harmonic and rhythmic responsibilities. Ifs hard to think of another jazz-pop-vocal disk where the bass is so prominent, with piano and guitar mainly filling in for ornamentation. And, following the format established by Sinatra in his first album, 1945's The Voice, the team sought to give the proceedings an intimate, chamber music feel. However, they didn't employ a string quartet a la Sinatra but a section of three or four reedmen who mainly stick to flutes, clarinets and other assorted woodwinds.
Although the set was and is titled. And I Thought About You, it's the rare album that saves its title track for last. Otherwise, it takes most of its cue from the opener, "Mam'selle," utilizing movie songs that deserve better than they received in their original films, such as the Oscar-nominated "To Each His Own" and "Alone" (a tune that's impossible to take seriously ever since the team of Allan Jones, Kitty Carlisle and the Marx Brothers made mincemeat out of it in A Night At The Opera). "There's A Lull In My Life" (another Mack Gordon classic, introduced by Alice Faye in Wake Up And Live], "I Should Care" (written by three ex-Tommy Dorsey employees and introduced by that band in Thrill Of A Romance], "Long Ago And Far Away," (dubbed by Nan Wynn for Rita Hayworth in Cover Girl), and "But Beautiful" (which could also describe Miss Hayworth but was written for Bing Crosby in Road To Rio), fared much better originally.
The brilliant phrasing in "Mam'selle" also sets the mood for the rest of the package, as in the way Hartman extends the "I" in the last eight bars of the first chorus of "I Should Care," taking it down and then up again. Or the way he stretches and plays with every key word in the first line of "ther-res a lu-ul in my li-ife" in a manner reminiscent of Sarah Vaughan. He employs all kinds of tricks, particularly on verses: on "Little Girl Blue," he goes further up than we expect on "Merry as a carousel," while on "Mam'selle" and "Lull In My Life," he surprises us with the very inclusion of these two rather scarce sections. Like Sinatra, he knows when to subtly modulate from speech into song, as in the opening of the bridge on "Little Girl Blue" and when "the clock stops ticking" on "Lull." On the latter song, he also extracts more impact out of an unadorned "Oh" than most singers can get out of a considerably more interesting word.
The set's four up tempo numbers, "Sunday," "After You've Gone," "How Long Has This Been Going On?" and "I Thought About You," find the reed players switching to saxophones, giving the proceedings more of a swing band feel. Hartman rarely sang up tempos, yet he never sounded better at the faster tempo than he does here. He harmonizes with the horns at the opening of "How Long..." and emotes over the stylish-sounding saxes throughout. Hartman's blues-based repeating of the key phrase, "How long has this..." several times, and the blue feeling of "After You've Gone," re-establish his credentials as a jazz guy. Ifs at these speeds, such as on the clipped, syncopated phrases on "Sunday," that Hartman reminds us the most of Cole. "I Thought About You" (which, contrary to the album title, does not contain an "And") may not open the set but it closes it perfectly. Ifs a pop anomaly in that ifs the only standard that the great lyricist Johnny Mercer wrote with the great composer Jimmy Van Heusen (the short-lived collaboration also produced two minor successes, "Make With The Kisses" and "Blue Rain"}. "I Thought About You" makes an interesting choice to end an album in that it tells a meditative kind of a story. Not much actually happens in the song. There's a train trip going on, but ifs the passive nature of sitting and riding that leads to the main action of the song, the protagonist reflecting on the object of his love. Ifs even more passive than something like Ray Noble's "The Very Thought Of You" or Kalmar & Ruby's "Thinking Of You," in which the act of thinking becomes much more active.
The bridge here (which begins "Two or three cars...") is especially contemplative there's basically no action at all, just description. For the first three lines, Hartman and Mercer set the scene. Then in the fourth line ("With each beam, the same old dream"), he subtly suggests the action of thought but leaves out the active verb: the thought is suddenly there without actually being thought. Which brings us back to the verse to "Mam'selle," which started the album. Hartman is once more telling us a story through description rather than action, and again, it takes a master storyteller to put it over, one who can just suggest a thought or feeling with the merest nuance; After Sinatra, there weren't many singers who could do it. Hartman was one or the few. Here's further evidence, if any is needed, why we should treasure the Great American Songbook, and the rare artists capable of doing full justice to it.