Johnny Hartman?s music will be re-released -- The crooner provides the songs for ''Bridges of Madison County''

By Chip Deffaa
Updated July 14, 1995 at 04:00 AM EDT

In The Bridges of Madison County, Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep fall in love to the dark, subdued, ineffably romantic tones of jazz crooner Johnny Hartman. There is, perhaps, no more fitting singer for this bittersweet tale of lost opportunities. ”I’d always been a Hartman fan, and for years I was looking for the chance to use him. Then Bridges came along, and I thought, this is it,” says director Eastwood, whose own label, Malpaso, will reissue the entire out-of-print 1981 album (Once in Every Life) from which Hartman’s four Bridges songs are culled.

Born July 3, 1926, in Chicago, Hartman sang in the choir of a South Side Baptist church (its keyboardist, incidentally, was young Dinah Washington, whose vocals are also heard on the Bridges soundtrack). After singing with the big bands of Earl Hines (1947) and Dizzy Gillespie (1948-49), Hartman went solo.

In 1950, Our World, a black general-interest magazine, described a struggling Hartman cooking his own meals, mending his own clothes, waiting for that one hit record that could make him famous, and being told repeatedly by white booking agents: ”I’d like to use you, Johnny, but you’ll never make it. Your voice is too classy for a Negro.”

An understated, refined balladeer who rarely attempted scat singing, Hartman counted Nat ”King” Cole, Frank Sinatra, and Ella Fitzgerald among singers he liked. He felt frustrated — and not a little bitter — that he never equaled their popularity. On a questionnaire for Leonard Feather’s Encyclopedia of Jazz, he complained that he’d made a great recording of ”Goodbye” but Mercury hadn’t promoted it; his fine ”I Ran All the Way Home” had been eclipsed by Sarah Vaughan’s version; he cut ”Wheel of Fortune” months before Kay Starr (who had the hit, in 1952), but RCA kept his version off the rack too long.

A self-effacing man, Hartman said he doubted he’d fit in when jazz legend John Coltrane — who’d never before used a vocalist — asked him to sing on a 1963 album, called simply John Coltrane &amp Johnny Hartman (recently reissued by Impulse!). That record, which included a near-definitive version of a song Hartman fully learned only in the studio, Billy Strayhorn’s ”Lush Life,” was a high point of Hartman’s career. But industry recognition didn’t come until 1982, when his last album, Once in Every Life, earned him a Grammy nomination. He lost to Al Jarreau. Nearly two years later, at the age of 57, Hartman succumbed to cancer.

The Bridges of Madison County

  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • 135 minutes
  • Clint Eastwood