Jazz Baritone Greats That Will Make You a Believer
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because hearing someone sing it like he both believes it and means it is a rare thing, indeed.
By Eugene S. Robinson
The best all-time troika of a certain kind of musical romantic cool? Hands down: the big three jazz baritones of Billy “Mr. B” Eckstine, Johnny Hartman and Arthur Prysock. Let us introduce you.
With his silky croon, Billy Eckstine could phrase a line so deftly that it summed up every similar sentiment you might have ever felt. The son of a Jewish father and a black mother, Eckstine left Howard University in 1933 after winning a talent contest at age 19, and he went on to garner uncontested wins almost immediately. By the time he caught his stride in the 1940s, he was tearing up the charts with hits like “Prisoner of Love,” “My Foolish Heart” and the absolutely colossal “I Apologize” (winner of the 1999 Grammy Hall of Fame Award, six years after he died). His winning streak lasted into the 1980s, with appearances on TV singing and acting with ineffable style.
My memory of Eckstine’s appearance on Sanford and Son in the 1970s is as clear today as if it were just made: Because even without my knowing who he was at the time, apart from “old,” it was clear that whatever cool was, he was it. His voice was it. His band was it. In total, HE was IT.
“There was no band that sounded like Billy Eckstine’s,” said the estimable Dizzy Gillespie in his autobiography, To Be or Not to Bop. “No other band like this one existed in the world.”
If Eckstine had the good fortune to have his genius recognized, Johnny Hartman’s story is almost the exact opposite. In 1946, when he was 23, he won a singing contest; eventually, he earned a spot in Dizzy Gillespie’s band. Hartman labored largely unappreciated after getting kicked out of the band. That is, until he was spotted by John Coltrane and got pulled into creating what is probably his most noted recording to date, John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman. Mostly because it was great, and partly because Clint Eastwood featured it in The Bridges of Madison County.
Which is where it gets painfully weird — because Hartman was the favorite of all our well-documented favorites, with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin routinely drawn to Hartman’s shows to soak up how he caught the phrase of a song just so. Hartman never looked at the songs like they were songs; he approached them more like stories whose narrative it was his job to explain. He was a baritone with an ease that could kill you.
Hartman was felled by lung cancer at the age of 60, and both his work and his story are still heartbreakingly underappreciated.
Probably the least successful of the three, but possibly one of the most heard: Arthur Prysock’s “Here’s to Good Friends” was featured in a series of Löwenbräu beer commercials. Despite having been repurposed as a jingle, the record is great and eerie. Let’s just split the difference and call it eerily great. Like listening in on a conversation between lovers, the easy swing in his voice masked a depth and avant-garde artistry. Not only did Prysock play with Count Basie, but he also did some distinctly nonstandard projects. Like reading poems set to jazz for his 1968 record This Is My Beloved, and scoring a disco hit in the late 1970s at a time when most of the old jazz greats were ignored or forgotten.
And his version of “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”? Giant enough to make Tony Bennett sob.