Before Johnny Hartman and John Coltrane in 1963, there was Earl Coleman and Sonny Rollins in 1956. Coleman had a rich, romantic deep baritone that was similar in some respects to that of his idol, Billy Eckstine. But Coleman was less showtime, less photogenic and less talented. He also wasn't as lucky, which can be heard in his voice and today is the integrity of his charm. While Eckstine had enormous power and slick consistency in big band and small group settings, Coleman was most at home singing patient ballads with small groups. Perhaps a closer match is Arthur Prysock.
Coleman's career began in the late 1930s singing in territory bands. He was in Kansas City in 1942-1943, where he first met Charlie Parker. Coleman sang with Jay McShann's [pictured] band in 1943, and by the end of the year he was with Earl Hines' band, rejoining McShann in 1945. McShann headed west, winding up in California in 1946. There, Coleman became popular in the clubs as a ballad and blues singer, recording two tracks with Miles Davis and Gene Ammons in October 1946—Don't Sing Me the Blues and Don't Explain to Me Baby.
Charlie Parker, who had been in California since the tail end of 1945, reunited with Coleman and promised the singer that they would record. But in July 1946, Parker set fire to his hotel room and was committed to Camarillo State Hospital for a six-month evaluation.
When Parker was released in January 1947, he kept his word and recorded with Coleman in February. The two tracks for Dial Records were This Is Always and Dark Shadows. But the re-take process was brutal for Coleman, and the four takes needed on each track shredded his voice. You can hear him growing increasingly strained as the session wears on. Nevertheless, This Is Always became a jukebox hit, thanks in part to Parker's long obbligati played behind him.
Coleman sang with Parker at Hollywood's Hi-De-Ho Club in March 1947 and recorded Hold That Money with Gene Ammons in October in Chicago. Back in New York in 1948, Coleman again appeared with Parker at the Onyx Club and with the Billy Taylor Trio. Coleman didn't record again formally until 1955, when he was teamed with a septet featuring Gene Ammons and Cecil Payne.
Coleman's career high point for me has to be the six songs he recorded in March and June 1956 for Prestige Records: Social Call, Reminiscing, Say It Isn't So, No Love No Nothin', It's You or No One and Come Rain or Come Shine. On the March dates he was accompanied by Art Farmer (trumpet), Gigi Gryce (alto sax) [pictured], Hank Jones (piano), Oscar Pettiford (bass) and Shadow Wilson (drums). On the June session, Coleman was joined by Farmer, Jones, Wendell Marshall (bass) and Wilbert Hogan (drums).
These are fabulous recordings, featuring Coleman at his smoky, passionate best. The high point is Gigi Gryce's Social Call, with gorgeous accompaniment by Hank Jones. Coleman is about as relaxed as an armchair here, laying down the yawning lyrics before Farmer comes in with a powder-soft punctuating trumpet solo. It's You or No One also is in a league of its own, with a searing alto saxophone solo by Gryce.
Coleman's next date was with Sonny Rollins in December 1956. Here, the formula for the Johnny Hartman-John Coltrane duet session of 1963 was established. Coleman and Sonny teamed for two ballads, Two Different Worlds and My Ideal. Their recording of Two Different Worlds is a masterpiece on any level, and Sonny's solo is breathtaking. Kenny Drew's piano is pure perfection behind Coleman. I only wish the group had recorded an entire album together.
Next up for Coleman were two tracks with organist Shirley Scott in 1960, and It Should Happen to a Dream recorded for Sounds From Rikers Island with pianist Elmo Hope in 1963. Coleman recorded sporadically through the 1960s and 1970s, turning out smart albums such as There's Something About an Old Love (Xanadu) in 1979 and Stardust (Stash) in 1983. His last album recording was on Etta Jones' Sugar in 1989.
Listening to Coleman, you wish someone had the good sense and taste today to record an album of his material rather than re-hashing Hartman and Coltrane, which really needs no remake. Coleman died in 1995 at age 69, but his knowing, laid-back vocal style remains honest, rich and penetrating. He deserved better.
JazzWax tracks: Coleman's first recording date in 1946, with Miles Davis, can be found on Miles Davis: Boppin' the Blues at iTunes. The tracks are Don't Sing Me the Blues and Don't Explain to Me Baby.
Coleman's live recordings with Billy Taylor in 1948 are hidden on an iTunes album called Bebop Vocalists: Cool Whalin'. His tracks are Nightingale and Searching Blues.
Social Call, It's You Or No One and others from Coleman's high point are all on the must-have Earl Coleman Returns, which is no longer in print but still available on CD from independent sellers here. Hurry if you want it.
Coleman's later works, sadly, are out of print, though Etta Jones' Sugar is at Amazon.