One of the Roomful Who Built the Recording Industry: John Hammond
John Hammond was one of the early connoisseurs of black music. A visionary who recorded, produced, scouted, and was one of the undisputed giants who shaped 20th century music history. A man who could set you up to be king if he thought you had the sand. He sparked careers. You name them: Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan, Count Basie, Pete Seeger, Aretha Franklin, George Benson, Freddie Green, Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen, Arthur Russell, Stevie Ray Vaughan, etc., etc., etc. There’s no doubt that this guy had a good ear, and he knew how to help people get famous.
John Hammond also supposedly came across Robert Johnson‘s recordings that were pressed in the South. He heard them early on, while Johnson was still believed alive. Hammond lived in New York City, and Johnson’s death was big news in certain places in the South. But most music people further north hadn’t even heard of him yet.
There is a tiny bit of dispute, but it seems almost certain that Hammond was planning to invite Johnson to his legendary Spirituals to Swing show (one of the seminal shows/recordings in helping bring black music to many white audiences, self-declared highbrow kind of folks). The 1958 recording is a fountain of music, and a more complete set was reissued in something like 1993.
The story of Hammond’s invitation for Johnson to attend the “Spirituals to Swing” event, which he didn’t because Johnson had passed on by the time of the concert, has been enlivened a little. The story goes: Robert Johnson died the second the messenger arrived with the invitation to perform at Spirituals to Swing. Whatever the facts, when Hammond found Johnson, he wanted to make him a star. And he would have.
Found apocryphal by fact checkers, the story tells us something about Mr. Hammond. If Hammond heard you, and you were good enough, he carried fame and fortune around with a contract and his handshake. Hammond was the only one who wanted to touch Bob Dylan before 1962, and now for nearly 50 years Dylan can’t get people to leave him alone.
Jay-Z, Kanye and a handful of others have unbelievable amounts of power in the entertainment industry right now, but that amount wouldn’t even get them at the same table as Hammond, historically speaking. (This is caused in some part to racism, which is a sensitive issue deserving a more thorough treatment in a longer essay.) Not yet anyway, does Jay-Z have Hammond-type kingmaking powers in the industry; I’m not counting Jay-Z out though for one day approaching Hammond’s status. I’m not sure if he could ever beat Hammond’s long and varied influence, but I have a feeling Jay-Hova will go down in the music encyclopedias in similar and more-widely influential ways. I don’t know, we’ll see.
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