The Producer: John Hammond And The Soul Of American Music
John Henry Hammond, father of singer John Paul Hammond and a scion of the Vanderbilts, grew up in a lavish Manhattan mansion and discovered jazz and blues hanging with the black servants. As an adult working for social and racial justice, he used his acuity for talent to bring forth generations of epochal American performers, most notably Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Charlie Christian, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, George Benson, Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen, and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
It’s no surprise that beneath the larger-than-life veneer was a complex man who, though venerated as a producer, according to longtime friend and Atlantic Records co-founder Ahmet Ertegun, “was not a producer producer.” In the studio, Hammond’s lassiez-faire approach usually involved listening in the control room while perusing The New York Times. Reporter Dunstan Prial’s biography — an outgrowth of his enthusiasm for Vaughan, Springsteen and Dylan — ratifies Hammond’s phenomenal gifts and equally remarkable flaws.
A Yale dropout, Hammond frequented Harlem clubs and, during a 1933 British trip, made a deal to cover jazz for Britain’s Melody Maker. He used his own funds to produce jazz records in New York for English release. As Benny Goodman brought big-band swing to mainstream America in 1935, Hammond encouraged him to integrate his band. A year later, he discovered Count Basie’s swinging Kansas City orchestra. By 1938, he was a full-time producer for Columbia Records.
Hammond’s faults were just as spectacular. He unethically penned rave Melody Maker reviews of the very British jazz discs he produced. An imperious micromanager, he often inserted himself into a band’s internal politics. In 1939 he forced Goodman to audition his latest discovery, amplified jazz guitar pioneer Charlie Christian. That instance worked; Christian made history with Goodman. But Hammond’s arrogance sparked rifts with Goodman (later his brother-in-law), Holiday, and Duke Ellington.
Prial’s reportorial skills bring forth new revelations. Examining Hammond’s FBI file, he discovers that agents kept close tabs on him because of his social activism, but they never discovered his contempt for Communism. Prial later reveals a bitter irony: Hammond and his siblings’ inheritances were depleted when his newly widowed, religious mother came under the spell of Frank Buchman, head of Moral Re-Armament, a 1940s manifestation of America’s Christian Right.
Working for smaller labels after 1946, Hammond made a triumphant 1959 return to Columbia, producing Alex Bradford & the Abyssinian Baptist Gospel Choir and discovering jazz pianist Ray Bryant and Aretha Franklin (with whom he also clashed). He exploited the folk revival by signing Pete Seeger before discovering Dylan (he produced Dylan’s first two albums). Benson, Cohen and Springsteen came after that. He was 62 at Springsteen’s 1972 audition but instantly grasped his talent and convinced Columbia to sign him. Legal hassles between Springsteen and his then-manager prevented Hammond from ever producing him.
According to Prial, Columbia was shamefully modest in celebrating Hammond’s 1975 retirement, given the quality (and profit) he brought the company. He was an independent producer when he discovered Vaughan and Double Trouble in 1982. A 1985 stroke slowed him, but his second wife’s death a year later from cancer devastated him. Yet until his death in 1987, he still reviewed tapes of new talent. As Springsteen (interviewed for the book) concluded, with Hammond, “it was always about the music. The music, the music, the music.”