The Man Who Got His Way

John Hammond, scion of white privilege, helped integrate popular music

On the day John Henry Hammond Jr. was born (December 15, 1910), he was “immediately entered at St. Paul’s, Groton, and St. Mark’s, college preparatory schools for the sons of the wealthy destined to follow their fathers into business or the law.” So he wrote in his 1977 autobiography, John Hammond on Record. Reading these words, anyone who knew Hammond can picture his trademark grin exposing a set of large, horsy teeth as he described the privileged expectations he spent a lifetime flouting. Though he grew up on Manhattan’s East 91st Street, he gravitated at an early age to the servants’ quarters at the rear of the family mansion, drawn by the fascinating rhythms of the jazz records played on a Columbia Grafanola. By the time he was 11, he’d heard James P. Johnson’s “Worried and Lonesome Blues”—“the record that changed my life” he later recalled—and embarked on a journey that would take him far away from his parents’ cloistered world.

Nearly 20 years after his death in 1987, Hammond still looms large in the landscape of American music, revered for his ability to spot important artists at the earliest stages of their careers and for his passionate belief that music can promote tolerance. Dunstan Prial’s excellent biography, The Producer (to be published in July by Farrar, Straus & Giroux), provides a welcome opportunity to survey his accomplishments as well as a cogent reminder that Hammond’s gadfly activism reshaped the music industry and played a role in fundamentally altering American society.

People with a serious interest in popular music probably know Hammond in at least one of his roles: as the Columbia A&R executive who discovered Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen; the 22-year-old producer of Bessie Smith’s final recordings; the critic who called Robert Johnson to the attention of the New Masses’ readers in 1937; and the impresario who organized “From Spirituals to Swing,” the 1938 Carnegie Hall concert that introduced a largely white audience to the history and vitality of African-American music. He’s the man who recorded perhaps the most rapturous religious music ever put on disc, the Shakin’ the Rafters album by the Abyssinian Baptist Gospel Choir. He helped Billie Holiday and the Count Basie band gain national exposure and in 1937 persuaded Benny Goodman to front America’s first racially mixed band. “Goodman’s decision . . . was no less significant to American popular culture than Branch Rickey’s decision to open baseball’s doors to black players,” Prial writes. “Indeed, there are those who believe Goodman’s decision made Rickey’s a lot easier.”

Hammond set out to change more than just popular culture. A lifelong political progressive, seldom seen without a stack of left-wing periodicals under his arm, he was a firm supporter of labor unions and an early opponent of the Vietnam War. Invited to join the naacp board of directors when he was 21, he turned them down because he thought the group was too middle class and conciliatory. He changed his mind a few years later and spent three decades urging the organization toward greater militancy. He resigned in 1966 because of executive director Roy Wilkins’s refusal to join forces with younger civil rights groups. Some of the most impassioned pages of his autobiography chronicle his stormy military service. As an Army private during World War II, he confronted the brass with the contradiction of fighting racism overseas while practicing segregation in training camps. He refused to pull strings to evade the draft or to get an officer’s commission, though he unabashedly used his family connections to gain better treatment for black soldiers and to bring African-American musicians to the camps to play for integrated audiences.

Sketched in broad outline, Hammond’s life assumes the proportions of legend: a scion of the Gilded Age plutocracy who championed the oppressed, a white boy who fell in love with black music and brought it into the mainstream. Of course the story is more complicated than that, and Hammond was no saint. He could be domineering and insensitive, a “sometimes-intolerant champion of tolerance,” as he acknowledged in his memoirs. Duke Ellington, for one, bitterly resented being lectured about his lack of solidarity with his race by a white man living on an inherited portion of the Vanderbilt millions. (Hammond’s mother was a great-granddaughter of the Commodore.) During his years as a jazz critic, he was notorious for writing enthusiastic columns about musicians whose records he produced—a conflict of interest, Prial points out in The Producer, that would now be considered unethical. His musical vision had blind spots; he saw Aretha Franklin as a jazz singer and thought Bruce  Springsteen worked best as a solo artist. At Columbia, where he spent most of his music-industry career, he was regarded as someone with a knack for spotting raw talent who didn’t necessarily know what to do with the talent once he’d signed it. Sound engineers joked that when Hammond was producing a recording session, he mostly sat in the control room reading the newspaper. Conversely, some jazz buffs viewed him as a meddler who pressured bandleaders to hire musicians he admired and to fire ones he didn’t.

But if Hammond hadn’t pressured an apprehensive Benny Goodman to add Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton to his all-white orchestra, how much longer would it have taken black jazz musicians to get the broader exposure and the decent pay they deserved? How much shallower would rock ’n’ roll  be if he had not told the Columbia executive who wanted to get rid of Bob Dylan (dubbed “Hammond’s Folly” because his early records sold so poorly), “You’ll drop him over my dead body”? Hammond’s unyielding sense of right and wrong, which he acquired from his devoutly religious mother, gave backbone to his warm enthusiasm for musical ability in almost any form. One of my few quibbles with Prial’s comprehensive, intelligent biography is its title: John Hammond wasn’t so much a producer as a promoter—a tireless and fervent advocate for every artist and cause he believed in.

Listen to Hammond on the CD of From Spirituals to Swing telling the Carnegie Hall audience “tonight we have a treat in store for you” or introducing Hot Lips Page to that same audience as “one of the great trumpeters of the world.” Those unmistakable upper-class cadences—mahvelous was his favorite adjective—would be ridiculous in this context if it weren’t for the ardor in Hammond’s voice, his obvious pleasure in presenting this wonderful music. Forty-six years later, he was back at Carnegie Hall to bring on Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble—a trio of young, white musicians who played a fiery stew of electric blues, soul, and rock ’n’ roll, genres whose widespread impact and commercial acceptance were due in part to Hammond’s pioneering efforts.

Prial, who was there that night, saw “this elderly man dressed like a college professor” beaming at the band’s earsplitting onslaught of amplified sound. Vaughan’s raucous fans were probably just as startled by Hammond’s incongruous presence as Harlem’s hard-drinking, reefer-smoking jazzmen had been in the early 1920s when they spotted a preteen in a St. Bernard’s School blazer sipping lemonade in their clubs. Perhaps it was his background of aristocratic entitlement that made Hammond assume that he belonged anywhere great music was being made, but so what? Louis Armstrong incorporated the structure of the opera arias he heard as a boy into his cornet solos; Ray Charles liked country-western songs so much he made an album of them. Armstrong and Charles were born with none of Hammond’s privileges, but they shared his conviction that any form of music that spoke to them belonged to them too.

Hammond believed that music spoke to everyone, that it could bring together all sorts of different people and lead them to recognize their common humanity. This was certainly true for him. “My record collection demonstrated the unique talents of Negro artists,” he wrote in his autobiography. Meanwhile, what he heard people around him say about African-Americans was at odds with his “growing respect” for them. Ironically, his conclusion that if you admired black music you would naturally feel a connection with black people was echoed by some of rock ’n’ roll’s most bigoted critics in the 1950s. They warned that this “jungle music,” with its dangerous incitement of race mixing on the radio and on the dance floor, would inevitably lead to integration, miscegenation, and God knows what other catastrophes. If that were true, then the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina would not have revealed New Orleans—the birthplace of jazz, the city whose musicians put the roll in rock ’n’ roll, the site of an annual festival that draws thousands each February to savor African-American music—as home to some of the poorest, most disadvantaged black communities in America. Music is a powerful force, but it can’t remake society all by itself. Hammond, one of the naacp board members who most strongly supported the legal challenges that led to the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, knew that as well as anyone.

Music, nevertheless, was the arena in which Hammond wielded his greatest influence. What was it he heard in the diverse array of artists he recorded? Is there a thread that links the Basie band’s inventiveness with Vaughan’s flamboyance, Holiday’s idiosyncratic phrasing with Dylan’s word-drunk surrealism, the jive of Goodman’s orchestra with the drive of Springsteen’s rock ’n’ roll? Prial approvingly quotes jazz critic John McDonough, who argued just a few months before Hammond’s death that

his ears respond to new music as the soundings of social change. He understands instinctively the equations between politics and culture. . . . Hammond could hear the important voices no one else could hear in the ’30s, the ’60s and the ’70s because he was the only figure in the commercial recording industry who was so profoundly in touch with the underlying intellectual, social and revolutionary forces during those times.

McDonough here stated the conventional wisdom about Hammond and got everything just about right.

But it’s not the whole truth. “As with every other great musician I have ‘discovered,’ there was never a moment’s doubt,” Hammond wrote in describing the first time he heard guitarist Charlie Christian. “I could hear the singularity of the sound. Always this quality seems so obvious. Lights flash, rockets go off. Where is everybody? Why don’t they hear it? This has always amazed me. Holiday sounds, Basie sounds, Wilson, [pianist Jess] Stacy, Hampton sounds—they issued forth as if waiting for me to hear them.” This passage in his autobiography highlights a couple of qualities that shaped Hammond’s career. The first is his ability to hear an artist speaking directly to him, his sense that music forges a magical bond between two human beings. But he was no preening hipster putting down the ignorant or bigoted masses. “Where is everybody?” he asked, unable to let this magic remain the property of a fortunate few in a small nightclub. Everybody needs to hear it.

With this in mind, it’s easy to understand Hammond’s distaste for bebop. He “just didn’t dig” Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, or Thelonius Monk. If he were as wholeheartedly focused on music’s social significance as McDonough suggests, then these black boppers brandishing contempt for conventional values would surely have appealed to him. On the contrary, he wrote that “instead of expanding the form, [boppers] contracted it, made it their private language. . . . For me there was more jazz feeling in the gospel singers, the young rhythm-and-blues performers, than in the cerebral gymnastics which passed for modern jazz.”

Visions of Jazz, a fine critical history by Gary Giddins, traces the evolution of jazz from “a new music” to “a popular music” and then to “an alternative music.” For Hammond, who discovered it when it was new, jazz was by nature a popular music, and anyone who disdained its generous outreach was denying its essence. In a 1950s television interview, Hammond flashed one of his disarming megawatt smiles and remarked that “whatever else it did, bebop sort of halted America’s dancing feet.” Rock ’n’ roll, he added, “got American kids dancing again.” This was the man who brought Chuck Berry to the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival.

The breadth and warmth of his musical sympathies form the core of John Hammond’s singular contribution to American culture. He couldn’t compete on a technical level with the younger producers coming up in the ’50s and ’60s, who reveled in techniques like overdubbing, which Hammond distrusted as a touchup for mediocre music. He preferred to bring together musicians he admired, turn on the tape machine, and let them wail. Still, sometimes an artist needed more than his enthusiasm and a couple of good sidemen. The awe­­somely gifted Aretha Franklin, only 18 when Hammond signed her, made some lovely albums but wandered all over the jazz-pop map at Hammond’s Columbia; at Atlantic, with the more direct guidance of his friend Jerry Wexler, she discovered her musical soul.

Hammond was delighted for her. He loved it when the musicians he believed in sold millions of records, but he never pretended to be a commercial producer who was able to spot the next big thing. His gift was recognizing the voices of artists who knew exactly who they were and what they wanted, then protecting them and promoting them. Hammond looked at a scruffy Midwestern kid affecting the stance of a hobo troubadour and heard a brilliant songwriter “willing to take on the world.” Bob Dylan was equally impressed with his discoverer: “Hammond, who was a true American aristocrat,” Dylan wrote in his memoir, Chronicles, “didn’t give a damn about record trends or music currents changing. He could do what he pleased with what he loved and had been doing it for a lifetime.”

Toward the end of his life, Hammond responded to new talent with the same excitement he’d felt when he heard the Basie band in 1936. Auditioning in a room that looked like a banker’s office, Springsteen played only two of his compositions before Hammond stopped him and said, “You’ve got to be on Columbia Records.” He picked up the phone, and a few hours later Springsteen was in front of an audience at a Greenwich Village club. Hammond was still making things happen for his artists. And when Springsteen’s first two albums, like Dylan’s, didn’t sell well, Hammond was still covering his musician’s back with the moneymen and sending letters to radio executives, enclosing rave reviews to make his point that here was someone you simply had to listen to. “It was always about the music—the music, the music, the music,” Springsteen told Prial. “My music, somebody else’s music, music he’d just heard, music he was looking forward to listening to. I found that inspirational.”

What did Hammond find in the music he loved? Listen to Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton, Gene Krupa, and Teddy Wilson playing “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” a tribute to the Har­lem dance palace recorded at the interracial quartet’s historic 1938 Carnegie Hall concert. Hear Hampton chuckling and jiving as Goodman’s jaunty clarinet twines with his chiming vibraphone and Krupa’s drums thump and roll underneath. Wilson’s piano is quieter, but listen to his effortless soaring on a 1935 version of “Miss Brown to You” with Billie Holiday. “Yes, yes—ah, get down,” she urges while his fingers fly; Holiday never sounded happier than when floating her vocals up, down, and all around the swinging ensemble Hammond assembled for her. Look at Dylan’s sardonic smile when someone shouts “Judas!” at the sight of the electric backup band on his 1966 English tour. “Play it f——ing loud,” he tells the musicians as they launch into “Like a Rolling Stone,” the song that changed rock ’n’ roll as definitively as “Worried and Lonesome Blues” changed Hammond. And watch Springsteen practically quiver with ecstasy while whipping the crowd into a frenzy with “Rosalita” at a mid-’70s show. “You guys are wild tonight!” he cries after a woman rushes onstage to kiss him—but not as wild as Bruce, who’s so worked up by the thundering wall of sound the E Street Band builds behind him that he slides across the floor on his knees, guitar in hand, to kiss saxophonist Clarence Clemons on the mouth.

It’s pure joy, the sound of musicians playing whatever they like with whomever they choose, letting the music take them wherever they please and inviting—sometimes challenging—the audience to go there with them. John Hammond found the sound of freedom, and that’s what he wanted for everyone. His message to us: let freedom sing.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Wendy Smithis a contributing editor of the Scholar and the author of Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931–1940.


Please enter a valid email address
That address is already in use
The security code entered was incorrect
Thanks for signing up