The Producer - John Hammond and the Soul of American Music

Originally broadcast on 7/13/2006

Nothing you will hear about the career of music producer John Hammond gets very far before it arrives at the List.

The List is that long train of names, those artists music producer John Hammond was first to sign and usually first to record.

Count Basie. Billie Holliday. Benny Goodman. Charlie Christian. Lionel Hampton. Teddy Wilson. Aretha Franklin. Bob Dylan. Leonard Cohen. Bruce Springsteen. Stevie Ray Vaughan. Even one of those names would be cause for acclaim – and Hammond brought them all to the rest of the world.

A trust fund baby of the plutocrat Vanderbilt clan, John Hammond had little real interest in the trappings of his wealth. He was too busy listening to his record collection. If he had a silver spoon in his mouth as a child, he took it out and pawned it to buy the latest Louis Armstrong record. As a young man, having drifted out of college and armed with his money and an encyclopedic knowledge of blues and jazz, he set about his work of bringing blues and jazz (that is to say, so called “race” music) into the mainstream.

With as good an ear for talent as anyone has ever had, a tireless passion for work, Hammond built a network of personal contacts with musicians and industry insiders, journalists, club owners, from coast to coast. By the mid-30s, if Hammond heard an act and liked it, there was a good chance the rest of the country would soon know your name. And we already know about The List. These days, Hammond would fit the role of an A & R executive – artists and repertory – but he was called a producer, because but there wasn’t much hands-on production to do in the 1930s. There was a mike, then everyone gathered started playing. Modern production techniques, with multitrack tape machines and other studio effects would develop in the 50s and 60s. But still, for decades, John Hammond was the man who made things happen, often without recognition. For instance, he had a hand behind the scenes in helping to create the Newport Jazz Festival.

All these details are the foundation of Dunstan Prial’s book, The Produer: John Hammond and the Soul of American Music, but this biography has deeper arguments to make. As a journalist for Down Beat and the progressive journal The Nation, as well as a longtime board member of the NAACP, Hammond helped guide the discussion of the issue of integration – not just through music, but through his words – thousands of them. Author Prial also argues that the integrated Benny Goodman Quartet from the 1930s (featuring the clarinetist with Teddy Wilson, Lionel Hampton, and Gene Krupa) did as much to enlighten the mainstream public about the humanity, talent, and equality of African Americans as Jackie Robinson playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. And it is true that more people listen to music than watch baseball any day of the week – then and now.

In Prial’s biography, Hammond certainly comes across as a good man – perhaps a little stubborn or aggressive when it came to his principles, and a man who worked too hard and smoked too many cigarettes. But when he felt he was right – well, he usually was. If Hammond was in your corner, he’d flash you his big toothy smile and bob his crew-cut up and down, and off you’d go. This biography is a another towards making Hammonds name better known to anyone who has even a passing interesting in the history of 20th century American music.

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