Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b John Henry Hammond, 10 Dec. '10, NYC; d 10 July '87, NYC) Legendary producer, mostly for labels that ended under umbrella of CBS, then Sony. From wealthy family; spent pocket money on blues/jazz records as schoolboy; his personal wealth was not great but enough to allow him to freelance as a producer during the Depression: he recorded Fletcher Henderson for then-independent Columbia '32, Bessie Smith's last session and Billie Holiday's first '33; he was an early champion of Benny Goodman, then Count Basie; prod. classic 'Shoe Shine Boy' small-group date in Chicago '36 with the first recorded solos of Lester Young: 'The studio was so small we couldn't use a bass drum because we only had one mike and I wanted Walter Page's bass to have its proper authority. It didn't really matter because [drummer Jo Jones] kept such perfect time ... We cut them at 10 a.m. and it was one of the most perfect sessions I ever had.' Jones said, 'They'd never heard of anybody recording like that before. It took them hours to make four sides. We did it in an hour straight, then out, finish!' Prod. From Spirituals To Swing '38--9, Carnegie Hall festivals of jazz and blues stars incl. boogie-woogie pianists (Alfred Lion was inspired to form Blue Note label), concert later issued on Vanguard LPs (he'd tried to find Robert Johnson for the concerts, but was too late).

He was an opinionated man who liked to try to tell his artists what to do; he may have been responsible for Holiday getting fired from the Basie band because she wouldn't sing songs he liked (certainly Jones believed this the rest of his life). He joined Columbia Records '39, persuaded Goodman away from Victor and Basie away from Decca; recorded Mildred Bailey, Ray McKinley; shoehorned Charlie Christian into Goodman's sextet against Goodman's initial scepticism. (Yet when Holiday and Basie were both under contract to the same label group, he still did not record one of the greatest combinations of band and singer together.) He was an officer of NAACP, fearless in support of civil rights; supported causes with left-wing political figures, such as the Scottsboro Boys case '31, black teenagers accused of rape in Tennessee. He was saved from harm during post-war witch-hunts by his social standing, but also because he supported causes not politics and was never a dupe; he fought even in the segregated US Army for work for black musicians. Yet he swallowed the Left's patronizing line about jazz being a 'people's music', evident in a foolish review of Duke Ellington's Carnegie Hall concert '41, published in a Harlem newspaper The People's Voice in which Hammond had a financial interest. He was responsible for casting the all- black Broadway opera Carmen Jones, prod. by Billy Rose and Oscar Hammerstein '43.

After WWII he was president of Keynote, then recording dir. at Majestic, went to Mercury along with these labels. In the late '40s he obtained Czech classical recordings for Mercury, but the Soviet 'revolution' spoiled that. He became vice-president at Mercury, made Mitch Miller head of A&R there (Miller subsequently went to Columbia and contributed to the decline of mainstream pop music; see his entry). Hammond was dir. of popular music at Vanguard '53--9 and attended the recording of CBS TV's The Sound Of Jazz '57. He prod. three- disc Mildred Bailey memorial set for Columbia; brought back there as executive producer by Goddard Lieberson he signed Ray Bryant, Pete Seeger, Aretha Franklin, Carolyn Hester, Bob Dylan, George Benson, Leonard Cohen and found Bruce Springsteen: Dylan was called 'Hammond's folly', Aretha had to go elsewhere for sympathetic studio producers and Springsteen suffered for years from hype that had nothing to do with Hammond; but the subsequent success of all three capped his career. In the end his track record was unrivalled. The ubiquitous story in London is that when he visited CBS/UK in Soho Square, reception had never heard of him. Autobiography John Hammond On Record with Irving Townsend '77; awards, honours incl. special Grammy '71, two 90-minute specials The World Of John Hammond '75 on PBS (Dylan's first TV appearance in years).