December 30th, 2005
John Hammond
About John Hammond

John Hammond was responsible for discovering Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Robert Johnson, Bessie Smith, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Pete Seeger, and Bruce Springsteen, among others. As a producer, writer, critic, and board member of the NAACP, he was credited as a major force in integrating the music business. An early inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, John Hammond was one of the most important figures in 20th century popular music.

Born in 1910, Hammond was the fifth child of a wealthy New York family. From an early age, he showed a great interest in music. At age four he began studying the piano, only to switch to the violin at age eight. In his early teens he explored Harlem—listening to radio and live performances of black musicians. In 1927 he heard Bessie Smith sing at the Alhambra Theater. It was the peak of her career, and the performance would remain an influence on Hammond the rest of his life.

The next year Hammond entered Yale University, where he studied the violin and later the viola. He made frequent trips into New York and wrote regularly for trade magazines. Though a serious musician, his greatest talent would be in listening to, not playing, music. Eventually he dropped out of school for a career in the music industry—visiting England and becoming the U.S. correspondent for MELODY MAKER. Returning to the states, Hammond self-funded the recording of pianist Garland Wilson. The songs sold thousands of copies and brought Hammond, at age twenty, his first success as a record producer.

On his twenty-first birthday, Hammond moved to Greenwich Village, where he engaged in the bohemian life and leftist subculture. Though privileged since birth, Hammond recognized the gross injustice of the time and began working for an integrated music world. He was the funder and DJ for one of the first regular live jazz programs, and wrote regularly about the racial divide. His main concern, however, was jazz, and throughout the 1930s he was responsible for both integrating the musicians and expanding the audience.

Among the earliest musicians to work with Hammond were Fletcher Henderson, Bessie Smith, and Benny Goodman. When they began working together, Goodman’s band was completely white, and with the help of Hammond and great musicians like Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton, the color barrier began to fade. It was around this time that Hammond saw a young Billie Holiday perform. She was seventeen and Hammond thought she was one of the greatest singers he had ever heard. He began to write about her, and to introduce her to other musicians, including Teddy Wilson and Benny Goodman. Towards the end of the 1930s, Hammond organized the “Spirituals to Swing” concert, which brought much black music into the white spotlight for the first time.

Soon after “Spirituals to Swing,” Hammond invested in the first integrated night club, Cafe Society. The 1940s, however, were a time of great personal distress during which he lost a son and was divorced. He spent much of his time in Europe concentrating on classical music. It was not until the late 1950s that he became active in the industry again. It was then that he found an eighteen year-old singer with gospel roots and a powerful voice. He said she was the greatest singer since Billie Holiday, and it wouldn’t be long before the rest of the world felt the same way about Aretha Franklin.

Working for Columbia records, Hammond found in the political singers of the 1950s and 1960s a vibrancy similar to that of the jazz musicians thirty years earlier. He signed Pete Seeger, and found a young folk singer among the crowds of Greenwich Village named Bob Dylan. His early recordings of Dylan included “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” Important for the simplicity of their production, they attest to Hammond’s versatile skill and ability to bring out the best in a wide range of talent. In 1975, Hammond retired from Columbia, though he continued to scout for talent for many years. By the time of his death in 1987, the popular music industry had grown to be a more integrated and politically responsible community, and much of this progress was due to the talent and commitment of John Hammond.

  • Howard Wexler

    Was “The World Of John Hammond” ever made into a VHS/DVD? The show featured Benny Goodman with George Benson in a performance of “Seven Come Eleven” that inspired an album with the two of them (not abailable in CD).

  • Stephen Pate

    It was released on VHS and Laser-disc. Both are out of print but available second hand.

  • Richard Salomone

    Is the Benny Goodman, 1985 Musical Tribute, Let’s Dance available for purchase. Where would you go to order it?

  • Richard Clark

    Bob Dylan Multimillion Dollar Plagiarism Law Suit
    Censored By Mainstream Media

    Few artists can lay claim to the controversy that has surrounded the career of songwriter James Damiano. Twenty-two years ago James Damiano began an odyssey that led him into a legal maelstrom with Bob Dylan that, to this day, fascinates the greatest of intellectual minds.

    As the curtain rises on the stage of deceit we learn that CBS used songs and lyrics for international recording artist, Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan’s name is credited to the songs. One of those songs is nominated for a Grammy as best rock song of the year. Ironically the title of that song is Dignity.

    Since auditioning for the legendary CBS Record producer John Hammond, Sr., who influenced the careers of music industry icons Billy Holiday, Bob Dylan, Pete Seger, Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Ray Vaughan, James has engaged in a multimillion dollar copyright infringement law suit with Bob Dylan.

  • Jerry Jordan

    A very interesting article, I had know idea that John Hammond introduce such great artists as: Aretha Franklin , Benny Goodman and John Dylan. This is a very enlightening source of information, could you please send more information to my email address?

  • clay s. briggs jr

    Certainly hammond was an enormous help to the acceptance of jazz & therefore a great help to the musicians in so many ways.However i’ve always thought it was a mistake to say he “discovered” all those musicians he is credited with discovering.He was a talented promotor and greatly speeded their deserved celebrity & influence.

  • Gary Smith

    I look up to the music gods on a daily basis and thank them for sending you to us, to set the world straight on how music should be. What you have done has been the inspiration and push for me to do what I do in the music industry.

    I thank you from the bottom of my heart!

  • DCortex

    The unknown unappreciated secret of Hammond’s career is how he secretly used his enormous family wealth to help artists he loved. His mom was Cornielius Vanderbilts granddaughter..his dad the owner of our Dellwood dairies!
    Without conditions, he helped those he could without displaying his resources.
    He did discover those talents..and many more (Fletcher Henderson, Charlie Christian, Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Terry, and Carolyn Hester were left out above).
    He unionized Columbia’s record making factories and educated Americans as to the origins of Jazz and Popular music with a pair of concerts at Carnegie Hall in NY in the thirties called “From Spirituals to Swing”
    When he worked for Vanguard in the late 40’s I believe, these concerts were released on record.

  • Bill Lederer

    No single program or biography can properly reflect the totality of John Hammond’s critical contributions to music(jazz, blues, rock, folk, classical, musical theatre), popular culture, America, and the awareness of and improvement in the circumstances of African Americans.

    However, a good starting point for better understanding John Hammond is his wonderful 1977 memoir, On Record. Make sure to take the time to read it and then explore the recorded music discussed in this remarkably detailed account of his life’s work. What a pleasure.

Inside This Episode

  • About John Hammond


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