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the pioneer of Dylan Studies; writer, public speaker, critic; became a Doctor of Letters in 2015 (awarded by the University of York, UK)

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Wednesday, December 15, 2010


... would have been today. Here's his entry in The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia (a book that makes an ideal Christmas gift, if I may say so...):

Hammond, John [1910 - 1987]
John Henry Hammond Jr. was born into a branch of the Vanderbilt family in New York City on December 15, 1910, attended Yale and the Juilliard school of music. He gave up classical music in order to pursue his enthusiasm for jazz (which he discovered in the city’s clubs as an adolescent) and black popular music. He wrote music criticism and journalism for Down Beat and the British papers Melody Maker and The Gramophone, wrote widely on race relations in the US and even became a vice-president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. His family money financed his further career as an impresario: he owned a theatre at which he presented black acts, and he pioneered integrated touring and recording sessions. (As PETE SEEGER once said,
‘Jazz became integrated 10 years before baseball largely because of John Hammond.’)

His career as a promoter of talent and as a record producer stretched from the 1930s to the 1980s and the list of greats he discovered or brought into the studio was phenomenal. He worked in executive positions for several labels, though most notably for Columbia Records, for whom he produced artists from Bessie Smith to Bob Dylan. He discovered and/or brought studio opportunities to Count Basie, Charlie Christian, Lionel Hampton, Billie Holiday, Meade Lux Lewis, Teddy Wilson and Lester Young and many other jazz artists, and in 1938 and 1939 Hammond financed and promoted the now-famous ‘From Spirituals to Swing’ concerts at Carnegie Hall - bringing a wide range of black music to Manhattan’s swankiest venue - and featuring many of the above, plus Benny Goodman, BIG BILL BROONZY and SONNY TERRY. He wanted to include ROBERT JOHNSON at the first of these concerts and sent for him, not knowing that Johnson had been murdered shortly beforehand.

Hammond served in the US Army in World War II, returning to the musical fray as soon as possible. But when swing gave way to bebop, Hammond, who didn’t understand the latter, switched his attention more towards blues and pop. Just as many of the earlier jazz names he had espoused were unknowns when he latched onto them, so too he followed only his own instincts in the post-war era, in which he signed, among others, the important Nigerian drummer Babatunde Olatunji (Hammond produced his ground-breaking first album, Drums of Passion, released in 1959 and still selling today), Big Joe Turner, Pete Seeger, Aretha Franklin, MICHAEL BLOOMFIELD, LEONARD COHEN and BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN, and had a significant hand in opening the careers of George Benson and STEVIE RAY VAUGHAN (his last signing).

Hammond had the decency and belief to produce the 1965 album by the fragile but giant figure SON HOUSE that yielded at least one invaluable addition to his canon, the exquisite ‘Pearline’, and in 1962 it was also Hammond who, returning his attention to one of House’s pupils, compiled and released on Columbia the hugely influential LP of Robert Johnson’s work Robert Johnson, King of the Delta Blues Singers.

In 1961 Hammond signed Bob Dylan to Columbia, and then produced his first and second albums. Indeed after the poor sales of the first album, Dylan was known around the Columbia building as ‘Hammond’s folly’. On September 10, 1975, it was in Hammond’s presence at the recording of the tribute TV show ‘The World of John Hammond’ that Dylan delivered the first public performances of ‘Hurricane’, ‘Oh Sister’ and ‘Simple Twist of Fate’, from his then-forthcoming album Desire.

No-one except DAVE VAN RONK receives more a more respectful write-up in Dylan’s 2004 memoir Chronicles Volume One than John Hammond. Dylan appreciates not only the man’s straightforwardness and seriousness of purpose, his depth of knowledge and his insight into the very young Dylan’s potential, but also makes the specific point that when Hammond gave him a pre-release copy of King of the Delta Blues Singers this had ramifications for his own development as a writer: ‘If I hadn’t heard the Robert Johnson record when I did, there probably would have been hundreds of lines of mine that would have been shut down - that I wouldn’t have felt free enough or upraised enough to write.’

Returning to the more general, Dylan says of Hammond that men like him ‘came from an older world, a more ancient order…. They knew where they belonged and they had guts to back up whatever their beliefs were. You didn’t want to let them down.’

John Hammond died, from complications following several strokes, on July 10, 1987, at the age of 76.

[Seeger quote seen online 5 Jan 2006 at Bob Dylan: ‘Hurricane’ (1st take, uncirculated), ‘Oh Sister’, ‘Simple Twist of Fate’ & ‘Hurricane’, WTTW-TV, NY, 10 Sep 1975, broadcast ‘The World of John Hammond’, PBS-TV, 13 Dec 1975; Dylan quotes, Chronicles Volume One, pp. 287-288 & 288-289.]


Anonymous Kieran said...

Yeah, John Hammond seemed to be one of those legendary guys who could "back it up." I don't know much about him, but he sounds like a gentlemanly figure, shrewd and with exquisite taste...

9:56 pm  

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