John Hammond – The Most Influential Music Man of the Twentieth Century

Written by Dennis Munday
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John Henry Hammond II (Born Manhattan, New York City, December 15, 1910 - Died Manhattan, New York City, July 10, 1987) was an American talent scout and producer, whose achievements in the record business will never be surpassed. As well as producing several significant American musical icons, he was a civil rights activist, a music critic, a philanthropist, and had a career that spanned six decades. His name is synonymous with Columbia Records (now Sony Records), and with artists from Billie Holliday to Stevie Ray Vaughan.

Hammond came from a privileged background, as his mother was related to one of the wealthiest family in America, the Vanderbilt’s. At the age of four, he commenced studying the piano, switching to the violin at the age of eight. His mother wanted him to play classical music, but Hammond had other ideas and often listened to the music sung and performed by the family servants. He also had a fondness for Sir Harry Lauder's ‘Roamin' in the Gloamin.’ 

Hammond’s mother was a devout religious person, who promoted social reform and gave back a good deal of her fortune to the community, as did her son throughout his life. The first jazz music that Hammond heard was on a holiday trip to London in 1923 when he attended a concert by The Georgians, a white American Dixieland jazz group on a European tour, led by trumpeter Frank Guarente. As his interest in jazz music grew, he gravitated towards Harlem where he searched out music by Afro-American musicians. Hammond’s natural curiosity commenced as a very young boy and continued throughout his life. 

It was decided that Hammond would attend St. Bernard’s, one of the most elite independent schools in Manhattan, where he graduated in 1923. There was a short stint at The Browning, and there were plans for him to follow in his Father’s footsteps and attend the Phillips Exeter Academy. However, Hammond persuaded his father to send him to The Hotchkiss School, which had a more liberal curriculum for the twenties. After graduating from Hotchkiss, he took a summer job as a cub reporter on the Portland Evening News, which opened his eyes to a very different world to the one he inhabited. 

Following the summer semester, Hammond attended Yale University and much to the disgust of his father, a Yale alumnus, dropped out. He felt that ‘he could do something with his wealth and make a difference.’ During another trip to England, he became friends with the critic and bandleader Patrick ‘Spike’ Hughes, which later led to Hammond becoming the U.S. correspondent for British music paper, Melody Maker. 

Hammond attended a concert by Bessie Smith at the Alhambra Theatre in 1927 and was so taken with her performance that it became the catalyst for his lifelong dedication to music. After turning twenty-one, Hammond received $12,000 a year from a trust fund, and he moved to Greenwich Village, submerging himself in the bohemian liberal lifestyle and left-wing socialist culture. The stipend allowed him to indulge his passion in blues and jazz music and he funded a recording of pianist Garland Wilson.

The Columbia Phonograph Company was founded in 1887 by Edward D. Easton (1856–1915), and the name is taken from the District of Columbia (NYC). By 1922, the Columbia Phonograph company changed its name to the American Columbia Records and subsequently sold its UK subsidiary Columbia Graphophone Records. In 1923, Columbia went into receivership, and its former UK subsidiary bought the company in 1925, for $2.5 million. On April 21, 1931, the Gramophone Company and the Columbia Graphophone Company merged and formed a new company, Electric and Musical Industries (EMI). Unfortunately, they breached the American anti-trust laws and had to sell off the American arm of the company. 

Hammond provided recordings for the (failing) US Columbia label, which would go on to be released on the UK Columbia label, and these early sessions yielded discs by Chick Webb, Joe Venuti, Coleman Hawkins, Mildred Bailey, Gene Krupa, and Jack Teagarden. These recordings were made during the great depression when musicians were struggling to get recorded, and EMI subsidised many of these sessions for release overseas. 

In 1932, Hammond worked as a DJ on the WEVD radio station for no remuneration and used his Melody Maker column to promote his recordings. In return, he demanded total freedom of choice as to the music he played, which included Fletcher Henderson, Benny Carter, and Art Tatum. Hammond often paid the musicians out of his pocket, and it wouldn’t be the last time he would cover the costs of his musical enterprises. He quit the station when they moved to the Claridge Hotel, which prohibited Afro-American people the use of the main lift. 

Benny Goodman’s career took off when Hammond recorded him in 1933, and he later persuaded the clarinettist to go with a multi-racial band, even though Goodman thought this move could damage his career. Goodman played with Teddy Wilson, (Hammond first heard Wilson on a Chicago radio station), Lionel Hampton, and was only the fourth white (big) bandleader to feature black musicians. 

1933 turned out to be an eventful year, Hammond first heard a 17-yeard old Billie Holliday singing at Covan's, a club on West 132nd Street. Holiday made her recording debut for Hammond at the age of 18, in November 1933, with Benny Goodman, and later recorded with Teddy Wilson, Lester Young, and members of Count Basie’s Orchestra. Hammond said this of her singing style; ‘her singing almost changed my music tastes and my musical life because she was the first girl singer I'd come across who actually sang like an improvising jazz genius.’ 

Hammond first heard Count Basie playing the piano at the Reno Club in Kansas City, and later listened to the big band broadcast from the club on the experimental radio station, W9XBY. Hammond gave the broadcast a rave review in Downbeat, and the article came to the attention of Jack Kapp, who ran the fledgling American arm of the British record company Decca Records. Kapp immediately dispatched their ‘Race’ Division manager, J. Mayo ‘Ink’ Williams to check out the band, and he immediately signed up Basie. 

When Hammond heard the news that Kapp had stolen Basie from under his nose, he was incensed, claiming that Decca had taken advantage of Basie’s naïveté. However, while researching Count Basie’s history, I came across an article where Basie stated that as Decca could offer him coast-to-coast distribution, which Hammond couldn’t, it was this that steered him towards Decca. Even though Basie signed a contract, Hammond did record the band for Vocalion, under the name of Jones-Smith Incorporated, which included some of Lester Young’s earliest recording. 

Ella Fitzgerald was brought to his attention when she won a talent contest at the Harlem Apollo on November 21, 1934. However, Hammond passed on the teenage singer, though he later considered it to be the biggest mistake of his career. Eventually, Norman Granz became Ella’s manager and producer and developed her into one of the greatest female singers of all time, if not the greatest. 

On December 23, 1938, Hammond organised the first concert of From Spirituals to Swing at The Carnegie Hall, featuring a program of blues, jazz, and gospel artists. They included Pete Johnson, Ida Cox, Albert Ammons, ‘Big’ Joe Turner, Anderson ‘Meade Lux Lewis’, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Count Basie Orchestra, Sidney Bechet, Saunders ‘Sonny’ Terry Terrell, and James P. Johnson. ‘Big’ Bill Broonzy came in to replace Robert Johnson who was murdered on August 16, 1938, at the age of 27. The second concert took place on Christmas Eve 1939, featuring The Benny Goodman Sextet, James P. Johnson, Ida Cox, ‘Big’ Bill Broonzy with Albert Ammons, ‘Sonny’ Terry with George ‘Bull City Red’ Washington, and The Kansas City Six: Buck Clayton, Lester Young, Charlie Christian, Freddie Green, Walter Page, and Jo Jones. 

The 1938 concert was perhaps the first serious concert to showcase African-American (jazz & blues) music in its raw embryonic state for a white audience. The 1939 show was one of the first multi-racial concerts and pre-dates Norman Granz’s 1944 JATP Concert and, a long time before the US Government passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act. When Charlie Christian, one of the earliest exponents of the electric guitar auditioned for Hammond in 1939, he instantly recommended him to Benny Goodman. 

Hammond joined the newly formed Columbia Recording Corporation as an associate recording director on a $105 a week. Producers at this time were not paid royalties, something that didn’t happen until the sixties. He also became the unofficial music director for one of the earliest multi-racial clubs in New York City, Cafe Society in Greenwich Village. However, the 40’s saw a dip in Hammond’s fortunes. While serving unhappily in the armed forces, he lost a son, and his first wife filed for divorce though he re-married in 1949. His son, John Paul Hammond went on to become a renowned blues singer. 

In 1946, Hammond quit Columbia and went to Majestic Records, which could offer him a home for his diverse musical talents. He then moved to Keynote Records, and when Mercury Records bought them out in 1947, he became Vice President of both companies. Hammond also worked for Vanguard Records for a small salary to produce jazz sessions.

The mid-forties saw a sea change in jazz music when Bebop announced itself to the world, led by the two mavericks, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Hammond, who grew up through the Swing era disliked this high-octane jazz played at a frenetic pace, something that surprised me as Hammond was a maverick himself. 

In 1959, Goddard Lieberson offered him a position back at Columbia, where Hammond would stay until his retirement. The composer Curtis Lewis brought an eighteen-year-old singer called Aretha Franklin to his attention. Franklin had a powerful gospel voice, and when she signed to Columbia, Hammond stated; ‘she was the greatest singer since Billie Holiday.’ Franklin had previously appeared as a 14-year-old, on a Gospel album released by Chess Records. Before he started up Motown Records, a young Berry Gordy attended Sunday services to hear the teenage Franklin sing at the New Bethel Baptist Church, where Franklin’s father the Reverend C. L. Franklin preached.


Hammond’s mistake was to try and groom Franklin as a jazz singer, and after the first recordings, their relationship deteriorated, though it’s fair to say that current production values were very different to the way Hammond produced sessions in the thirties. Franklin had little commercial success with Columbia, and it wasn’t until Hammond’s friend Jerry Wexler signed her to Atlantic Records that she would become the Queen of Soul. I should add that Frank Sinatra suffered a similar fate, and it wasn’t until 1953, when Sinatra left Columbia to go to Capitol Records that his career went ballistic. 

In early 1961, Hammond signed Pete Seeger (May 3, 1919 – January 27, 2014), an American left-wing folk singer and social activist. Seeger had been blacklisted for his political views, and Hammond had to fight hard to get the execs at Columbia on board as they saw Seeger as persona non grata. Hammond succeeded, and Seeger went on to sell vast quantities of records, as well as popularising the civil rights anthem We Shall Overcome and became an icon of the folk music scene. 

Hammond went on to discover another folk singer who went by the name of Bob Dylan, who had been brought to his attention by Caroline Hester. He stated; ‘Dylan’s not a great harmonica player, and he's not a great guitar player, and he's not a great singer. What I wanted to do with Bobby was just to get him to sound in the studio as natural, just as he was in person, and have that extraordinary personality come thru.’ As well as; ‘he just happens to be an original, and I just wanted to have that originality come through.’ Dylan was impressed by Hammond’s knowledge of music and that he wasn’t a bullshitter. 

Two months after they met, Hammond produced Dylan’s debut album over four sessions, at the cost of $402. Despite the protestations of the top-floor executives, who labelled Dylan as ‘Hammond’s Folly,’ Hammond kept Dylan on the label. Tom Wilson, an Afro-American succeeded Hammond and produced three of Dylan's quintessential 1960s albums. 

George Avakian (signed Dave Brubeck and Miles Davis), one of Columbia’s top producers, had this to say about Dylan; ‘I didn’t see Dylan as somebody who could be big. He was just somebody who was so offbeat, and the mere fact that he looked so grubby and sounded so whiny made me think that he’s going to appeal to a (small) certain class of record buyer. 

Hammond never strayed far from the blues, and in 1961 convinced Columbia Records to reissue the works of Robert Johnson, which were produced by Frank Driggs. The release of the album, King of the Delta Blues Singers helped Johnson attain legendary status.

 In the mid-sixties, Jerry Boyd a trusted manager known to Hammond recommended George Benson, who he compared to Charlie Christian. Hammond was sceptical at first, and a couple of nights later went to see the George Benson Quartet perform at the Palm Café on 125th Street, not far from the Apollo Theatre. Hammond was so impressed with Benson’s guitar playing that he snapped him up. In 1966, Columbia released two albums that were produced by Hammond; It’s Uptown and The George Benson Cookbook. 

Benson was struggling at the time, and Hammond gave him $500 to buy a second-hand Volkswagen bus for touring. Hammond also approached the executives at Columbia for a loan on Benson’s behalf, but as sales were low, they refused. Hammond would have liked to help Benson personally, but his wife was going into hospital, and his finances stretched. Columbia released Benson, and it wouldn’t be until the seventies, that he would find mainstream success with Warner Bros. Records. 

The Canadian poet and singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen came to his attention via a CBC TV documentary. Early in 1967, Hammond met up with Cohen at The Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan, and after hearing a couple of songs, he knew Cohen was the real thing. During the recording of the album, there were disagreements with Hammond’s production values, and John Simon took over. In December, Columbia released The Songs of Leonard Cohen, and Hammond stated this of Cohen; ‘he was an oddball who paid off because in that unpredictable decade (the sixties) he had something to say that was important to young people.’ 

Following the success of Cohen, Hammond made no further significant signings, until May 1972. He returned to his office and found Mike Appel, a manager who was seeking an audition for a young man from New Jersey called Bruce Springsteen. The audition took place in Hammond’s office, and he stated; ‘I heard immediately that he was both a born poet and an extremely good guitar player.’ A hastily arranged gig at the Gaslight Café in Greenwich Village was arranged, which Hammond attended. 

Springsteen returned to Columbia’s offices for a second audition in front of Hammond and Columbia’s President Clive Davis on May 5, 1972. Springsteen received a $65 thousand advance, which included the recording costs of his debut album, Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. However, Springsteen’s career wasn’t an immediate success, and the Columbia execs were unenthusiastic until Born To Run was released and Springsteen’s career took off. In Hammond’s autobiography, one exec claimed that ‘they only kept Springsteen around because Hammond had made Columbia so much money,’ he followed this up with, ‘what the fuck did we know.’ 

In 1975, at the age of 65, Columbia forced Hammond to retire, and his salary at the time was around $50 000 a year. He never received a cent in royalties from his productions and thought the artist should retain all the money. Had he taken points on the artists he produced, Hammond would have been a wealthy man, and I can’t believe that some of the artists he discovered didn’t feel a little guilty. After all, where would they be now? 

After leaving, he formed Hammond Music Enterprises, with Hank O’Neal and the Wall Street financier John Moore. There were many problems to deal with, like raising capital, and the company struggled until 1983 when a demo tape of a live radio broadcast of Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble arrived on his desk. Hammond knew his independent label didn’t have the necessary muscle to get behind Vaughan and took the tape to Gregg Geller, the head of A&R at Epic Records a subsidiary of Columbia. 

Though there was stiff competition from other labels, Vaughan signed with Epic. Hammond is credited as the Executive Producer on Vaughan’s debut album, Texas Flood. The success of Stevie Ray Vaughan led Columbia to offer Hammond a salaried consultancy, an office at Columbia, and at the insistence of Vaughan, royalties on his productions. 

In 1985, Hammond suffered a stroke, and a year later his second wife died, which left him distraught. After several more strokes, this great music man died on July 10, 1987, and at the time of his death, it was said that he was listening to Billie Holiday. At his funeral, many artists performed, including Bruce Springsteen who sang Bob Dylan’s, Forever Young. Most of the artists associated with Hammond felt that their music was ‘safe’ in his hands and there can be no greater tribute to a music man than this statement. 

Hammond had as many detractors as supporters, Billie Holliday and Lester Young loathed him, and he even managed to upset Duke Ellington with his forthright style of man-management. Nonetheless, he never deviated from the path he trod or the way he went about his business, and always did it his way. It’s estimated that Hammond got it right 20% of the time, which is an extremely high percentage, and perhaps people were jealous of his success. 

Over fifty years, Hammond produced a major influential artist in almost every decade, artists that went on to become icons of American music. No other music man can lay a claim to these achievements, and that is what is impressive about his career. He successfully bridged jazz, folk, blues, and rock music, and I cannot think of another person that has managed to achieve so much success with such diverse music. 

Billie Holliday

Given that Hammond was a maverick, and the way the Columbia Records treated Dylan and Springsteen, if he was starting out now it’s unlikely that any record company would hire Hammond as a talent scout. One wonders what he would make of the corporate record business these days, and TV talent shows like X-Factor, something that Hammond had in abundance that many of the artists and panellist that appear on this show clearly lack. 

During the 20th century, there have been many other remarkable music men such as Berry Gordy (Tamla Motown), Phil  & Marshall Chess (Chess Records), Ahmet & Nesuhi Ertegun, Jerry Wexler (Atlantic Records), Seymour Stein (Sire Records), Norman Granz (Verve & Pablo Records), Sir Edward Lewis (Decca), Sir George Martin (EMI), Chris Blackwell (Island Records), Robert Stigwood (RSO Records), Chris Wright & Terry Ellis (Chrysalis Records), Dave Robinson and Jake Riviera (Stiff Records,) Andy MacDonald (Go-Disc), and others. However, as far as I am concerned, John Hammond is the greatest music man of the 20th century. 

Dennis Munday

Polydor A&R Manager

Ronchi Dei Legionari, Italy

June 2018 

NB: This article only touches on John Hammond’s illustrious career, for a more in-depth story you should buy; The Producer – John Hammond and the soul of American Music by Dunstan Prial. It should be required reading for anyone working in the record business these days.

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Dennis Munday

Dennis Munday

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