Sunday , January 23 2022

The Hammonds

Sons of legends never have it easy. Life is difficult enough without the burden of comparisons impossible to meet. Most either run screaming in another direction or coast in the slipstream of parental greatness. Perhaps most difficult of all is the attempt to achieve independence within the same field. Such has been the noble pursuit and ultimate success of John Paul Hammond (JP), first son of the most important record producer of all time, John Henry Hammond Jr. (JH).

The Hammonds have been in the news of late as JP is on tour now behind his W.C. Handy Award-winning CD, Wicked Grin, with songs written and produced by Tom Waits; and JH was instrumental in hooking up the recently deceased Lionel Hampton with Benny Goodman live, helping to break the race barrier onstage.

JP was born November 13, 1942 in NYC’s Village. His father was drafted into the Army when JP was 2. JP was sent to the Little Red Schoolhouse, known as the “commie school” by the local Italian community. His parents divorced in 1948. At the Schoolhouse, JP had a black music teacher named Charity Bailey who got all of the children involved with playing some kind of instrument and singing songs like Leadbelly’s “Jump Down, Turn Around, Pick a Bale of Cotton.”

JP only saw his father on some weekends and for a few weeks in the summer, but in their time together JP attended recording sessions, met many of his father’s musician friends like Count Basie and Jimmy Rushing, and became aware that music was a way of life for some people.

JP was more of a visual arts student and was encouraged in this direction. He loved R&B and early rock ‘n’ roll, but when his father took him to see Big Bill Broonzy, JP became hooked on the country blues. The “personal statement of the solo artist” deeply affected him.

He didn’t get his first guitar until he was 17, but all he did was eat, sleep and practice for the next two years; by 19 he was playing professionally “much to the shock of everyone around me,” he says. JH was “surprised and not pleased” when his first son left school to become a musician, informing him that it was a very difficult life and a hard way to make any money.

However, within a year JP had a recording contract and his father’s fears were eased. When it became clear that his son wasn’t going to change his mind or go back to school, JH became supportive, but they both tried to steer clear of the appearance or reality of the father’s influence on the son’s career.

JP was never dependent upon JH for “work or my own reality,” he says. Father and son “connected deeply on the passion level” and even worked for the same company for a time when JP was signed to Columbia to do the Little Big Man soundtrack in 1970, but they never worked together.

JP has had an outstanding career as perhaps the most important white country blues player of the last 30 years, recording dozens of albums for Vanguard, Atlantic, Columbia, Capricorn, Rounder and now Point Blank. Highlights include Country Blues (’64), I Can Tell (’67), Live (’83); and more recently, Trouble No More (’93) and Found True Love (’95) where he proves his mettle with the electric guitar and as a bandleader.

John Paul Hammond has quietly shown his own light and cleared a space within the monumental shadow of his father and is deserving of respect and admiration for having done so.

John Henry Hammond Jr.
John Hammond is the most important non-performer in 20th Century popular music. The names of the artists he produced or championed attest to the remarkable reach of his long, long arm: Fletcher Henderson, Bessie Smith, Benny Goodman, Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Charlie Christian, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, George Benson, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Ray Vaughan.

Perhaps Hammond’s single greatest and most enduring achievement is the From Spirituals to Swing concert at Carnegie Hall in December of 1938 that clarified the evolution of black music from Africa, through country blues and gospel, and on to jazz for a white urban audience. The importance of this concert can’t be overstated from a musical, cultural, or political standpoint; in retrospect it was the moment of conception for the integration of blacks into the American mainstream.

Though the process continues to this day, the differences between the America of the late-’30s and now begin with Hammond and his musical emissaries.

John Henry Hammond Jr. was born December 15, 1910, the fifth child and first son of a prominent lawyer and the granddaughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt. The family lived in the lap of luxury in a six-story house on 91st Street in New York City with 15 servants, according to Hammond’s autobiography (with Irving Townsend) John Hammond On Record.

His mother played classical piano and had a box at the New York Philharmonic; young John was exposed to the fine arts, attending concerts and taking piano lessons from the age of 4. He switched to violin at 8, played duets with his mother for social gatherings, and was the darling of her circle.

Meanwhile, this scion of wealth and privilege was joining the servants to listen to popular music on their Columbia Grafanola whenever he could sneak away. He began collecting records of his own at age 10. He loved the boogie woogie piano of black players like James P. Johnson (who wrote the original “Charleston”).

Hammond began reading Variety at 13 and went away to the Hotchkiss School in Connecticut at age 14. A religious young man who neither smoked nor drank, Hammond was granted the unprecedented liberty of traveling alone to New York every other weekend for violin lessons, and took the opportunity to explore Harlem and meet the musicians who made the music he loved.

In 1927, the formerly white Alhambra Theater “went black,” and as Hammond walked by he read the sign: “This week in person the Empress of the Blues, Bessie Smith.” Hammond went to the show that night and saw Smith at the peak of her career; he called it “the biggest thrill of my life.” Hammond deemed Smith to be the “greatest vocalist to come out of the blues tradition”; an opinion he held for the rest of his life.

The next year Hammond matriculated at Yale and switched from violin to viola because, as a matter of practicality, his fingers weren’t as good as his ears, and as there was a scarcity of violists, he could play in string quartets with people who were much better than he was.

Hammond played with a cellist named Artie Bernstein who had worked his way through NYU law school playing bass with pop and jazz bands in the area. Bernstein knew most of the white musicians in the area, Hammond knew most of the black, and together they knew them all. An enthusiastic evangelist, Hammond’s favorite spot to take Bernstein and other white friends was Small’s Paradise (an illegal speakeasy – Prohibition lasted from 1920-’33) in Harlem which featured blues and jazz performers backed by Charlie Johnson’s house band.

Hammond began writing about his enthusiasm for jazz, and Yale began to seem irrelevant. A bout with hepatitis the summer before his junior year made up his mind and Hammond left school to pursue a life in music full-time. Recovered and writing for Gramaphone, Hammond went to England in late-summer-’31 because the English were more interested in jazz than white Americans, and because the bottom had fallen out of the American record market with the advent of the Depression.

In England Hammond met Spike Hughes, recording director for English Decca, who asked him to keep his eyes open for promising jazz musicians, including a white clarinetist named Benny Goodman. Hammond also came away from England as the U.S. correspondent for Melody Maker.

Full of confidence and ready to make a difference, Hammond saw a piano player named Garland Wilson and decided he should be recorded. Hammond went to Columbia’s Frank Walker (because Walker had discovered Bessie Smith years before) and offered to fund and produce the Wilson session himself.

Walker quoted Hammond the price of $125 for four 12-inch sides (12-inch 78’s ran about five minutes a side and were recorded with one microphone, direct to acetate), and Hammond had to buy 150 of the finished records. “St. James Infirmary” backed with “When Your Lover Has Gone” sold several thousand copies and was a substantial hit for the day. At 20, John Hammond was a successful record producer.

Hammond moved to an apartment in Greenwich Village on his 21st birthday and felt at home amongst the artists, writers and bohemian types. Though personally untouched by the Depression, Hammond’s sensibilities were radicalized by it (he was a leftist but never a Marxist); and as an idealist and reformer, he was scandalized by the fact that segregation kept black jazz musicians from the more lucrative jobs on radio or in the white clubs.

To further spread the jazz word, Hammond became a DJ at radio station WEVD (named after Socialist leader Eugene V. Debs) owned by the Jewish Daily Forward newspaper. He instituted the first regular live jazz series anywhere, paying his favorite performers $10 each out of his own pocket to come in to the station to jam on Saturday nights. Unwilling to compromise his principles, Hammond took the series off the air after ten weeks when the black musicians were asked to use the freight elevator.

As a jazz critic, Hammond’s main theme was that white players couldn’t match the “unbuttoned freedom and swing of a superb Negro rhythm section” – the foundation necessary for great improvisation – and for this stance he was called a “nigger lover,” among juicier things. Undaunted, Hammond began to write on social issues as well as music for The Nation.

In ’32 he covered the Scottsboro case in Alabama (nine black youths were framed for raping two white women in a freight car) which eventually went to four trials, the Supreme Court twice, and scored a moral victory in that none of the defendants were executed (although some died in custody). Hammond helped finance the first appeal and second trial by staging a benefit concert with Benny Carter’s Orchestra and Duke Ellington playing solo in New York. Hammond soon after joined the board of the NAACP.

Returning to music, Columbia recording director Ben Selvin asked Hammond if he knew of any jazz artists who should be recorded. Hammond’s first choice was Fletcher Henderson, the Father of Swing, whose arrangements were the first to allow room for his whole band to improvise. Henderson, always his own worst enemy, showed up late for the session, and only had time to record two songs – “Underneath the Harlem Moon” and “Honeysuckle Rose” – but the session remained one of Hammond’s favorites.

In ’33 Hammond tracked down Bessie Smith, who hadn’t recorded in some time, and recorded one of her best-known songs, “Do Your Duty.” Hammond again financed the session himself and integrated it by including Benny Goodman. Goodman was a tough guy from Chicago, whom Hammond called “one of the most important people in my life” in the PBS special John Hammond – From Bessie Smith to Bruce Springsteen.

Hammond thought their close relationship was odd (Goodman later married Hammond’s sister Alice) because Goodman “didn’t have much of a social point of view and couldn’t understand why I did, but he loved black music,” said Hammond.

Goodman, to become the greatest white musician in jazz history, then made his living playing as a session man and fronted an all- white band. He told Hammond that if anyone knew he played with black musicians, he would be barred from work. New York was as segregated as Birmingham in ’33. Hammond’s first two records with Goodman were with an all-white group, and were moderately successful.

Hammond then took Goodman to see Billie Holiday and they recorded together in late-’33 – the color line was broken, at least in the studio. Hammond then brought in black piano player Teddy Wilson from Chicago and he began to record with Goodman. Hammond encouraged the formation of a small jazz combo, and the Benny Goodman Trio with (great white drummer) Gene Krupa and Teddy Wilson was formed.

Throughout the ’30s Hammond and Goodman broke barrier after barrier when first Wilson, then vibraphonist Lionel Hampton and electric guitar great Charlie Christian were added to the Goodman band, which became among the most popular in the land. Hammond brought in Fletcher Henderson to write arrangements for Goodman and the swing swung like never before.

Hammond’s next major discovery was the Count Basie Band, whom he heard on the radio in his car in Chicago, broadcast live from Kansas City one cold January night in ’36. The Basie Band was one he “couldn’t find any fault with.” The band included Hammond’s favorite drummer Jo Jones (with “extraordinary wit in his playing”), Lester “Prez” Young on tenor sax, and Jimmy Rushing on vocals. According to Hammond, “Fletcher Henderson started the liberation of the soloist and Basie continued it,” per the PBS special.

Hammond’s other major discovery in the ’30s was Billie Holiday. He first saw her at Monette Moore’s club as a substitute singer in ’33. She was “17, chubby, quite beautiful. I had never heard anyone sing like that, as though she were the most inspired improviser in the world. She had an uncanny ear, an excellent memory for lyrics, and she sang with an exquisite sense of phrasing..she sang the way Louis Armstrong played horn,” wrote Hammond. He followed her from speak-easy to speak-easy in Harlem that year and wrote about her in Melody Maker. He put her together with Teddy Wilson and small combos made up from members of Basie’s band.

Hammond capped off his extraordinary decade of the ’30s with the Spirituals to Swing concert in late-’38. The concert began with recorded West African music; then boogie woogie pianists Albert Ammons, Meade Lux Lewis and Pete Johnson; blues shouter Big Joe Turner; gospel singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe; blues singer Ruby Smith; pure gospel from Mitchell’s Christian Singers; blind harmonica player Sonny Terry; then the New Orleans Dixieland jazz of James P. Johnson, Tommy Ladnier and Sidney Bechet; country blues singer Big Bill Broonzy; and finally, the elegant jazz of the Basie Band with singers Jimmy Rushing and Helen Humes.

Hammond again put his money where his mouth was and invested in New York’s first integrated nightclub, Cafe Society, which was a great success for many years featuring many of Hammond’s favorite jazz and blues performers.

The ’40s were a difficult time for Hammond: his second (of three) son Douglas died, he got divorced, and the onset of be bop alienated him from jazz. He mostly recorded classical music in Europe.

In the late-’50s Goddard Lieberson, who had helped Hammond scout the South for talent for the Spirituals to Swing concert, was president of Columbia and invited Hammond back into the fold. On a songwriters demo tape, Hammond found an 18-year-old Aretha Franklin singing and immediately dubbed her the greatest singer since Billie Holiday. Hammond recorded her with jazz musicians, but Columbia wanted her to record pop and took her away from him. She came into her own on Atlantic where, as Jerry Wexler told Hammond, “We put the church back in her.”

According to the PBS special, “Hammond believed that music should be an engine of social change, and looked to the protest songs of the early-’60s to counteract the sentimentality of the ’50s.” Pete Seeger had been blacklisted as a communist in the ’50s, but Hammond brought him to Columbia in the early-’60s. His “We Shall Overcome” became an American standard in ’63.

Hammond was an as activist who wanted to change the world and Bob Dylan did too. Hammond spotted Dylan for the talent he was amongst the folky rabble of the Village, signed him to Columbia and recorded his first two albums plainly without overdubs or accompaniment other than Dylan’s own guitar and harmonica. “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” are about as pure as it gets. Dubbed “Hammond’s folly” early-on at the label, Dylan has gone on to be the most important songwriter of the last 40 years.

In the early-’70s Hammond found the only “next Dylan” who ever amounted to much, Bruce Springsteen. When they met, Hammond asked Springsteen if he had ever written anything he wouldn’t dare record. Springsteen replied with “If I Was the Priest,” a scathing indictment from a lapsed Catholic. Hammond connected with Springsteen in the two-hour audition and signed him to Columbia, though he never produced the most important artist of the ’70s.

In ’75 Hammond reached mandatory retirement age with Columbia, but stayed on as an independent, found Stevie Ray Vaughan and produced his first sessions. John Hammond died in ’87. He never accepted royalties from any of his productions, viewing them as the artist’s due.

Hammond defines himself as he defined the role of the producer in his autobiography: “All [producers] have an ear for talent and tune, the courage and determination to hear performed what they hear in their lively imaginations, and the good fortune to be at the right place at the right time.” In Hammond’s case being at the right place at the right time lasted over 50 years and changed the course of America and the world.

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About Eric Olsen

Career media professional and serial entrepreneur Eric Olsen flung himself into the paranormal world in 2012, creating the America's Most Haunted brand and co-authoring the award-winning America's Most Haunted book, published by Berkley/Penguin in Sept, 2014. Olsen is co-host of the nationally syndicated broadcast and Internet radio talk show After Hours AM; his entertaining and informative America's Most Haunted website and social media outlets are must-reads: [email protected],, Pinterest America's Most Haunted. Olsen is also guitarist/singer for popular and wildly eclectic Cleveland cover band The Props.

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