Considering how many historic recordings bear his name, it’s a little surprising that it has taken until now, almost 20 years after his death, for someone to write a biography of John Hammond. But maybe it’s not all that surprising.
After all, Hammond spent his career out of the spotlight. While helping to steer artists from Billie Holiday to Bruce Springsteen into the public eye as a talent scout, record producer and overall mover and shaker, he remained the benevolent (some would say paternalistic) man behind the curtain.
And it’s not as if Hammond has never been written about. He’s a prominent supporting character in the biographies and autobiographies of his most famous so-called discoveries, a list that also includes Bob Dylan, Count Basie, Benny Goodman and Aretha Franklin. He told his own story in 1977 in John Hammond on Record, a memoir that was more than a little self-serving and selective, but entertaining nonetheless.
So while it could be said that Dunstan Prial is staking out virgin territory with his Hammond biography, The Producer, it could also be said that he is simply taking all the good Hammond anecdotes that have been out there for years and putting them in one place, creating the literary equivalent of a greatest-hits collection.
But he has done more. He has conducted some solid research, and while his book is sometimes a little light on context (among other things, it lacks a thorough discography), he has fashioned the diverse strands of Hammond’s life into a very readable narrative. It helps that he has a fascinating protagonist.
If John Hammond didn’t exist, a novelist might have had to invent him. A child of privilege (his mother was a Vanderbilt), he was drawn to jazz and blues at an early age and went on to dedicate his life, and fortune, to American vernacular music, and also to racial equality. With his flattop haircut and perpetual grin, he cut a strange figure. With his sharp ear, infectious enthusiasm and deep pockets, he helped change the course of 20th-century music.
Prial, a journalist (and the son of Frank Prial, who was a reporter), clearly admires Hammond’s accomplishments, as both musical catalyst and social activist, but this book is not hagiography. Prial acknowledges that Hammond could be arrogant and imperious; that he could be vindictive toward musicians, among them Duke Ellington, who did not follow his career advice; and that he could take a rather cavalier attitude toward conflicts of interest.
In the 1930s, when he was producing records by Goodman, Holiday and Basie, Hammond was also an influential critic. He wrote about music, primarily for Down Beat and the British magazine Melody Maker, and he often raved about musicians he worked with, without disclosing his involvement. (“I was in the studio at the time,” he would write about a record he was praising. What he wouldn’t say is that he was there because he was supervising the session.) As Prial notes, Hammond defended such apparent ethical lapses by explaining that it was all for the greater good of the music, and that anyway he was not benefiting financially. Call it the jazz version of noblesse oblige.
Prial tells us that he first learned about Hammond through the music of Stevie Ray Vaughan, the dynamic blues-rock guitarist who in the early 1980s became Hammond’s last significant protege, and that he was a fan of Dylan and Springsteen before he knew anything about the man credited with discovering them. So it’s not surprising that once his narrative enters the 1960s — shortly after Hammond rejoined Columbia Records, where he had first made his mark as a producer, and began shifting his focus from jazz — Prial seems much more engaged than when writing about the musicians Hammond recorded in the 1930s. He understands that these earlier artists were important but has a hard time explaining why.