His oeuvre, our groove

Tom Nolan is the author of "Ross Macdonald: A Biography" and editor of "The Couple Next Door: Collected Short Mysteries" by Margaret Millar.

JOHN HENRY HAMMOND JR., the legendary talent scout and record company executive, was an emblematic figure of the American musical scene. His artistic predilections and his social activism affected the course of our culture beginning in the Depression years and continuing -- long past his death in 1987 -- into the 21st century.

If that seems an excessive claim, consider that even as we speak, Bruce Springsteen's album of songs associated with Pete Seeger is high on the charts. Springsteen was among the last (although by no means the last) of Hammond's discoveries, signed by him to Columbia Records in 1972. Eleven years earlier, Hammond had fought to bring Seeger, a controversial figure in the 1950s because of his leftist politics, to Columbia. Seeger later became a father figure to the modern folk music movement and to a young Bob Dylan -- another artist Hammond signed and mentored.

So goes the history of Hammond's brilliant enthusiasms, back through the decades to the early 1930s and his initial great find: a teenage singer in Harlem named Billie Holiday, who achieved iconic status in her lifetime and still inspires singers as diverse as Norah Jones and Courtney Love.

Hammond's felicitous life and career have now been chronicled and celebrated in worthy fashion in Dunstan Prial's elegantly written, substantive and exciting biography, "The Producer."

Prial traces his subject's love of American music to a unique childhood, in which the young Hammond's preoccupation with popular culture was linked from the start to an awareness of vast social disparities.

Born in December 1910 to a New York family of great privilege (his mother's great-grandfather Cornelius "Commodore" Vanderbilt was at one time the richest man in the world), the young Hammond hung out with the mostly African American servants in the basement, where he found warmth and acceptance -- and first heard the jazz and blues music that shaped his tastes. "James P. Johnson ... was one of the great piano players of all time," Hammond recalled in a 1981 interview. "He had a record called 'Worried and Lonesome Blues,' which he made on the old blue label at Columbia Records in 1922, and this is the record that changed my life."

Taken by his mother to Christian Science meetings, young John acquired the belief that he could to a large extent direct his own fate and the fates of others. ("It was a personality trait not everyone found attractive," Prial notes.) He dropped out of Yale after less than two years, and with the help of a musician friend, bassist Artie Bernstein, began making the rounds of New York recording studios and Harlem nightclubs. Using his own money, he produced his first record session, with pianist Garland Wilson, before he was 21 and soon began writing about jazz for Down Beat magazine.

With enough funds to indulge his musical pursuits, Hammond would invent his own career -- as journalist, gadfly, promoter and A&R; (artist and repertoire) man -- mostly for Columbia but also for smaller labels, like Majestic, Keynote and Vanguard. His great talent was in appreciating talent and helping to realize its potential: He brought pianist Teddy Wilson to the attention of Benny Goodman (his future brother-in-law), took Count Basie from Kansas City obscurity to New York acclaim and fostered the career of Charlie Christian, the Oklahoman who popularized the electric guitar in jazz.

Hammond "produced" records mostly by leaving the artists alone, often as not reading the newspaper during recording sessions, while Teddy Wilson or Holiday or Goodman did what they did best. When he was on staff at the various record labels over the years, Hammond's salary was always modest, and except for the last few years of his career, he never accepted royalties for discs he had helped bring into being. It was almost as if his work were being done pro bono -- for the public good.

In a real sense, this was the case. Hammond, Prial writes, was "a man who resolved early on to spend his life using the thing he loved most, music, to promote the cause for which he was most passionate, equality among the races." By the time he was 25, "Hammond had emerged as arguably the strongest force behind the push for an integrated music industry" -- an integration that preceded Jackie Robinson's entrance into major league baseball by several years.

There were less attractive sides to Hammond's nature, as Prial fairly documents. Some bandleaders resented his meddling and some sidemen feared for their jobs -- given Hammond's penchant for suggesting that one or another player might better fill a particular chair. Among the nicknames Hammond acquired in the Swing Era were "the Boogie Man," "the Big Bringdown" and "the Undertaker." Hammond, for his part, did not take kindly to those who disagreed with his opinions or rejected his advice, such as Duke Ellington. Nor was he above bending the truth in service of a good or useful story. The persistence of the canard that blues singer Bessie Smith died because she had been turned away from a whites-only hospital in the South seems directly traceable to its inclusion in Hammond's program notes for his influential 1938 "From Spirituals to Swing" concert. It was a story he repeated throughout his life, even after it had been debunked.

Hammond left Columbia in 1975 at the mandatory retirement age of 65. But the success of Texas guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan and his band Double Trouble (Hammond's final discovery), whom the 72-year-old producer brought to Epic Records in 1983, led to a new job as a consultant at Columbia, where the ever-enthusiastic Hammond found artists and projects to keep him busy for the remainder of his life.

Prial, a journalist ("The Producer" is his first book), takes admirable care to give several versions of crucial events, such as the circumstances surrounding Dylan's attempt -- under the influence of a new manager, Albert Grossman -- to renegotiate his Columbia contract, signed when he was a minor. These differing testimonies -- alternate takes on the truth -- only enhance the appeal of a narrative as smooth and beguiling in its flow as one of Hammond's "look Ma, no hands" recording sessions.

Prial has done a splendid job of telling the story of an almost completely admirable figure, whose "wonderful instinct for creativity in others" (to quote Hammond's friend Arthur Schlesinger Jr.) "made him a vast creative force himself." That exuberant creative force characteristically greeted the world with a burst-of-sunshine grin that no one who saw it ever forgot.

"The smile, yeah, the smile," Springsteen told Prial. "It just kinda washed all over you."

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