On an October night in 1984, a 73-year-old man, jacketed and tied, walked onto the stage of Carnegie Hall to introduce his latest "discovery": Stevie Ray Vaughan and his band Double Trouble. But the crowd wouldn't hear of it. Formal introductions from such a geezer were not only unwelcome, they were beside the point. So the man at the mic got to the point, called on Vaughan himself, and split the stage. Double Trouble launched into "Scuttle Buttin'," and Dunstan Prial, a twentysomething in the audience, wondered, "Who on earth was that?"
"That" was John Henry Hammond Jr. Prial had heard of the man, and from what he learned of Hammond in the concert program, the two of them had a thing or two in common: "I recognized then that I shared with John Hammond a belief and a faith that music that came from the heart could inspire others to act from the heart." So Prial, a journalist, acted from the heart: Twenty years later, he's produced The Producer: John Hammond and the Soul of American Music (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).
Hammond (1910-1987) is hardly an unknown to students of popular American music. But what's behind the man who listened early on and helped engineer the careers of Fletcher Henderson, Billie Holiday, Teddy Wilson, Lionel Hampton, Charlie Christian, Count Basie, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Bruce Springsteen, not to mention Stevie Ray Vaughan? Who put in print for the first time ever the name "Robert Johnson." Who traveled to Kentucky, along with other left-wing intellectuals, to help striking coal miners in the Thirties. Who traveled to Alabama the same decade to serve in defense of the "Scottsboro boys." Who plotted the integration of the band belonging to his future brother-in-law, Benny Goodman. Who served as a 30-year board member of the NAACP. Who helped organize the Newport Jazz Festival in the Fifties. Who was investigated the same decade as a possible Communist by the FBI.
Who on earth, indeed, was John Hammond? Bossy, meddlesome, belligerent, opinionated, heartless, and difficult are some of the words that come to mind, according to Prial's informants (including Springsteen but not Dylan). But he was a man who listened for what was new musically -- constantly -- from his earliest age, a jazz hound in the basement of the five-story mansion on the Upper East Side where he grew up, down there with the black help and their battered Grafonola.
He was also an A&R man before there was such a thing -- and he earned no real money at it. He was a producer who sat in on studio sessions but left the musicians largely alone, his face buried in the New Masses, The New York Times, and The Nation -- and he earned no real money at it. He was a critic for Melody Maker and Down Beat and wrote in what would today be egregious conflict of interest -- and he earned no real money at it. But Hammond, until his later years, didn't have to earn real money. His mother was the great-granddaughter of Commodore Vanderbilt, who was, at the time of his death, Prial points out, "by far the richest man on earth." His father was a highly successful lawyer, banker, and railroad executive.
And what of the relationship between father and son? Senior and junior played golf, Prial reports, patching the disappointment the father felt for a son who dropped out of Yale. And what of the mother, who went from socialite to social reformer to Christian Scientist and squandered her son's fortune? Hammond was devoted to her. Why? And speaking of sons, what of Hammond's own -- John Paul ("Jeep") Hammond, a bluesman in his own right? Hammond was "immensely proud" of him, that's what, and not one word more on the subject. A second son became a carpenter. And what of it? Who knows?
And who is John Hammond in the final analysis? The Producer either doesn't or cannot say, but it sets the record straight on a number of musical scores. Why then does one feel no closer to Hammond than Dunstan Prial did in Carnegie Hall that October night in 1984? That is the question. The man's a legend but remains a mystery.