Sympathetic, admiring biography of the talent scout and record producer who helped propel into popularity such legendary performers as Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen.
In his debut, Prial begins and ends with his sighting of John Hammond (1910–87) at a 1984 Carnegie Hall concert. The author argues that Hammond was “eerily prescient” in his recognition of talent: “He seemed to know what America wanted to hear before America knew it.” Hammond came from big Vanderbilt bucks (on his mother’s side), but he dropped out of Yale to pursue his true love—jazz. Prial portrays him as an anomaly: a dapper white man (he invariably sported a blazer and a crew cut) who hung out in Harlem and befriended musicians who would become some of the biggest names in jazz history, including Holiday, Benny Goodman and Count Basie. Hammond was also a devoted leftist; many performers recall him sitting in a studio corner reading stacks of liberal/radical magazines, and he gained early fame writing about the Scottsboro case for the Nation. The author credits his subject for integrating popular music: It was Hammond’s constant lobbying that convinced Goodman, for example, to hire gifted black musicians Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton to make his orchestra the first racially mixed band. A remarkably generous man as well, he never negotiated producer’s royalties and never expressed any subsequent regrets, despite the phenomenal success of some of his protégés. (A grateful Springsteen sang a Dylan song at his funeral.) Prial does not dwell on Hammond’s failed first marriage, nor on his reputation as “less than a doting father,” preferring to emphasize his professional achievements. He wasn’t a producer in the contemporary sense (his studio style was laissez-faire) and as a talent-meister he was occasionally wrong (the Nutty Squirrels never caught on), but the man who nurtured and promoted iconic artists from the 1930s through the ’80s gets from Prial the respect he deserves.
Informative, compelling and gleefully, unapologetically tendentious.