Hammond Sweats The Blues

by | Jan 7, 2006

I sometimes struggle to keep John Hammond straight from John Hiatt and John Hartford, even though they’re all distinct. Anyway, John Hammond, Jr. is the one who tears up the blues. I’m listening now to Wicked Grin, his 2001 release of Tom Waits tunes. It’s wicked, to say the least.

I was partly inspired to buy the record after reading about the senior John Hammond’s role in Dylan’s career. John Jr.’s dad, the Columbia Records producer who signed Dylan, Aretha and so many other greats was born to immense wealth as the great-grandson of William Henry Vanderbilt in New York City.

The be-true-to-your-heart Hammond began patronizing jazz clubs at an early age, entering the record business in 1933, discovering Billie Holiday and producing Bessie Smith. He also played a role in organizing Benny Goodman’s first band.

Acording to PBS’ American Masters series, Hammond recognized the gross injustice of his time and began working for an integrated music world. He was the funder and DJ for one of the first regular live jazz programs, and wrote regularly about the racial divide. His main concern, however, was jazz, and throughout the 1930s he was responsible for both integrating the musicians and expanding the audience. Towards the end of the 1930s, Hammond organized the “Spirituals to Swing” concert, which brought much black music into the white spotlight for the first time.

Working for Columbia records, Hammond found in the political singers of the 1950s and 1960s a vibrancy similar to that of the jazz musicians thirty years earlier. He signed Pete Seeger, and found a young folk singer among the crowds of Greenwich Village named Bob Dylan. All told–Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, Carolyn Hester, Billie Holiday, Big Joe Turner, Pete Seeger, Babatunde Olatunji, George Benson, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen, and Stevie Ray Vaughan–were given an audience, in part, through the work of John Hammond.

Coming from that storied background, it’s little wonder that John Hammond Jr. evokes the blues as well as he does. A funny footnote to all this…Dylan used to hang with John in the Village, but he never knew it was his producer’s son. That’s how chill the guy is.