Thursday, March 8, 2012

March 8: John Hammond, Sr.

During the "early days" of popular and recorded music, almost everyone involved in any aspect of the "music industry" had to, as they say, wear a number of different hats.  Whether it was artists serving as their own booking and publishing agents, label owners also taking on recording and engineering duties, or a wide range of other necessary combinations, the first half of the last century presents a rather stark contrast to the more modern sense of "how" the business of music is conducted.  Yet among so many individuals who found themselves handling a number of different jobs within music, there was one man who stood far above the rest; and one can argue that to this day, he remains the greatest talent scout in history, along with a number of other unsurpassed accolades.  Whether it was his ability to find new artists, his work as a producer or concert promoter, or perhaps even his own musical talents, there has never been another figure in music that quite measures up to the great John Hammond, Sr.  As the United States dug its way out of "The Great Depression," it was Hammond who was one of the most integral figures in re-energizing the world of music, and over the course of the next five decades, he would touch almost every possible aspect of the music industry, making the impact of John Hammond, Sr. far beyond that of anyone else in music history.

Even from a young age, Hammond's interest in music was beyond apparent, as he took up studies on both the piano and the violin.  It was also during these early years that his true intentions began to manifest themselves, as even though his parents pushed him towards classical music, he was far more interested in the sounds which he heard being sung by the servants and staff of his home in New York City.  To this end, the legend goes that a then-seventeen year old John Hammond Sr. attended a concert in Harlem where he witnessed a performance by none other than Bessie Smith, and that this forever altered the course of his life.  However, Hammond soon found himself a student at Yale University, though he dropped out in 1931, and became the first ever U.S. correspondent for the iconic Melody Maker newspaper.  This passion for music quickly led to Hammond recording jazz players in New York City, and founded one of the first "live" jazz programs.  Though many do not consider such a reality in modern times, Hammond was very much a pioneer in terms of desegregation, as his work within the music industry often blurred the "color lines" which were very much present during this time period.  In many ways, this gave Hammond more "credibility" within the world of jazz, and he soon became one of the most sought after producers and concert organizers in the country.

Over the next few years, John Hammond Sr. would play a key role in the configuration of Benny Goodman's band, and then in 1933, it was Hammond who arranged for the first recording sessions for an up-and-coming singer named Billie Holiday.  In fact, her first recording was made on a Benny Goodman track, and her work on this song would vault her to the iconic status she enjoys to this day.  Throughout the remainder of the 1930's, it was Hammond who brought jazz to the forefront in many ways, and almost every one of the most important figures of this movement was in some way connected to Hammond.  Yet after World War II, Hammond found little to his liking in the "bop" sound of jazz, and his interests began to move to the world of folk and soul music.  It was John Hammond Sr. who signed both Pete Seeger and Aretha Franklin to Columbia Records; but it was in 1961 that he would sign the man that the label would refer to as "Hammond's Folly."  Though the label protested to his signing from the beginning, Hammond insisted that the individual in question would be famous, and only a few months later, the man in question would make his name with a single titled, "Blowin' In The Wind."  Whether it was his signing of Bob Dylan, or his work in the early jazz scene, for more than five decades John Hammond Sr. was on the bleeding edge of musical creation, and there has never been a figure as important to the development of music as he proved to be over his lifetime.

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