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The Producer: John Hammond and the Soul of American Music

September 20, 2010

Author Dunstan Prial talks about his book, The Producer: John Hammond and the Soul of American Music. Prial reveals how Hammond discovered and produced such music legends as Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen.

12 Minutes 59 Seconds

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This is Christina Dumitrescu, a student at Lehman College. In this segment, author Dunstan Prial talks about his book, The Producer: John Hammond and the Soul of American Music. Prial reveals how Hammond discovered and produced such music legends as Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen.



I wrote this book. It's about a guy named John Hammond. Born and raised in New York City, spent his whole life here. He was responsible for discovering and promoting some of the great talents of the 20th century.

It started with Billie Holiday in the early 1930s. He moves onto Count Basie. He worked with Benny Goodman. He worked with Charlie Christian. Took a little time off in the '50s, and he came back in the '60s with Aretha Franklin, George Benson, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen. All these fairly familiar names. And, last but not least, a guitarist by the name of Stevie Ray Vaughan, who I was very fond of. In addition to all this music, he had a passion for civil rights. If music was his passion, civil rights was his calling.

In the early '30s, it was basically unheard of for white and black musicians to play together. Now, this is the jazz era. But even at that time, at least in public, in clubs in Harlem and in Chicago, blacks and whites could get together after hours. But not in pubic. Not on the radio. Now, John Hammond wanted to change that. He had a belief. It was basically, oddly, a faith in human nature. He believed that people would appreciate good music, regardless of who made it. If you made good music, the American public would appreciate it, and, better yet, buy it.


Now, the person he chose to convince that this was a sound principle was Benny Goodman, one of the real famous jazz icons from the swing era. Benny Goodman grew up dirt poor in Chicago. He was a virtuoso clarinetist, and by the time he was 14 or 15, he was already playing professionally, and becoming a renowned session man, a guy who played in studio sessions, and getting his own radio show, and all the rest.

He was becoming a fairly well-known guy. He moves from Chicago to New York, where his success continues to expand. And he's got a really good thing going. In fact, at the time, in the middle to late '30s, when Hammond is getting closer to this experiment that he wants to pull off, Goodman's popularity has literally reached that of the Beatles. And now John Hammond comes along and says, "You should add a black musician to your band. You should replace your white pianist with this guy Teddy Wilson, and integrate your band. It's a good thing. People will appreciate it."

Benny Goodman says, "No way. Why would I do that? I'm the most popular band leader in America. I've got more fans than I know what to do with. We're making a lot of money, finally. I was raised where to make a dollar is a good thing." It's a very difficult process to convince this guy to go out on a limb like this. There's no reason for him to do it.


Hammond, if nothing, was a very persistent guy. And he had a good working relationship with Goodman. He was able to slip Teddy Wilson into some studio sessions, at first. And Hammond saw immediately what a talented musician Teddy Wilson is. "Let's take it a step further," Hammond says. "Let's do a public show in Chicago, quietly, on an Easter Sunday morning. We'll do a public show." It'll be the first time in documented American history that a popular bandleader of a white band will play with an integrated band. It goes off smoothly. The fans appreciate it. Everything goes fine. As the success and the acceptance grows, another fellow joins the band, a guy named Lionel Hampton. Just an absolute genius. A showman nonpareil.

The real turning point for all of this comes in Dallas in September of 1937. There's a big fair down there. The whole buzz is about how The Benny Goodman Band is coming down to play. But part of the buzz in September of 1937 is that Goodman's bringing two black musicians. Now, this is in the deep south, during the Jim Crow era. And how is all of this going to go over?

Well, there was a lot of talk they're gonna riot. They're not going to accept this. Again, Hammond falls back on this belief that good musicianship will trump prejudice. And it's a big risk. They're gonna go down. They're gonna fill this convention hall with thousands of people, Benny's biggest fans from the deep south, in a segregated era. And they're gonna, at some point, bring these two black guys out. And nobody really knows how they're gonna respond.


So I'm gonna read a little bit from the book. Here's Hammond writing about the whole thing in the aftermath. "'A minor revolution took place in deepest, darkest Dixie in early September when The Benny Goodman Band invaded the south for the first time.' He writes this in the October 1937 issue of Downbeat. That was a very popular jazz magazine at the time."

"'Benny's boys were engaged for the purpose of pulling the Dallas Exposition out of the red. But the world at large was scared that if Benny attempted to foist Lionel Hampton and Teddy Wilson upon a typically southern crowd, he would not only be a flop, but would possibly goad the population to acts of violence.'"

"'On all sides, Benny was advised to leave the two colored boys behind. White folks told him southerners detested negroes, even as entertainers. And that they positively would not stand for negros being presented before their eyes on terms of complete equality with white performers.'"


"All along, I had the suspicion that if the trio and the quartet made excellent music, the crown would swallow its prejudices, and acclaim the artists. Just the same, I made it my business to be in Dallas on the day of the opening, just to see what would happen.'" It's very hot that day. There's a parade for Benny to welcome him to Dallas, and all the rest. And later on, they're in the convention hall itself.

"Hammond anxiously anticipated the crowd's response. He moved closer to eavesdrop on their conversation, what he heard pleased them. The fans were grumbling, not because Goodman had allowed two black men to join his band, but rather because Goodman had decided to skip that segment of the show that featured the two black musicians." So all of a sudden, Hammond's realizing that his faith in humanity is being confirmed, here on a very hot night in Dallas.

"Goodman, apparently sensing what Hammond was hearing in the crowd, added the quartet segment to the second set. And Wilson and Hampton were greeted with thunderous applause. The Dallas shows weren't without incidents, however. Fans sent a bottle of champagne backstage to Hampton and Wilson. The bottle almost didn't get to them, though, because one of the cops working the event said he wouldn't bring it back to the two black musicians. And he used the N-word to emphasize his distaste for what was happening."


"Teddy got mad, and wanted to leave. So, the next day, Teddy doesn't show up for rehearsal, and Benny had the chief of police talk to Teddy, and reassure him that things would go all right. Chief told all the band members, 'I'm the baddest guy in town. And if you guys give us the same performance you gave us last night, everything's gonna be all right. The band played, and the fans responded with nothing but adulation.'"

"Wilson and Hampton's impact on broader society was felt immediately." This is all happening ten years before Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey. "Big nightclubs in large American cities that had refused to allow blacks inside could hardly refuse entrance to two members of the most popular band in America."

In other words, clubs, even in Harlem, if you can believe this, at the time, black musicians, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, could play on the bandstands in Harlem, but black people couldn't get into the shows to see them. Things just changed pretty much overnight, as a result of what was happening in The Goodman Band. That's how popular they were.


"The landmark move also opened doors to other black musicians. Not long after Wilson and Hampton began appearing with Goodman, other popular white bandleaders, such as Artie Shaw, Charlie Barnett and Jimmy Dorsey also hired black sidemen. It worked both ways, as well. Soon black leaders like Fletcher Henderson, Lucky Millinder, and Earl Hines were hiring white musicians."

So, here, reflecting back on events that helped set the stage for civil rights movements of the '50s and '60s, "each of the four men, Hampton, Wilson, Hammond, and Goodman had a role to play. Goodman, as a leader of the band, had to make the final decision on whether to challenge societal mores by allowing two black men into his band." And I think that that's a story that just hasn't been told. "Finally, it was Hammond who initially believed it could be done. His perseverance paid off when Goodman relented."

Hammond hung around Dallas for a few more days, just to make certain that opening night wasn't a fluke, that the southern audiences were, in fact, genuinely more concerned with the quality of the music than the color of the musician's skin.


Satisfied that he had accurately gauged the fans' response, he returned to New York, concluding a few weeks later in his Downbeat column, 'Most of the middle and upper class southerners I spoke to about the use of negros with white musicians assured me there would be no objection to the mixture, as long as they produced to a superlative. It was only a few southern white musicians who said that Benny could never get away with it. And I suspect that the reason they did it was because they were afraid of losing their jobs.' People wanted to hear good music. And they didn't care who made it."

Hammond's career takes a few detours in the '40s. In the '50s, he's working with Vanguard, he's making beautiful jazz. But has an amazing resurrection in the 1960s. Beginning with the discovery of Aretha Franklin. I use the term discovery, but at the time Aretha Franklin is a teenager. And she's fairly well known. Her father's one of the most popular preachers in Detroit. But she's not signed to a record contract. She's yet to become a national figure. Hammond hears her, and immediately says, "Ya gotta be with Columbia Records."

Next, he's down in Greenwich Village, and he's involved in the folk scene as a record executive of Columbia. Tastes have changed. And the folk scene is exploding. John Hammond meets a young guy named Bob Dylan. And without ever hearing him play, he invites him to come up to the studio, and record some songs. Almost 50 years later, Bob Dylan is Bob Dylan, and he's still making music for Columbia records.


Several years later, he sorta goes back to his roots, and he's told about this phenomenal jazz musician playing in the clubs. The small clubs of Harlem. The guy's broke, et cetera. This is a guy named George Benson. Gets George Benson signed to Columbia Records. Makes some brilliant albums with him. Now, George Benson sort of goes in a different direction a few years later. Makes his name as a pop/jazz singer. But it was Hammond who first saw the talent that George Benson has. Gets him a record contract.

Leonard Cohen, to a lot of people, is, maybe, just a notch below Bob Dylan. Hammond signed him. He was a poet at the time, and sort of dabbling in music. Hammond heard him, and he had a similar, not quite the same response as he had to Bob Dylan. But he said, "People have a visceral response to this guy, Leonard Cohen. He does something that reaches out, and touches people. He should be on Columbia Records. Get him signed."

Next up, Hammond gets a call from a really obnoxious manager who says he's got a talented guy living over in New Jersey. He's gotta hear him. The manager is very persistent. He shows up on a summer morning in 1972, I believe. And he shows up with the guy. The guy is Bruce Springsteen. He's 22, maybe 23 at the time. He's dressed in jeans and a T-shirt. He plays two songs for Hammond, and Hammond says, "You've got to be on Columbia Records."


Goes upstairs and tells Clive Davis, who was, sort of, running Columbia Records at the time, "Ya gotta hear this guy. He's gonna last with Columbia for generations. They're gonna be listening to this guy decades from now." Sure enough, many records, many millions of dollars for Columbia, many sold-out shows later, Bruce Springsteen is still makin' records for Columbia Records. It's about the feeling that these guys are conveying through to music. And Hammond caught that.

I believe that decades from now, we're still gonna be listening to Aretha Franklin. No question in my mind. We're still gonna be listening to Bob Dylan. He made music that we'll be listening to a long time from now. Bruce Springsteen, the same thing. What I'm hoping is that, by virtue of this book, in addition to this iconic period we have, and memory of Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey, changing things in the late '40s, I would like to add to that, sort of, canon of American history, John Hammond and Teddy Wilson. I genuinely believe that the story's just as interesting.



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