The Man with the Golden Ears


Dunstan Prial
The Producer: John Hammond and the Soul of American Music
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

The most important A&R man in the history of popular music, John Hammond had a major hand in the record industry's discovery of Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Charlie Christian, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen, and numerous others. He wrote significant jazz journalism, helped invent the Newport Jazz Festival, and put together the 1938 "Spirituals to Swing" concert, which synthesized an entire history of African American music. But reading between the lines of Dunstan Prial's empathetic though not strikingly incisive new biography, Hammond bears an even greater distinction, or shame: He was the first modern music snob, the originator of both rock-critic and blogger aesthetics.

Consider the similarities: Hammond had far too much time on his hands. Born a Vanderbilt, he barely had to work for pay until late-life reverses trimmed his financial freedom. That bounty afforded him the great leisure to nurture prickly aesthetic convictions, and the opportunity and power to enact them. (Unsatisfied with the available journalistic options, he twice started magazines of his own.) He was never short of opinions, or reluctant to share them; he would hurry off to Kansas City or Oklahoma City to hear the hot new thing, then lecture readers and musicians alike.

"There could be, and should be, improvements, for there is much that ails the rhythm section," the 21-year-old Hammond instructed Duke Ellington in 1932.

As a producer, he preferred to work his way through a stack of lefty newspapers while the band played, preferably with only a single microphone for maximum purity. This technique produced marvels with professional jazzmen but frequent misfires with artists needing direction. Aretha Franklin went nowhere when he packaged her as a jazz singer. Indeed, that shortcoming makes the book's title, The Producer, particularly misleading, given the unimpeachable five-decade-long consistency of Hammond's taste and the spotty quality of his productions. And though his conflicts of interest may seem quaint in this Clear Channel era, Hammond saw nothing wrong with using his column inches to promote artists and singles he was also producing.

All that said, Hammond undeniably lived for music, and for politics, with a purity and clarity that remain admirable and rare. "He was the youngest man in the record business right until the day he died," recalled a colleague. Unlike (mostly white) executives who pickpocketed their (mostly black) artists with phony co-writing or production credits, Hammond refused on principle to take a cent. He encouraged the young Springsteen to hire an independent lawyer to vet his first contract for fairness. He crusaded on behalf of the Scottsboro Boys, joined the NAACP in the mid-1930s, and left it in 1966 over its reticence to condemn the Vietnam War. He pushed endlessly to integrate the music industry both onstage and behind the scenes.

Prial handles the wrangling and the music adeptly, conveying a sympathetic but not uncritical sense of the man. Hammond could be an artist's truest friend, bobbing his head and pounding tables when the music took him, even lending his own money to those in need. At worst, he was a spoiled prig who never refrained from informing everyone in the vicinity (Benny Goodman, the NAACP's Roy Wilkins) of his unique possession of a better way. Prial also wrangles the minutiae of the biz—contracts, deals, albums—without losing himself in detail.

He has less luck carving a shape out of his subject's life: Hammond's tenth discovery of a major artist doesn't feel materially different from his first. Worse, Prial seems at a loss when it comes to the major political currents in which Hammond swam. Far too often, he merely records a major event in which Hammond participated—a near-riot at the funeral of assassinated civil-rights activist Medgar Evers, for instance—then heads briskly for another hopeful with a guitar.

Though Prial's book is a solid first take, Hammond's towering critical and social presence awaits a sharper accounting. It's a particular shame that Hammond, who died in 1987, isn't around to issue instructions.