John Hammond: The Ear Of An Oracle Most great talent scouts reign for about a generation, if they're lucky, but John Hammond dominated four generations. From Billie Holiday and Benny Goodman to Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, Hammond was pivotal in the discovery of some of the 20th century's most important musical figures.

John Hammond: The Ear Of An Oracle

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

John Hammond didn't sing. He didn't write music. He didn't even play an instrument. But he had an uncanny ear for finding those who did, and it made him unique in the record business. He played a pivotal role in discovering and recording many of the most important musical figures of the 20th century - from Billie Holiday and Benny Goodman to Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen.

John Hammond would be 100 years old today. And though he died more than two decades ago, his influence on American music lives on.

John McDonough has this remembrance.

JOHN McDONOUGH: Most great talent scouts may reign for about a generation if they're lucky, but John Hammond dominated four generations. This is because most record executives are in it for the wealth. Hammond was in it for kicks. It gave him other yardsticks of value and the vision of an oracle. His ear could drill through the babble of fashion and the fog of obscurity to the essence of a solitary original voice. He had the inner compass of a rebel, and it led him to the most secret places where other rebels hung out.

(Soundbite of song, "Your Mother's Son-in-Law")

Ms. BILLIE HOLIDAY (Singer): (Singing) You don't have to have a hanker to be a broker or banker.

McDONOUGH: This was the voice of Billie Holiday in 1933. She was Hammond's first great discovery, and this is her first record. She was 16. He was 22. For most, she was an acquired taste.

Forty-four years ago, I sat in Hammond's CBS office with a small tape recorder and asked him what he had heard in her that nobody else did.

Mr. JOHN HAMMOND (Record Producer, Music Critic): I just couldn't believe my ears that here was a singer who sounded like an instrumentalist, like one of the most advanced instrumentalists there had ever been. Billie was out of sight as an artist, and I took Benny up to hear her, and Benny just thought she was great.

McDONOUGH: Benny Goodman was still unknown in 1933. Hammond didn't exactly discover Goodman, but he was deeply influential.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. HAMMOND: If Benny hadn't made it as he did, I probably wouldn't be in the record business. Benny was such a fantastic success. Some of his magic made it possible for me to get jobs in the record business. I don't think I could have. I was too un-commercial.

McDONOUGH: Hammond's reputation rose with the Goodman tide, then was cemented when he found a nine-piece band in a Kansas City dive called the Reno Club.

Unidentified Man: Count Basie and his band with the count at the keyboard.

(Soundbite of music)

McDONOUGH: Some of the primal energy that Hammond first heard in Count Basie is preserved in this earliest known broadcast, eight weeks after Hammond took the band out of Kansas City. Thirty years later, the memory of it all still excited him.

Mr. HAMMOND: It was the greatest reed section that Basie ever had. The rhythm section was, of course, the greatest. There never have been a (unintelligible) rhythm section like that before, not even in the - no band. Well, but even then, it was just unbelievable.

McDONOUGH: But not as unbelievable as the sound he brought to Benny Goodman in 1939.

(Soundbite of music)

McDONOUGH: The electric guitar was almost totally unknown when Hammond spotted his first great master, Charlie Christian. He was earning $7.50 a week in Oklahoma City.

In Christian, Hammond not only found a brilliant musician, he helped unlock the sound that one day would transform American music. It would be his last decisive discovery for 20 years.

When he rejoined Columbia Records in 1958 to do some reissues, he didn't expect a second act. He was wrong. The curtain went up in 1960 when Aretha Franklin walked in.

Hammond at his home in Weston, Connecticut.

Mr. HAMMOND: A guy called Curtis Louis brought in a large demo disc of some tunes of his. And there was one tune called "Today I Sing the Blues," and it was Aretha. And I listened to it, and I said this is the best thing I've heard since Billie Holiday. Who is she?

(Soundbite of song, "Today I Sing the Blues")

Ms. ARETHA FRANKLIN (Singer): (Singing) Yesterday, this time, I'd sing a love song, but today, I'm singing the blues.

McDONOUGH: Many consider that first album one of her best, but it was also one of her least commercial.

Hammond's taste for rebels and indifference to commerce was only beginning to test the patience of his bosses at Columbia.

Mr. HAMMOND: Bob Dylan is a guy I signed at Columbia in '61, and I think he signed with us because we had had the guts to sign Pete Seeger.

(Soundbite of song, "Talkin' New York")

Mr. BOB DYLAN (Singer): (Singing) Rambling out of the Wild West, leaving the towns I love the best, thought I'd seen some ups and down till I come into New York town.

McDONOUGH: Dylan was a sideman on a Carolyn Hester session when Hammond first spotted him. He liked his look, his sound and his presence, as he told me 35 years ago on a radio program.

Mr. HAMMOND: Dylan was a born rebel. I figured that Dylan could capture an audience that Columbia had lost years before.

McDONOUGH: What did the marketing people at Columbia think when they first heard that voice, though?

Mr. HAMMOND: Hammond's folly.

(Soundbite of song, "Talkin' New York')

Mr. DYLAN: (Singing) I walked down there and ended up in one of them coffeehouses on the block. I'd get on the stage to sing and play. Man there said, come back some other day. You sound like a hillbilly.

McDONOUGH: Hammond said that Columbia would not authorize signing Dylan. So, he said, I signed him anyway.

To protect himself, Hammond kept his projects simple and economical. Dylan's first album cost only $402.

By the late '60s, artists didn't just want to be discovered. They wanted the distinction of being discovered by the legendary Hammond himself. One of them was Bruce Springsteen.

Over lunch at the Russian Tea Room, Hammond told me how Springsteen's manager, Mike Appel, had first come to him.

Mr. HAMMOND: And his opening remark to me was you're supposed to be the guy who discovered Bob Dylan. I have somebody who's better than Dylan. Bruce was sitting in the corner. I asked him to get out his guitar. And so the first thing he played was "Saint in the City." And I suddenly realized that this was not anybody like Dylan remotely. This was his own guy who has his own experiences.

McDONOUGH: If you're wondering how Billie Holiday led to Bruce Springsteen, it's a good question. One answer is Hammond was a hive of contradictions. A born aristocrat with a Vanderbilt pedigree, he was a popular front leftist in the 1930s and a Mother Jones-carrying liberal in the '70s and '80s.

Indifferent to commercial pressures, he spent most of his career in the commercial bazaar of Columbia Records. His radar had a way of bypassing the talented and even the very talented. Instead, it somehow found the lighthouses whose work made us re-imagine what music could be. They never grow old.

Hammond died in 1987. At his memorial, Bruce Springsteen sang Dylan's "Forever Young." Today, John Hammond would be 100.

For NPR News, I'm John McDonough.

(Soundbite of song, "Forever Young")

Mr. DYLAN: (Singing) Forever young, forever young. May you stay forever young.

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