Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Pete's Pantheon: John Hammond, An Uncanny Ear for America

Has anyone ever listened to the chorus of American voices more sensitively, carefully and passionately than John Hammond? Let's look at the record (sorry). Mr. Hammond is generally credited with discovering or at least being crucial to the careers of...

• Billie Holiday
• Charlie Christian
• Benny Goodman
• Count Basie
• Pete Seeger
• Aretha Franklin
• Bob Dylan
• Leonard Cohen
• George Benson
• Bruce Springsteen
• Stevie Ray Vaughn

Not only that, Hammond brought the iconic Delta Blues recordings of Mr. Robert Johnson to their first national recognition.  To his further glory, he is accorded no involvement whatsoever in the careers of Kenny G, Justin Beiber or Wayne Newton.

His love of music was coupled with bold commitment to Civil Rights. This Yale blueblood invested in the first integrated nightclub, Cafe Society, and arranged legendary concerts at Carnegie Hall that featured African-American music played for an integrated audience. These were watershed events in the late 1930s called "From Spirituals to Swing". Hammond wanted Robert Johnson to feature as the representative performer of the Country Blues. By then Johnson had passed out of this world but not yet into history. One of his 45rpm recordings was played instead, through a gramophone on stage. The slumbering giant of Rock and Roll stirred in its sleep as the thin, haunted sound of the dead man's guitar drifted over the audience.  

Hammond found at least one other way to contribute to the music world. He and his wife were the parents of Bluesman John Hammond, a talented guitarist and blues interpreter.

Hammond, played by Herbert Anderson, appears as a character in The Benny Goodman Story. It's a biopic about the great clarinettist who was married to Hammond's sister. But Hollywood missed a bet in not making a companion flick based on the life of this unlikely genius. The soundtrack alone would have been a blockbuster.

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