By Dunstan Prial
Review by Kevin Cox
Why a book review of a 14-year-old book? Three reasons:
- It is a terrific book that goes to the heart of Americana music.
- It is timeless, given the constant churning of interest in movies and theater and television of the American Songbook.
- You can get it cheap now, even the hardcover with its beautiful cover illustration!
The subtitle: “John Hammond and the Soul of American Music,” says it all. Born into a family of wealth and privilege in 1910, scion of the Vanderbilt fortune, Hammond would spend the ensuing decades of the 1920s, ’30s, ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s listening, discovering and producing music at the very center of American life. As a boy, he discovered “popular” or “race” music through the servants in the mansion. He would sneak off to Harlem to hear early jazz and blues. His connection and love of “new” music were immediate and powerful.
Prial’s research and scholarship is deep and impeccable. There are countless detailed rich anecdotes of musicians, fights, loves, clubs, venues, sidemen, bus rides, music executives, song backgrounds and persistent racism. Hammond was an advocate of civil rights before the term was invented. The stories are surrounded by well-crafted histories of American life at the time: The Depression, jazz, World War II, civil rights, Viet Nam, folk music and rock and roll. Here’s a list of some of the players: Louis Armstrong. Billie Holiday, Billy Eckstine, Benny Goodman, Sidney Bichet, Count Basie, Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, Teddy Wilson, Duke Ellington, Doris Day, Eric Clapton, Sonny Rollins, Aretha and Bruce Springsteen. A shorter list would be all the artists Hammond did not influence!
Here are two excerpts:
On Billie Holiday:
When telling the story of how he “discovered’ Billie Holiday, Hammond always cited serendipity as the primary factor in his chancing upon her that night. ‘My discovery of Billie Holiday was the kind of accident I dreamed of, the sort of reward I received now and then by traveling to every place where anyone performed’
“She was 17 when I first heard her … She was just unbelievable, she phrased like an improvising instrumentalist. She was the first singer I ever heard do that! To me she was unbelievable!”
On Bruce Springsteen, 1972:
Springsteen took a bus into New York Cit for a meeting with Hammond at Columbia Records, a guitar with no case on his shoulder.
Hammond recalled, “I was just absolutely knocked out. I can’t tell you. It was just ridiculous. I’ve heard so many hundreds of people and he’s the first guy who’s ever come through to me this way, much more than Bob Dylan … because I’ll tell you there’s an integrity about Bruce that comes through as soon as he opens his mouth.”
This book tells so many intimate detailed stories. After reading this wonderful biography of an American giant, I had to ask myself; How empty would the world be without John Hammond? If you don’t laugh and cry a dozen times you do not have a heart.