Interesting article in the Economist that, given its circulation, may have passed you by.
Hammond was born to immense wealth (his mother was a Vanderbilt) but longed to fly the gilded cage. To his father’s dismay, he dropped out of Yale in 1931 to work in the fast-growing record business. To succeed, he needed to find and record new artists. So he crisscrossed New York, from Greenwich Village to Harlem, in search of undiscovered talent. “Drop into almost any nightclub…any recording date or broadcast or audition or rehearsal,” wrote a jazz critic, Otis Ferguson, “and if you stick around long enough, you are almost sure to see John Henry Hammond, Jr, in the flesh, if briefly.”
One February night in 1933, Hammond rapped on an anonymous door on 133rd St. One of his singer friends, Monette Moore, ran a new speakeasy, and he had come to see her perform. As it turned out, she couldn’t make it. Her replacement was a girl called Billie Holiday. Hammond hadn’t heard of her . . . which meant nobody had . . . but she took his breath away. Just 17, Holiday was tall, unconventionally beautiful, with an imperious bearing. Her artistry gave Hammond shivers. She sang just behind the beat, her voice wafting languidly over the accompaniment like smoke from a cigarette. She didn’t just sing the songs, she played them with her voice. “I was overwhelmed,” Hammond said.
At the time, black musicians were not supposed to play with white ones. Hammond thought this was crazy. He hated segregation and pushed for racially integrated bands at every opportunity. He also believed that virtually all good popular music had its roots in black culture, and thought it an outrage that, as jazz became popular across America, its origins were being obscured from view. So he decided to educate white people. In 1938 he organised a concert at Carnegie Hall called “From Spirituals to Swing”, tracing the lineage of popular music from African drumming to slave chants, Southern blues, gospel and jazz. It featured Basie, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Big Joe Turner and many others. It was a sell-out. Nobody had told Hammond to go and see Billie Holiday that night in Harlem. She had no fan base, no manager pressing her claims. Nobody would record her. But the moment he saw Holiday, John Hammond knew she was going to be a star. He just had a feeling about this girl. A hunch.
THE GIFT FOR talent-spotting is mysterious, highly prized and celebrated. We love to hear stories about the baseball coach who can spot the raw ability of an erratic young pitcher, the boss who sees potential in the guy in the post room, the director who picks a soloist out of the chorus line.’
It’s lovely stuff and we all think Dylan would have made it anyway even without Hammond. But you have to wonder.
But above and beyond that, the difference between John Hammond and Simon Cowell say, is one of quality. No-one writes about the one’s Hammond didn’t champion; I don’t know enough to know who fell by the wayside. But Dylan, Billie Holiday, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Count Basie, Bruce Springsteen, Aretha Franklin; they will do for me. They all have that quality it’s not simply originality . . . that is a very rare commodity in any field . . . it is what they bring of themselves. I think Lennon had it, certainly in the early days and although I was never a great fan, I suspect Bowie had it too.