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The Producer: John Hammond and the Soul of American Music

Dunstan Prial's book about legendary record producer John Hammond has a pitch-perfect story arc: rich boy discovers music and Harlem, gets job in record business, serves up historic talent to unreceptive, stone-faced record label brass, is mocked and ridiculed and later vindicated, if not canonized.

Dunstan Prial’s book about legendary record producer John Hammond has a pitch-perfect story arc: rich boy discovers music and Harlem, gets job in record business, serves up historic talent to unreceptive, stone-faced record label brass, is mocked and ridiculed and later vindicated, if not canonized. He explores Hammond’s groundbreaking work to integrate music early on, but his heart is clearly in the latter part of the producer’s career, when he discovered Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen.

Throughout his career, Hammond charges — brimming with belief in his latest find (be it Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, Dylan or Springsteen) — and gets the flag. In the brutal, sales-driven A&R business — fickle and drifting now as it was in the 1930s when Hammond signed his first deal — he had the last laugh thanks to his talent for simply knowing good music. And he was more often right than wrong.

The images Prial paints alone are worth the read — young Hammond in his private school blazer hopping a bus from the Fifth Avenue mansion of his parents (his mom was a Vanderbilt) to explore Harlem is priceless.

In 1933, when he worked with Benny Goodman, Hammond was not just recording music, he was trying to break boundaries and make history by having Goodman (a Jew from Chicago’s West Side) play with black musicians, namely pianist Teddy Wilson. On the board of the NAACP, race relations and civil-rights issues were never far from his mind.

Later in life, his support of his musicians was unwavering, but his firebrand style of rocking the boat was now slightly muted, or perhaps limited to dinner parties. In the 1980s, when it came to working with Springsteen and Stevie Ray Vaughn and his band Double Trouble, it was just about the music.

Prial does not shy away from the man’s shortcomings. There were two instances where Hammond wanted his way, and they were clearly not the best calls. One was resisting Dylan’s drift toward going electric. The other was similar: Hammond wanted Bruce Springsteen to release his first album solo acoustic; Springsteen, like Dylan, had a larger picture in mind, namely the E Street Band. Both outcomes proved Hammond — while purist in vision — was wrong.

Prial leans heavily on Springsteen interviews and discusses the Boss’ solo acoustic tracks recorded in those early days.

“I think John would have preferred me to play completely acoustic alone,” Springsteen tells Prial. “Which, looking back on it, I mean, I went back and I heard some of the audition tapes which were just acoustic and they sounded good (he laughed), you know.”

With that statement, Prial leaves us to think perhaps Hammond was right after all.

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