Count Basie. Billie Holiday. Robert Johnson. Bob Dylan. Aretha Franklin. Bruce Springsteen. Stevie Ray Vaughn. What do they have in common? All were discovered by John Hammond, who, though he never recorded a note or penned a lyric, remains one of the key transformative figures of pop music as we know it.
Born Dec. 15, 1910 in New York to a wealthy and influential family (he was the great-grandson of William Henry Vanderbilt), Hammond was drawn to music at an early age, receiving classical training in both violin and piano beginning at 4. His first exposure to the kind of music he would be known for came through his family's African-American servants. As a teenager, he began travelling to Harlem to see black musicians perform live – including Bessie Smith, whose performance in 1927 at the Alhambra Theater he credited with changing the course of his life.
Hammond attended Yale University but dropped out after two years of studying the violin and viola to pursue a career in the record industry. He landed a job as the first American correspondent for Britain’s Melody Maker and, in 1931 at age 20, funded a recording by pianist Garland Wilson. It was his first experience producing a record and it proved to be a successful one (a minor hit, the record sold thousands of copies), launching Hammond down a path from which he would never look back.
Hammond moved to a small apartment in New York City's bohemian Greenwich Village, where he programmed one of the country's first jazz radio shows and continued producing records, working with Columbia's labels in both the U.S. and U.K. He also became more conscious of the segregation prevalent in both music and American society at large, and wanted to play a role in eliminating it. "I heard no color line in the music," he wrote in memoirs. "To bring recognition to the negro's supremacy in jazz was the most effective and constructive form of social protest I could think of."
To this end, he convinced bandleader Benny Goodman to work with black musicians for the first time, including a young Billie Holiday. He was also an investor in The Café Society, the country’s first integrated nightclub. Folk singer Pete Seeger said, "Jazz became integrated ten years before baseball largely because of John Hammond."
Despite the many diverse talents he would later discover and sign to Columbia Records, perhaps Hammond's most important contribution to the culture at large came in putting together the From Spirtituals to Swing exhibition at Carnegie Hall. A host of organizations he sought to underwrite the show turned him down (including the NAACP), so the show was eventually funded by the American Communist Party. Exposing white audiences to a range of black music for the first time, the 1938 and 1939 concerts would feature artists like Albert Ammons, Ida Cox, Big Joe Turner, and the Count Basie orchestra. It would also have marked the Carnegie debut of legendary bluesman Robert Johnson, but he died before the performance could take place. Big Bill Bronzy played in his stead, though Hammond did play a Johnson record from stage during the exhibition. From Spirituals to Swing is also credited with starting the boogie woogie craze that swept the musical scene in the early 1940s.
Despite being so active the 1930s, Hammond would be largely absent from the musical landscape during the 1940s. In addition to serving in WWII, he had to contend with personal problems including the death of his son, a divorce, the death of his father and the subsequent loss of much of the family fortune when his widowed mother fell under the sway of a dubious religious organization. Hammond also wasn't a fan of the bebop style of jazz that came into prominence in the 1940s, and spent lots of time in Europe in a largely fruitless effort to track down classical recordings lost during the war to release in the U.S. on the Keynote label.
In the 1950s, he returned to American popular music and to Columbia Records, discovering and signing first folk singer Pete Seeger and then 18-year-old Aretha Franklin, a performer he believed had the best voice since Billie Holiday. In 1961 Hammond first heard Bob Dylan and immediately signed him to the label. None of the other executives thought Dylan had a chance succeeding with the American public, privately referring to the Dylan contract as "Hammond’s Folly."
He would continue as a producer and talent scout until 1975, unearthing a number of household names that now read like a who's who of folk, R&B and classic rock 'n' roll. Hammond also was responsible for re-releasing the recordings of Robert Johnson on the 1961 album King of the Delta Blues, which would inspire a generation of British artists like the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Eric Clapton.
Roughly a year after being inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame, Hammond died July 10, 1987, following complications from a stroke. But by helping integrate American music and bringing generations of undiscovered acts to the fore, he'd long since secured his place in musical history.