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July/August 2006

Dunstan Prial
The Producer: John Hammond & the Soul of American Music

In this thorough and well-written biography of quintessential A&R man John Hammond, author Dunstan Prial firmly establishes the legacy of a man who, without playing a single note, changed the landscape of American music. Hammond signed and championed a veritable who’s who of American popular musicians in the 20th century, including Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen.

The heir to a rich New York family whose fortunes came from the Vanderbilt empire, Hammond was raised in the lap of luxury. Inspired by the music of African-Americans, he chose to dedicate his life to promoting jazz, blues and spirituals. A traditional jazz man, Hammond nonetheless presciently grasped the talents of a few pop artists (Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Springsteen and Stevie Ray Vaughan; Prial recounts the circumstances surrounding all of the signings and gives each a sense of historical context.

With Ivy League looks and a Brahmin accent, Hammond was a notorious snob who was at the same time passionate and committed to the artists and music he believed in. His legacy is well deserved, but Hammond was even more obsessed with the issue of integration. Indeed, he was so determined to mend racial relations in this country that he minimized his ties to the Communist Party and NAACP because he deemed both too soft on the issue.

Prial views his subject with both admiration and restraint. He documents how, in Hammond’s zeal to promote his own agenda, he was not above questionable ethics. As a part-time writer, Hammond would often unabashedly hype his own artists and projects in his columns. Hammond even managed to rattle the unflappable Duke Ellington, who uncharacteristically responded acidly to Hammond’s criticism. The book comes alive through the stories of Hammond’s relationships with the likes of guitarist Charlie Christian, Holiday, Basie and Goodman. Although it’s doubtful that Hammond can be credited with “discovering” several of these preternaturally gifted artists, Prial shows how Hammond had a way of not only championing musicians, but putting them in a position to reach larger audiences or to change social issues. It all makes for a truly stirring portrait of a unique character in the 20th-century music scene.

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