He didn’t just change the industry—he changed the world.
Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, these are just a few of the celebrated acts that John Hammond signed to Columbia Records. Furthermore, he played a critical role in integrating the music industry.
Legendary talent scout John Hammond discovered some of the greatest talents in jazz, folk, blues and rock and roll during his 54-year association with Columbia Records.
On the jazz and blues side, he played a major role in launching the careers of Billie Holiday, Count Basie and Aretha Franklin. Among rock and roll fans, he will no doubt be best remembered for signing Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. He met Dylan in 1961 and immediately recognized his genius, bringing him to Columbia and producing his first album over the protest of executives who referred to the signing as “Hammond’s folly.” Eleven years later, Hammond auditioned Bruce Springsteen in his office. Springsteen performed a number of original songs on acoustic guitar and piano, and Hammond’s response was, simply, “You’ve got to be on Columbia Records.”
Hammond’s impact on the music industry dates back to 1931, when he dropped out of Yale to pursue a career in the music business. Insofar as race and music were concerned, he was a man on a mission. As he wrote in his 1977 memoirs, John Hammond on Record, “I heard no color line in the music...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 that end, he brought white clarinetist Benny Goodman and black pianist Teddy Wilson together. Their 1938 concert at Carnegie Hall marked the first time a racially integrated musical group appeared onstage at a major American music hall. In the words of folksinger Pete Seeger, “Jazz became integrated ten years before baseball largely because of John Hammond.”
Hammond was born in 1910 in Manhattan and spent virtually all of his life there. His career at Columbia stretched from 1933, when he began working as a freelance producer, to his death in 1987, at which point he served as consultant for the company’s series of digitally remastered jazz re-issues. One of his greatest accomplishments was From Spirituals to Swing, a series of concerts at Carnegie Hall in 1938 that brought mainstream recognition and respect to black music. He booked a potpourri of blues, jazz and gospel acts that included Big Joe Turner, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and the Count Basie Orchestra. Hammond had wanted legendary bluesman Robert Johnson to appear as well, but Johnson could not be tracked down (and in fact had been murdered), so Big Bill Broonzy appeared instead.
Texas blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan was Hammond’s last big signing. He brought Vaughan to the label in 1983 and was credited as executive producer on Vaughan’s debut album, Texas Flood (1983). Hammond died in 1987 of complications following a series of strokes.
Inductee: John Hammond (record executive and producer; born December 15, 1910, died July 10, 1987)