Arts and Entertainment your connection to The Boston Globe

A finely tuned portrait of a man who shaped pop music

In a cynical age where stardom comes fast, cheap, and easy, it almost seems meaningless to call the late John Hammond a star maker.

Still, had Dunstan Prial chosen that designation as the title of his winsome new biography, ``The Producer," it would have more than sufficed. Few figures had a more profound impact on 20th-century popular music than Hammond. He ``discovered" Billie Holiday and helped guitar virtuoso Stevie Ray Vaughan land a major record deal. Hammond signed Aretha Franklin , was an early champion of Bob Dylan , and nurtured the nascent career of the man once dubbed ``the new Dylan" -- Bruce Springsteen .

Imbued with an insatiable love of music, Hammond had a knack for unearthing the next great artist, not just the next big thing, although under his tutelage the two were rarely mutually exclusive. In a concise, lively narrative, Prial details Hammond's innumerable contributions to American music, as well as an unflagging devotion to civil rights and social change.

Born to privilege in 1910, Hammond was raised on New York's Upper East Side in a home awash in music. Yet it wasn't the classical compositions permeating his family's five-story mansion that would shape Hammond's life. His inspiration came in the basement, where the family's black servants listened to early jazz and blues records. Recalling their emotional reactions to the songs, Hammond later said it was ``his first exposure to the visceral power that popular music could wield," Prial writes.

By the time he was 10, he was taking an uptown bus to Harlem to buy his own ``race" records and hear such singers as the great Bessie Smith . Later, much to the chagrin of his father, he dropped out of Yale University to pursue a career in music. Because money was hardly an issue, Hammond was able to completely devote himself to his passions, which also included writing for such publications as the Nation, Down Beat , and Melody Maker .

But he always found time to hit the nightclubs. In 1933, he strolled into a Harlem speakeasy and heard Holiday, then an unknown teenage chanteuse, singing ``Wouldja for a Big Red Apple?" She was Hammond's first great find, and serendipity certainly played a role that glorious night.

Yet Hammond was also a visionary, never more so than when he encouraged -- well, hectored -- clarinetist Benny Goodman into hiring Teddy Wilson , a black, classically trained pianist (and another Hammond discovery), for his trio in 1935. Their public appearances, the first by an integrated band, were a bellwether in the fight against segregation.

Still, although Prial likes and admires his subject, this is no hagiography. He nails Hammond's arrogance and occasional pettiness, such as his protracted and published squabble with Duke Ellington , whom Hammond accused of ignoring ``abuses being heaped upon his race and his original class." Writes Prial, ``Hubris hardly begins to describe the mindset of a 24-year-old heir to a Vanderbilt fortune" chastising a ``hugely successful, extremely hardworking black man for looking out for his own" during the segregated Jim Crow era.

And Prial also makes it clear that Hammond didn't always get it right. Yes, he plucked an 18-year-old Aretha Franklin from her father's Detroit church choir and signed her to Columbia Records. But he, along with other label producers, unsuccessfully tried to mold Franklin into the next Dinah Washington . She left Columbia in 1966, signed with Atlantic Records, and was soon anointed the Queen of Soul.

Franklin, who had a combative relationship with Hammond, isn't interviewed in the book; nor is Dylan because, well, he's Dylan. Still, there are plenty of reminiscences about Hammond, none more engaging than those by Springsteen, who met the music-industry legend in 1972.

After seeing the New Jersey native at a small Greenwich Village club, Hammond praised the young singer-songwriter. Recalling Hammond's comments, Prial writes, Springsteen mimicked Hammond's aristocratic accent: ``That was mah-velous, mah-velous, Bruce."

Hammond, who died in 1987, might well have said the same for this elegant, winning biography.

Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search / Historic Archives