Bob Dylan, Jazz Stars Salute Label Pioneer John Hammond

The 45-year Columbia Records vet who discovered Billie Holiday and signed Dylan and Springsteen gets a star-studded television special

Bob Dylan and clarinetist and band leader Benny Goodman listen to legendary record producer John Hammond backstage at the taping of the special 'The World of John Hammond' in the studios of WTTW-TV on September 10th, 1975 in Chicago, Illinois.
Frank Driggs Collection/Getty
October 23, 1975

CHICAGO — Bob Dylan played for about 100 empty chairs and 100 fans at the NET Television studios September 10th. The occasion was a Soundstage special to be aired in mid-December, in honor of retiring Columbia Records executive John Hammond, who, during a remarkable 45-year career, recorded Bessie Smith and Benny Goodman, discovered Billie Holiday and Charlie Christian and signed Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. The talk around town was that Dylan might not show, but he was in a private room in the studio complex by midafternoon, quietly rehearsing a pickup band while jazz veterans Teddy Wilson, Benny Carter, Jo Jones and Red Norvo practiced and reminisced in another part of the building.

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Dylan was no more than icing on the cake for many of the record executives, musicians and invited guests who'd gathered to pay tribute to Hammond. Emcees for the show were the recently retired CBS Records Group president Goddard Lieberson and Atlantic Records' former vice-chairman of the board Jerry Wexler, both of whom were music men in positions that are usually filled by ex-lawyers and accountants. Clarinetist Benny Goodman, probably the most commercially successful single musician in the history of jazz, put in a rare appearance as a small group soloist, an event which for many middle-aged observers held the mystic promise of a Beatles reunion. The all-star jazz band of Hammond favorites was almost good enough to start the swing era all over again, and jazz singer Helen Humes, gospel's Marion Williams and bluesmen Sonny Terry and John Paul Hammond (son of John Hammond) were equally outstanding. Jazz critic Leonard Feather and Mitch Miller, the goateed oboeist, former Columbia A & R chief and originator/star of television's Sing Along with Mitch, circulated among the guests.

Rehearsals for the show proceeded through the afternoon at a leisurely pace. As participants arrived, they marveled aloud at the stage set, a creation of the show's executive producer Ken Ehrlich and associate producer John McDonough. Rare 78 rpm records by Holiday, Goodman and other stars associated with Hammond had been photographed in color; the negatives had been blown up and projected on posterboard, the colors and lettering filled in with paint. The result was a studio full of huge records, eight feet in diameter, most of them hanging from the ceiling. The performers stood on another, larger 78, "Poor Butterfly," by the Goodman Quartet.

The mingling was easy and open. Xylophonist Red Norvo and pianist Teddy Wilson had not seen each other in years and after a reunion embrace, they sat at the piano and played a celebratory duet. George Benson, the phenomenal electric guitarist whose current recordings are heavily arranged, easy-listening jazz affairs, began ripping off single-string Charlie Christian runs, and Benny Goodman, who used Christian in his sextet in the late Thirties, broke into a huge smile. Only Dylan failed to put in an appearance.

"Why is he being so shy?" wondered the puckish Mitch Miller. "He didn't useta be shy. He used to sit in John's office all the time, asking everybody when something was gonna break." Hammond, Wexler and a few other acquaintances of Dylan's left the studio to greet him, but returned almost immediately. "He was rehearsing," Wexler explained, "and I thought I ought to just say hello and split." An observer described Dylan's meeting with Hammond as "extremely warm," but it was also extremely brief. Dylan hadn't appeared on television since the 1969 Johnny Cash Show, and he rehearsed his band relentlessly before returning to his hotel for an early-evening break.

As a gourmet dinner was served in an adjoining studio, films of Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday scheduled for the show ran on a large monitor. When Bessie pocketed a fistful of dollar bills during her appearance in St. Louis Blues, a rotund promotion man asked Hammond if it was the advance he'd given her. The laughter that echoed around the candlelit tables was a trifle nervous; the contrast between the technological affluence in the room and the weather-beaten, worldwise faces on the screen was difficult to ignore.

Seated at a center table, Hammond seemed to transcend it. He had joined American Record Co. (predecessor to the Columbia label) in 1932 when it was on the verge of bankruptcy. As the scion of a wealthy family, he had been able to sponsor sessions and pay musicians out of his own pocket when company funds were not available. He was an early civil-rights activist. He joined the NAACP's board of directors in 1936, pioneered the racial integration of performing bands when he urged Benny Goodman to hire Teddy Wilson, presented the first major jazz and blues concert at Carnegie Hall in 1938 and fought blacklisting during the Fifties.

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Then in 1962, he convinced several Columbia executives that he was insane, passing up an opportunity to sign Joan Baez and coming up instead with Bob Dylan. "They called Bobby 'Hammond's Folly,'" John later recalled. "He hadn't written many songs and he didn't play guitar or harmonica very well. But there was a mystique about the kid, that's all I can tell you, there was."

Hammond was also responsible for bringing Columbia Aretha Franklin (who went on to become the Queen of R & B on Atlantic), Leonard Cohen and Bruce Springsteen. Franklin was asked to appear on the Soundstage show and declined. Springsteen was not asked because Ehrlich felt the publicity surrounding his new stardom would take some of the limelight off Hammond.

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