While the name of John Hammond Sr. (December 15, 1910 – July 10, 1987) might be unfamiliar to some, as a talent scout, producer, musicologist, broadcaster, journalist, and mentor, he helped the world to discover artists from Billie Holiday to Bob Dylan and scores more in between. Hammond was absolutely one of the most transformative figures in 20th-century popular music. A New Yorker by birth and a Villager by choice, during his prodigious 55-year career he was responsible for discovering none other than Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Robert Johnson, Bessie Smith, Aretha Franklin, Pete Seeger, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Ray Vaughn, and, of course, the aforementioned Billie Holiday and Bob Dylan, among many others. Championing artists like Billie Holiday and Count Basie who were not allowed to play in white venues or with other white musicians, Hammond fought to end the racial segregation of artists. As a producer, writer, critic, civil rights activist, and board member of the NAACP, Hammond is credited as a major force in finally integrating the music business.
Born on December 15th, 1910 to a wealthy and influential New York family, (he was the great-grandson of William Henry Vanderbilt) Hammond showed great interest in music at an early age and was encouraged and tutored in the field. At age four he began studying the piano and made a switch to the violin at the age of eight. In his early teens, he explored Harlem—listening to radio and live performances of black musicians. In 1927 he heard Bessie Smith sing at the Alhambra Theater; her performance would remain a huge influence on Hammond for the rest of his life.
Hammond entered Yale University in 1928 to study music. While Hammond was a serious musician, his greatest contributions to history would come from listening to and helping to produce, rather than playing, music. He dropped out of Yale in favor of a career in the music industry and moved to Greenwich Village, living in MacDougal Sullivan Gardens, at the age of 21 to write about music. His first producing gig was self-funding the recording of gay African American jazz pianist Garland Wilson. The songs sold thousands of copies and brought Hammond his first success as a record producer.
Life in Greenwich Village in the late 20s was a hotbed of bohemianism and leftist subculture. While Hammond was born into a privileged and rarefied life, his time spent in the Village, and closely associated with musicians of all colors, led him to recognize the gross injustices of his time and he began working and advocating for an integrated music world. He was the funder and DJ for one of the first regular live jazz programs and wrote regularly about the racial divide. Throughout the 1930s he was responsible for both integrating the musicians of the jazz world and expanding its audience.
The first time that Hammond saw Billie Holiday perform, she was 17 years old, and Hammond thought she was one of the greatest singers he had ever heard. He began to write about her and to introduce her to other musicians, including Teddy Wilson and Benny Goodman. He persuaded Benny Goodman to record with the 17-year-old Billie Holiday, giving the teenage vocal phenomenon her first recoding experience and break. This recording and many of Hammond’s other early recordings, took place at the Columbia Recording Studios at 55 Fifth Avenue in the area South of Union Square.
Hammond was an investor in Café Society, Barney Josephson’s club at 1 Sheridan Square, the country’s first integrated nightclub. Folk singer Pete Seeger remarked that “Jazz became integrated ten years before baseball largely because of John Hammond.”
Hammond’s association with Columbia Records began in the early 1930s, and that relationship would last for the rest of his life. Hammond took a break from the jazz scene and moved to Europe during the 1940s, where he pursued working in the classical music world. He re-emerged in the United States after the war, rejoining Columbia Records, where he was involved in talent acquisition and record producing.
Focusing on folk music and rhythm and blues as well as jazz, Hammond was responsible for signing such talents as blacklisted folk singer Pete Seeger, Canadian poet and vocalist Leonard Cohen, and a then-unknown Bob Dylan, whose “ragged voice and questionable musicianship” prompted other Columbia executives to refer to him as “Hammond’s folly.” When Columbia wanted to drop Dylan after his first album fell flat, Hammond insisted that “this superlative artist with an acuity of vision of American life” be given a second chance–a judgment vindicated by Dylan’s subsequent legendary status and Nobel Prize-winning work. Other Hammond discoveries in later years included Aretha Franklin, George Benson, Bruce Springsteen, and Stevie Ray Vaughan; rediscoveries included Eubie Blake and Alberta Hunter.
At 55 Fifth Avenue, Hammond accomplished several historic firsts. His first recordings at this address were with jazz pianist Garland Wilson, and big band and swing pianist, arranger, and composer Fletcher “Smack” Henderson. Henderson is considered, along with Duke Ellington, one of the most influential arrangers and bandleaders in jazz history, and one of the progenitors of what would come to be called “swing.” Henderson also recorded his “New King Porter Stomp” at 55 Fifth Avenue.
Hammond continued to champion the cause of racial integration in the music world throughout his life. Providing opportunities for the artists he supported on his radio show and via his role at Columbia Records paid off—the music he loved steadily increased in popularity, and soon the artists and artistry he championed were adored by the entire nation. By the time Hammond passed away on July 10th, 1987, his dream of a diverse and integrated music industry had been achieved. It was a momentous triumph that benefited his generation and every other that would follow.
You can learn more about John Hammond and Columbia Records at 55 Fifth Avenue, as well as scores of other fascinating people and places in our interactive tool “South of Union Square Map and Tours” which brings users on unique and unexpected journeys through this rich historic neighborhood. In addition to featuring basic information on each one of the two hundred buildings located here, the tool includes nearly forty themed tours that showcase the neighborhood’s many dynamic and varied layers of significance, including a music tour. The South of Union Square Map and Tours is an ongoing project and is consistently being updated as new information comes to light. Village Preservation has recently received a series of extraordinary letters from individuals across the world, expressing support for our campaign to landmark a historic district south of Union Square.
To help landmark 55 Fifth Avenue and other buildings in this area, click here. To read more history of the buildings and area south of Union Square, and our preservation efforts in the area, click here.