John Hammond Sr. (December 15, 1910 – July 10, 1987) was a talent scout, producer, musicologist, broadcaster, journalist, and mentor. His influence profoundly shaped popular music in the 20th century, and he remains one of the most transformative figures in American music. He discovered artists from Billie Holiday to Bob Dylan, and scores more in between. 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. Today we take a tour of some of the places where Mr. Hammond both lived, worked, and scouted talent in our neighborhoods.
MacDougal Sullivan Gardens
Hammond moved to MacDougal Sullivan Gardens when he was 21. Life in Greenwich Village in the late 20s was a hotbed of bohemianism and leftist subculture. 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. MacDougal-Sullivan Gardens is one of the most charming areas of New York City and was designated a New York City historic district in 1966. The 22 homes that are a part of the complex surround a beautiful private garden. The twelve homes along MacDougal Street were built in 1844 on 22 foot wide lots, followed by the ten narrower, 20′ foot-wide homes on Sullivan Street in 1850. All 22 were built in the Greek Revival style.
MacDougal Street night scene of Cafe Wha?, June 25, 1966 (Photo by Fred W. McDarrah courtesy of the Estate of Fred W. McDarrah)
As Bob Dylan was making the rounds in the booming area of the South Village, he often played at Cafe Wha? John Hammond frequented this spot, as well as many of the other South Village music venues and cafes. He spotted Dylan here, but it was Carolyn Hester, a folk singer from Texas who was signed with Hammond to record an album, who introduced Dylan to Hammond. Hammond was blown away by Dylan’s style and lyrics, and would go on to offer him his first recording contract.
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.”
Photo by Fred W. McDarrah courtesy of the Estate of Fred W. McDarrah
The Gaslight Cafe was another of the venues frequented by Hammond as he looked for talent. According to legend, the very low ceiling made it impossible to stand upright in the room, so the owner lowered the dirt floor by shoveling it out himself. The coffee house was a Greenwich Village countercultural institution and was a prominent showcase spot for poets and monologists. In 1961 the club was sold and the entertainment changed to folk music—which could play on until dawn, since the Gaslight served no alcohol.
Bob Dylan began performing at the Gaslight in June 1961, and there he premiered “Masters of War” and “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.” Dave Van Ronk, Mississippi John Hurt, Reverend Gary Davis, Son House, Doc Watson, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Jose Feliciano, John Hammond Jr., and Richie Havens all played the club. The Gaslight closed in 1967 but reopened a year later under a new owner; sadly it shuttered its doors for good in 1971. The limited edition Bob Dylan album, Live at the Gaslight 1962, was recorded here.
55 Fifth Avenue
One of New York’s least well known but most historically significant recording studios was at 55 Fifth Avenue in the area South of Union Square. The renowned record-producer, civil rights activist, and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame-inductee John Hammond made his very first recordings at the Columbia Phonograph Recording Studios at 55 Fifth Avenue at 12th Street. Hammond would go on to play a significant role in launching the careers of Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Harry James, Count Basie, Big Joe Turner, Pete Seeger, Babatunde Olatunji, Aretha Franklin, Leonard Cohen, and Stevie Ray Vaughan, as well as in reviving the music of delta blues artist Robert Johnson.
At 55 Fifth Avenue, Hammond accomplished several historic firsts. His first recordings here were with jazz pianist Garland Wilson, and big band and swing pianist, arranger and composer Fletcher 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” here.
Hammond discovered Billie Holiday singing at a Harlem speakeasy, and brought her down to the Columbia studios to cut her very first records here in 1933. 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.