From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Built upon interviews with musicians, family and colleagues, this admiring biography delivers a solid portrait of the famed 20th-century critic, journalist and producer. Known for his square crew cut, protuberant eyes and toothy grin, the sometimes arrogant, blues-loving Vanderbilt heir "seemed to know what America wanted to hear before America knew it," writes first-time author Prial. Besides recording Bessie Smith's last studio sessions and Billie Holiday's first, Hammond is the nudge that gets Count Basie to leave Kansas City and the driving force behind Benny Goodman's decision to integrate his band by adding black vibraphonist Lionel Hampton—all this roughly two decades before he signs Bob Dylan to Columbia Records. Prial's sedulous work pays off in the consistency of his narrative. His even-toned, chronological book is light on anecdotes, but his smart use of music histories, jazz autobiographies and Hammond's own Downbeat and Melody Maker writings results in an impressive and authoritative text. Moreover, Prial's insights into Hammond's youth and two marriages transform his work from the tale of a jazz buff with money into an engaging study of a man with two obsessions—"making music and promoting social reform." (July)
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A silver-spoon baby who felt the noblesse oblige and acted on it, John Hammond (1910-87) was, through his mother's family, a Vanderbilt. Fascinated in childhood by the family's black employees' music, he had by his midteens found Harlem, where he heard musicians who became international stars. Ditching Yale for jazz journalism and record production, he launched or boosted Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, and Charlie Christian and began lifelong agitation for racial justice, starting with schemes to integrate jazz that bore famous fruit in Goodman's small groups with Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton and the Carnegie Hall concert "From Spirituals to Swing." Long Columbia Records and NAACP tenures enabled him to remain a star maker--Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen were later finds--and a social shaker after swing's demise. Attracting readers is done for Prial by the famous names Hammond's story obliges him to drop, and he neither probes Hammond's class-based arrogance and self-absorption nor more than hints at Hammond's personal financial decline. Still, this is gratifying reading for American pop mavens. Ray Olson
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