The Famous Door

John Hammond and the Myth of the Musical King-Maker

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Nothing quite captures the myth of the vinyl-era music industry as a benevolent autocracy like the narrative of the career-making audition. A scruffy young unknown hitchhikes from the mine country of Minnesota to midtown Manhattan, where a white-haired and golden-eared man in a suit hears something in the boy that no one else has noticed and signs him to a record contract, through which fame and glory ensue. So goes the tale of Bob Dylan’s audition with John Hammond, the Columbia records executive renowned before Dylan’s time for having given starts to the likes of Pete Seeger, Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, and Aretha Franklin. It is 50 years since the product of Dylan’s audition, his eponymous first album for Columbia, was releasedto a public so little impressed, at first, that Dylan became known as “Hammond’s folly.”

The marvel of Dylan’s subsequent work (made without Hammond’s involvement) gave Hammond’s early advocacy the aura of prescience; Dylan’s first biographers, Robert Shelton and Bob Spitz, established the audition story as a quasi-mystical moment in Dylan history. When Bruce Springsteen read the tale in Spitz’s book, he imagined himself duplicating itand, with the benefit of both talent and a style that suggested a young Dylan, Springsteen succeeded, making his own way into Hammond’s office on May 2, 1972forty years ago next week. Over the decades since then, Springsteen has memorialized the scene in concerts with an air of humility and gratitude that belies the self-congratulation inherent in romanticizing one’s own anointment.

Aretha Franklin, in a vintage TV interview preserved on Youtube, remembered her own John Hammond audition with cheeky good humor. Much as Springsteen impressed Hammond by presenting a twist on Dylan, Franklin tried to get Hammond to think of her as a female Sam Cooke.

It is clearly to Hammond’s credit that he applied the powers of his position with such aesthetic discrimination and racial equanimity. Otherwise, the very image of a regal, old, white figure such as Hammond, a scion of the Vanderbilt family, applying his singular judgment to benefit artists in need, would seem intolerably imperial. Indeed, there is not much to mourn in the death of the business model that empowered not only John Hammond, but record-industry types such as Mitch Miller and Clive Davis, who were autocrats of somewhat lesser benevolence. In their honor, I’ll leave with a tune about the music business by a songwriter whose acuity I have mentioned before, Jill Sobule:

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