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3/6/10

John Hammond - Part 3 (Ruby Walker pops in)



I ended Part II of this ongoing recollection with something Rex Stewart told me over lunch. Basically, it was this: he and John were not speaking, because John had a low tolerance for "niggers" (Rex's word) who didn't know their place. Where have we heard that attitude before? But in 1961, and from the "Great White Father"? To compound my disillusionment, Rex added that John—the white man who I believed to have done more for black musicians than any other—would go out of his way to hinder rather than further a career. It didn't sound right, but I knew Rex wasn't making this up. A few years later, when I met Ruby Walker, Bessie Smith's niece by marriage, I became convinced that John had  problem—and it wasn't for lack of accomplishments.

I already alluded to Ruby in the first segment of this thread. She and I met in John's office, quite by chance, and I think it might be both pertinent an illuminating to tell you about it here. You see, Ruby's past experience with John bears out what Rex told me about John the Impeder. To make it easier on myself, the following recollection is mostly from the revised 2003 edition of my book, Bessie. Hope you don't mind.

I found myself in John Hammond’s office at "Blackrock"—the CBS building at Sixth Avenue and 52nd Street—at what proved to be a most opportune moment. We were a group of two or three gathered on the visitor’s side of John’s desk when his secretary announced that Miss Ruby Walker was there to see him. Blasts from the past can be pleasant or pesky, and this one could have gone either way, but John seemed genuinely delighted. "Oh, send her in," he said, but Ruby had already stepped past the secretary. John got the how-good-to-see-you-again ritual out of the way and, almost as an aside, told us "she's a marvelous singer." 


I had heard one or two of her recordings, but I was otherwise unfamiliar with Ruby and totally unaware of her relationship to Bessie Smith. John made formal introductions and began small talk reminiscences with Ruby about the old days, but clearly for the benefit of the rest of us. That soon evaporated into an awkward silence and when it became obvious that the fizzle was permanent, John rose from his seat and reached into his pocket to withdraw a ten or twenty. and handed Ruby what I believe was either a ten or a twenty dollar bill. "I know I’ll never see this again, but here," he said, handing it to Ruby. It was a remarkably tactless and humiliating gesture, but Ruby took the money. I felt embarrassed as I instinctively turned to Ruby. "Have you had lunch?," I asked.


"No."


"Would you like to join me?" 


Ruby nodded and we left John's office without another word being spoken. As we waited for the elevator, she told me that this was not what she had come for. "I know," I said, but why did you let him do that to you?"


"A bird in hand," she replied with a smile. "That man owes me a lot more."

During the next couple of hours, as we downed a rather ordinary, inexpensive luncheonette offering, Ruby filled in the gaps. She had come to John's office in the hope of cashing in on a promise made to her thirty years earlier.


 It had been John’s original intent to include Bessie in the all-star lineup of his historic 1938 Carnegie Hall concert, From Spirituals to Swing, but fate intervened on a dark Mississippi road, so he turned to Ruby. "He said he was going to make me the new Bessie Smith," Ruby told me, pulling from her purse a time-worn page from that evening’s printed program. It contained proof that John had seen her as a worthy successor to the Empress of the Blues.

"He made me walk like Bessie and wear those kind of old-fashioned dresses that she had worn when they was modern," Ruby recalled, "and he wanted me to sing like Bessie did back then, not like she did before she died. Bessie had changed, you know—she was more up-to-date when she died." Bessie had indeed morphed her act into a more modern style and repertoire, but Ruby—although similarly inclined—bowed to Hammond’s wishes, changed her last name to Smith and became the anachronism he needed her to be. As Ruby unfolded her past, I realized just how close to Bessie Smith she had been. In 1923, when Ruby was in her late teens, Bessie married her uncle, Jack Gee, and the two women bonded. Bessie needed a confidante, Ruby needed a role model. Of course, Bessie was the antithesis of a role model, as normally defined, but then again, Ruby was not your average teenager—she had long since lost her childhood, among other things.


In 1938, when John had Ruby rehearse for the concert with Count Basie, his insistence on her becoming a replica of Bessie was actually the fulfillment of a long held desire on Ruby's part. For many years, she had danced in Bessie's chorus line and participated in comedy skits, but she was never permitted to sing, so here was her chance—and at Carnegie Hall, no less.

Unfortunately, as the Carnegie Hall concert slipped into history, Hammond’s promise to Ruby slipped from his mind. To appease her, he occasionally booked her to sing at private parties—not the elegant ones thrown on Fifth Avenue by his Vanderbilt-rooted family, but small gatherings of leftist literati and other intellectuals to whom a sprinkling of dark skin lent a visual touch of liberalism. However, fees for such appearances were hardly the stuff of which capitalists are molded, and there was no promotional value in performing at small private parties.

In 1939, Ruby recorded a couple of sides for Vocalion with James P. Johnson, who had been Bessie’s favorite accompanist. Mostly through her own promotional efforts, she also recorded for Harmonia and Victor in the mid-1940s, but John had lost interest in her career. Ruby eventually found work attending to old people, but she never totally gave up on John. Her home, a converted Jersey City garage, was no place for anyone to live, but Ruby was made of that tough stuff. On my first visit to her place, she pointed to the newspapers that covered her walls. Held together with scotch tape, they were ostensibly there to absorb the dampness, but they also had another function. Lifting up a panel of papers, Ruby revealed two or three brightly colored dresses, encrusted with costume jewelry and made fragile by years of just hanging there. "See," she said, "I've been ready for Mr. Hammond, but then he had to go and get mad at me."


 "Why?," I asked.


Ruby explained that she hadn't heard from John by the early Fifties, so she decided to take matters into her own hands and solicit the record companies. To that end, she wrote a letter to Mercury Records, a label that seemed particularly interested in rhythm and blues singers, which is what she now saw herself as being. In the letter, she stressed her long association with Bessie, pointed out the Carnegie Hall experience, and the career plan John had laid out for her fifteen years earlier. "John Hammond promised me the moon," she wrote, "but he dropped me like a hot potato."


What Ruby didn't know was that John Hammond now held a high position at Mercury, so her letter landed in his inbox. In what proved to be characteristic fashion, he made a blustering phone call to Ruby, vowing to see to it that she never recorded again. This is the side of John Hammond that Rex Stewart told me about. I subsequently learned that Ruby and Rex were not isolated victims of such vengeful calls—in fact, I would eventually receive one myself. but at this point I was merely catching glimpses of what lay beyond that iconic smile and the twinkly eyes.

We now fast-forward some twenty-five years. Having noted the heavier than usual promotion Bessie Smith's reissue albums were receiving, Ruby decided to see if time had mellowed John to a point where he might finally be ready to fulfill his promise. She was as ready as ever to fill Bessie's shoes, even if it meant allowing John to freeze her in an earlier era. That day, when she showed up at his office, unannounced, she felt confident that John would also see how good her timing was. She was even prepared to audition on the spot, if necessary. In her purse and at the ready was an instrumental blues single by the Nat King Cole Trio. But Ruby would not need it. All she got that day  was a demeaning handout.

I don't know why, but John eventually asked me for Ruby's number. He had finally decided to give her a chance, so he arranged an audition in Studio B and asked that Dill Jones be there to accompany her. This is when I introduced John to Alberta Hunter, who happened to enter the control room as Ruby sang Down Hearted Blues. It had been Bessie Smith's first release an biggest seller, and Alberta wrote it. I recall her whispering to me, "Tell her to sing it slower, the next time."


Nothing ever came out of that audition, but I wonder if the tapes still exist somewhere.


As I continue these recollections, I will tell you how I unexpectedly found myself in the role of John Hammond for three or four weeks, listening to sub-bad patriotic nonsense, hunting for a folk singer for Mrs. Leonard Bernstein, etc. It was an odd and not altogether pleasant experience, but quite revealing.


Stay tuned.

2 comments:

  1. Oh, what an awful story -- but I have no doubt it's true, Chris. And I don't know how I feel about having my worst suspicions about Hammond as a vengeful parent confirmed . . . I had invented this scenario with Frank Newton as the victim and now you prove me right, alas, alas. Thank you for your candor: the world needs it in bushelfuls. Cheers, Michael Steinman

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