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3/25/10

John Hammond - Part 5 (The Nipper No No)


The previous post in this John Hammond series of recollections ended with my experiences as an informal substitute for John. In that connection, I mentioned a note John left for me before taking off. I don't recall the exact wording, but it instructed me to tell George Braith that Columbia would not be releasing an album that he had spent many months producing. I will leave it to you to surmise why John could not have called Braith himself before he left. As I said before, he was a promise-and-duck guy. I just spoke to George Braith, who—not surprisingly—remember well what happened. It was a on which he played all the instruments, and the Union wanted Columbia to pay a double fee if there was an overdub. This enraged John, who insisted that the album would be done his way (i.e. less expensively) or not at all. There was a hearing and John obviously decided to scrap the album, but left it to me to inform George. In fact, John decided not to issue any of George's work, all of which presumably is collecting dust in Columbia's Iron Mountain vault. In the meantime, George is doing fine as he prepares to take his music to Japan. In New York City you can hear George Braith and Friends regularly at Fat Cat, in Greenwich Village. Check their online schedule.

When I realized what was happening, I spoke to John and Clive about the unfairness of have artists create works only to have them suppressed. Why, I asked, could not the company offer the tapes to the artist at cost or allow him to try for a deal elsewhere? John said that  would never work, Clive said it was worth exploring. Nothing happened and one has to wonder how many recordings remain unissued because someone on the deciding end took umbrage.

A couple of times during John's absence, I was asked a question to which neither I nor his secretary, Liz, had an answer, so—having his itinerary—I communicated with John via telegram. He responded with picture post cards. It was obvious that he knew I was holding down the fort, and that this is what he expected of me.

Click on image to enlarge.

Upon his return, It was also visually apparent to John that I hadn't just spent time on the phone in his absence.

"You did a marvelous job of cleaning up that mess," he said, looking around his office. "I presume you got your salary check?"

Salary check? There had been no mention of such a thing, nor had I expected payment, given the fact that I was never asked to take care of any business. As I explained in my previous post, it was a highly unorthodox set-up. John offered me the use of the office in his absence and—without letting me in on it—routed his problems to me. I thought I would stop at the office on my way to the studio, to make phone calls and look over any letters or papers pertinent to the Bessie reissues, but John obviously had something else in mind—he could should have told me.

"No," I replied, "nobody has mentioned anything about a check."

"Goddammit," John said, angrily. "I told a&r accounting to give you....well, never mind, I'll take care of it." With that, he reached into a pocket and pulled out his checkbook. "I hope this will keep the wolves away from your door until you get the check," he said, scribbling out five hundred dollars. "You can pay me back when you get your money."

I thought that was very nice of John.

A couple of weeks later, I told him that I was anxious to give him back the money, but that I hadn't received the check yet. "Don't worry about it," he said, "you can pay me back when you get it, or whenever it's convenient for you."


Again, I thanked him and went about my business. The first of the five 2-lp Bessie Smith  reissues was out and receiving great reviews. My liner notes were nominated for a Grammy, although they were very poorly written and strikingly uninformative, but that did not deter book publisher Sol Stein from asking me if I would be interested in writing a biography. I had for a long time felt the need for one, but it had never occurred to me to author it. I saw myself as someone who wrote jazz liner notes and record reviews because I had knowledge of the subject, and that this was okay because most jazz writers knew more about the music than they did about turning out notable prose. Anyway, having recently read and reviewed a Bessie Smith biography that was riddled with factual errors, I accepted Sol's offer.

When Grammy night came, March 16, 1971, John, engineer Larry Hiller and I were given the 1971 Trustees Award for "non-performing contributions of such broad scope that they do not fall within the framework of the annual Grammy Awards categories." This meant that the three of us had to come forward and receive the awards. It came as no surprise to Larry and me that John stepped in front of us and took over the podium. He graciously thanked us, noting that he couldn't have done this without us. Larry and I exchanged bemused looks, for this was a typical Hammond tactic. What, we wondered, was it that he couldn't have done? The truth is that all John did was have his name put on the covers as co-producer. This entitled him to a "producer's incentive fee," i.e. a royalty, which—by the way—no one else received, not even Bessie's heirs. As far as I know, this was the only Grammy John ever received—it was, sad to say, a political gesture, but John had done much that ought to have earned him one. More about that and corrected credits later.

Father O'Connor stands by as John runs the spin and Larry and I look on.
I hope Artie Shaw didn't read my liner notes.
I had just returned to our table (it was a dinner affair on those days) when they called my name again. I was certain that the little Victrola would go to one of my fellow nominees, who included Ralph J. Gleason, Rod McKuen and Rex Reed—all better writers—but I was wrong.

Plexiglass trophy not included.


Several months later, I received a call from Billboard magazine. They were moving to a new location and wondered if I wanted the unclaimed 1971 Trendsetter Award that had been collecting dust for a year. I had no idea what they were talking about—what trend had I set? The lady said she would have a messenger deliver it to my apartment. Apparently, John was notified, but he chose to ignore it and not tell me about it.

I later found out that John had failed to notify me of another award: the 1971 Montreux Jazz Festival selected the Bessie Smith reissues for their Prix Aiguille 78 Tours honor. It was later spotted in John's apartment.

Reissuing Bessie Smith's recordings was not in and of itself noteworthy, but, 40 years ago, a 10-Lp series was practically unheard of. I believe that was the reason this project generated the kind of media attention that is rarely given such old material. The Trendsetter Award inscription substantiates that theory.

Awards are nice, but essentially useless. That is, if you bring them home, place them on the mantle, and accept as a reward the fact that you will henceforth be introduced as "the award-winning...." Oh, one catches the media's fancy for a hot minute, but it's over before you know it. My friend, Geoffrey Holder was keenly aware of that when he received the Tony for "The Wiz." The show was awarded seven Tonys, but Geoffrey was the only one who had the foresight to do something about it. He immediately hired a PR person to spread the news and turn columnists' one-liners into an interviews. The PR person conveyed the feeling that Geoffrey's talent was in such great demand that one would be lucky to get his signature on a contract—that's how you do it, and it worked. Instead of sitting in his apartment, amid his extraordinary paintings and sculptures, and receiving the inevitable congratulatory phone calls from friends, Geoffrey became busy consider offers. One was to create a Supremes resurrection, complete with costumes and choreography—that is something Geoffrey can do in his sleep, and this one job more than paid the PR bill. There had, all along, been a lot of backbiting and jealousy backstage at "The Wiz", but now Geoffrey was bearing the brunt of it as the rest of the show's Tony winners waited in vain for offers to come in and, in the process, became losers.

I mention this because four years earlier I made no attempt to exploit my Grammys—with almost four decades of dust and the kind of patina cheap metal attracts, they are still perched atop a speaker in the corner of my living room, long since robbed of their glitter. However, these little trophies seem to have inspired a call I received from RCA Victor Records. They were interested in having me produce reissues for their label, a fact that I mentioned to Liz Gilbert, John's secretary. Well, that produced another call.

"Chris, now I am really angry with you," John bellowed as he reached me at home. "I understand that RCA has made some overtures," he continued, pun not intended.

"Yes," I replied, wondering what this was all about.

"Let me tell you," John continued. "If you produce one album for RCA, I will see to it that you are through at Columbia."

 I pointed out that I was working freelance and, thus, not on Columbia's payroll, but that did not make any difference to John, who repeated his threat.

I hadn't decided what to do about this when, a couple of days later, Bob Altschuler stopped me in the lobby at Blackrock.

"What's going on between you and John?," he asked.

Why do you ask?," I said

"We had a singles meeting this morning and John told us that you had borrowed five hundred dollars from him, and never paid it back."

That's all I needed to hear. I went to the nearest phone and called Clive Davis (pictured below with Janis Joplin). Now it was my turn to be angry, and I guess Clive sensed the urgency in my voice, so he told me to come on up to his office.

I wanted Clive to hear the truth before John's story reached his ears, so I told him everything, including the fact that I was only being paid $2,000 for the entire 10-Lp series while I had noticed that Frank Driggs, a reissue producer (who also takes pictures*) regularly billed Columbia for "the agreed fee of $2,000 per album".

"What else," Clive asked, having patiently listened to my story. I added that John was giving himself producer credit yet did none of the work.

I should mention here that John was not everybody's favorite at Blackrock. He was sometimes referred to as the "untouchable," because Goddard Lieberson, the head of CBS Records, owed his job to his connections. While John's real accomplishments were well known to everybody at CBS, his "extended credits," so to speak, were no secret and he did not command the respect that he enjoyed on the outside.

Clive took immediate action. He called the accounting department and had them cut me a check for the amount I had been short-changed, he ordered that John's name was to be removed from future releases in the Bessie series, and he apologized, which was not necessary.

I don't know what Clive did about the five hundred dollars, but I heard that John had put it on his expense account.

* and doesn't return them.



9 comments:

  1. Strange and interesting that his postcards to you are addressed in care of himself.

    Re: "roots music" on the Billboard award — was that a common term in 1971? Back then, it seems to me, it was much more common to speak of country blues, "classic" blues, old-timey music, string-band music, and so on.

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  2. I hadn't thought of that, Michael. He did have my home address.

    As for the term, "roots music," I hadn't thought of that, either. It certainly was not commonly applied to Bessie's genre. I think the Billboard people were just amazed that such old, sometimes crudely recorded performances could sell in impressive numbers.

    Originally, Columbia wanted me to remaster in faux stereo, thinking that customers no longer were interested in mono. With John's help, I talked them out of it—the previous Bessie albums, produced by my friend, George Avakian, were "enhanced" with reverb. That did not work, but it was one did in the 1950s.

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  3. Thanks, Chris. And thanks for no stereo.

    Your reply makes me wonder what influence, if any, "specialist" labels like Yazoo had on the reissue programs of the big labels.

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  4. I don't think there has been much influence on the majors as far as content is concerned. After all, most reissues—regardless of label size—are produced by people like myself, former gotta-have-it collectors. We generally know each other and pretty much think alike. I do believe that the work of audio people like John R. T. Davies has inspired a more serious look at the technical side of reissuing older material. Of course, not all majors go the message—Columbia, for example, hired Phil Schaap, whose obsession with minutiae adversely affected the content of his reissues and whose ear wax seems to have affected the technical aspect of his work.

    As for Yazoo, I knew the late Nick Perls, who was a true blues enthusiast and—with his father's money—started a label that became significant for that genre. There were many amazing Yazoo albums, but sound quality was not Nick's priority. In fact, when the first Bessie Smith albums that I produced were released, Nick had a serious complaint: the surface noise should not have been entirely omitted!

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  5. Thanks for all the observations, Chris. I've been reading and listening for a long time, and it's a pleasure to read what you're writing here.

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  6. All your sad anecdotes regarding the pettiness and pique of Hammond may help explain the supposed lengthy alienation between father and talented bluesman son John, who chose not to trade on his father's influence.

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  7. I have always thought that this was a factor. John seemed to be very proud of his son, but I never saw John Jr. around the office and the only time I recall John giving him a more than passing mention was when a Seattle reviewer—obviously having skipped the formality of actually attending the performance—referred to John Jr. as a "young black singer." My impression of John Hammond, Jr. was very positive. When he helped to finance and appeared gratis in a short film that focused on Larry Johnson, I recall thinking that it was—in part, at least—his way of making up for some of the things his father had done. I may be entirely wrong, this is pure conjecture, but that was my take on it. I should add that John, Jr. may well have been the sole financial supporter of that project. I don't know what became of that film, but it is not something I have seen Hammond Jr. exploit.

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  8. One might go farther down the thorny path of psychoanalytic conjecture here... but I won't. By the way, even though folks always refer to John Jr.(me too, occasionally), the two John Hammonds have different middle names.

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  9. John always referred to him by his nickname, "Jeep."

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