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John Hammond - Part 4 (The Vacation)

This is the fourth in a successive series of posts containing some of my experiences with the late John Hammond, a man who contributed mightily to jazz, but wanted us to believe that we had only heard the half of it. In a sense, we had. Click here for the beginning of this series. Each installment ends with a link to the next.

Mrs. Emily Vanderbilt Hammond, John's 95 year old mother, died February 23, 1970. Not long after that, John told me that he now could finally afford to take his wife, Esmé, on vacation, so they were going on an extended trip to the Far East. Since I was working on the Bessie Smith reissue project every weekday night, I welcomed John's offer to "feel free to use my office while I'm away." Great, I thought, I can stop by on my way to the studio and make my phone calls, etc.

That's what I did on the first Monday after John and Esmé left for Japan. "I am so glad you're here," said John's secretary, Liz Gilbert, "because Kim Hunter (Dr. Zira, the ape) is looking for the record Paul Robeson made with Basie, and Mrs. Leonard Bernstein also called—she needs a folk singer for a party on Saturday."

"Didn't you tell them that John is away?," I asked.

"They asked for you."

That was how I learned that John wasn't just giving me use of his office, he was expecting me to handle some of his business! That is not exactly how things are done at big corporations, such as CBS Records, but it was certainly intriguing. So, I began spending almost all my afternoons at John's desk, and it soon became evident that John had told many people that "Chris will handle it."

Charlie Smalls
Since John was Columbia's Head of Talent Acquisition, his very position attracted people in pursuit of fame and fortune. Add to that his reputation as a natural born talent scout, and there was but one set of ears to aim at.  It was a lottery that most hopefuls played by mail, but some just walked in, which one could do in those days. One particularly determined visitor was Charlie Smalls, an aspiring songwriter who showed up almost every day, charmed John's secretary, and always stopped at the newsstand in the lobby to pick up a box of John's favorite cheroots. One day, his persistence paid off, John signed him up for a single and booked the studio. The record had not yet been released when Charlie asked John for a modest advance, because his landlord was about to throw him out of his apartment. Back then, they literally put all your stuff in the street. It happened to Ornette Coleman in the 60s, he came home from a concert and there—on the sidewalk and with snow coming down—were all his belongings. Charlie was worried about his dog and his piano, but he found no sympathy from John, who, incredibly, told him that he would not have signed him to a contract had he known about his financial situation. The single was never released.

Charlie had the last laugh, however. Ken Harper, a radio disc jockey who was actor Laurence Harvey's lover (pardon the gratuitous aside), had an idea: turn The Wizard of Oz into a black musical. Great, but that was the extent of it—Ken had no script, no music, no budget, not even an outline. I happened to be visiting Geoffrey Holder and his wife, Carmen, when Ken called and wanted to stop by for some feedback. Always hospitable, Geoffrey's immediate response was "take a cab, darling." Harper was there in a flash and he had barely aired his idea when Geoffrey thrust an acceptable finger in the air and said, "Call it the Wiz." 

The problem was that it existed only as a concept, so Ken Harper began feeding tantalizing bits of gossip to Jet—a magazine that thrives on the stuff. There was method in his madness and so it wasn't long before people were actually talking about this new musical as if it was a reality. Now Ken needed to come up with something tangible. There was no money to work with, so he went around asking songwriters and composers to write some music on spec. Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson were among those who turned him down, but they would later contribute a song to the film version. Then there was Charlie Smalls—all those little cheroots had turned out to be just so much smoke, and he was still struggling to make ends meet, so what did he have to lose?

Of course Charlie stopped coming around, but I ran into him not long after John gave him the ax for being indigent. It was at a semi-chic Eastside gallery opening that Ken Harper somehow was involved with. Charlie looked good and when I posed the usual "How are things going?" question, he told me that he was writing a musical. Ken had shown up at the right moment and tapped the right shoulder. The following year, Charlie eased on down the road and solved his pecuniary problems, the dog switched from dry Purina chow, the wolves stopped lurking, and John? Well, you win a few and you lose a few.

Getting back to my new task at hand, every day's mail drop brought demo recordings from the hopeful. For a long time, John had just thrown them into a pile, which was becoming unsightly, so the first thing I did was to stack them in some order and systematically check out what was there. I'll admit that part of my energy was spurred by curiosity—did the pile contain a new Aretha? A budding Berlin? There was only one way to find out—dig in.

It was amazing, but maybe not. I mean, there were recordings of every musical idiom known to man, some hopefuls hit the record button to capture their singing in the shower, others wrote and recited painfully trite patriotic poetry, usually suggesting that we have André Kostelanetz or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir do something appropriate in the background. I recall one cassette with a dog barking God Bless America, at least that's what the label said. And the stuff just kept pouring in so that I could hardly keep up with it. Years later, when "American Idol", week after week, painfully demonstrated the prevalence of tin ears among the younger generation, I was prepared.

Of course, there was decent material, too, but not a lot.

Then there were the phone calls. When you spend a month behind somebody's desk, you end up learning much about that person. I learned that John's empty promise to Ruby was typical of him—he had made so many promises, Liz told me, that there were time when angry people popped up in the reception area and John had to escape through the conference room. His name was often the only one budding black artists recognized when it came to seeking a record deal. This was the great discoverer of black talent, from Billie Holiday to Aretha—Yep, John was "the man," but sometimes hype makes a 180 and bites you in the butt. There were probably times when John wished he hadn't embellished quite so much, because, in the late 60s and early 70s, dogged persistence sometimes sparked real drama, as when one man, having had his fill of empty promises and futile phone calls, stormed past Liz Gilbert's desk and caught John before he could head for the conference room escape route. Grabbing him by the neck, wannabe star threatened to throw John out the window! Liz froze up, but the intruder's raised voice bounced down the hall and reached Teo Macero's secretary, Corinne Chertok, who summoned security. I'm glad I wasn't there for that one.

George Braith
Not every forsaken performer became threatening. Some cases were just sad, like the musician who called from his hospital bed. John had given him good reason for optimism only to end up avoiding his calls. Now he was in the hospital, being treated for a bleeding ulcer and—I gathered—a broken dream. When he explained to me the project that had brought him to John, I recommended that he give Nesuhi Ertegun a call. I hope that worked for him. Then there was George Braith, who had spent a year in the studio laboriously producing an album on which he played multiple instruments. I remember that call and John's note handing me a painful task while he escaped reality. I have often wondered about the details of this Hammond promise. Mr. Braith has promised to fill me in, so that's where we will pick up when I get to Part V of my John Hammond recollections.

The next installment will also deal with John's return, Grammys—deserved or not—a revelation at a CBS urinal (not what you think), and a that's-record-biz phone threat. Stay tuned.   

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