Producer John Hammond Remembers Charlie Christian

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    John Hammond, father of the bluesman with the same name, was a towering figure of 20th-century recorded music. Born into the Vanderbilt family, Hammond was an unsurpassed talent scout and unswerving advocate of racial integration in music. Within a year of joining Columbia Records in late 1932, he produced 78s by the Fletcher Henderson, Benny Carter, Coleman Hawkins, Chick Webb, and Benny Goodman orchestras, as well as with the Joe Venuti Blue Six, Chocolate Dandies, Teddy Wilson, and Bessie Smith. He also discovered an unknown 17-year-old singer named Billie Holiday and arranged her recording debut with the Goodman band. As the 1930s rolled on, Hammond produced stellar recordings by Albert Ammons, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Mildred Bailey, Harry James, and many others, but he was most closely associated with his brother-in-law, Benny Goodman. Hammond had played an essential role in the organization of Goodman’s original swing band, and he encouraged him to hire black musicians – Charlie Christian among them. In late 1930s, Hammond showcased his musical passions in the legendary From Spirituals to Swing concerts at Carnegie Hall.

    After serving in World War II, Hammond returned briefly to Columbia for some Count Basie sessions and then produced classical music for Mercury Records. He switched to Vanguard during the 1950s, producing jazz albums. Hammond rejoined Columbia Records in 1960. Among his new discoveries were young Bob Dylan and Aretha Franklin; Hammond signed them and produced their first Columbia albums. He went on to sign artists as diverse as Pete Seeger, Olatunji, Son House, and Bruce Springsteen. Hammond oversaw albums reissuing the 78s of Robert Johnson, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Chick Webb, Thomas A. Dorsey, Count Basie, Charlie Christian, and many others. He retired from Columbia in 1975, but continued to scout talent. In 1983, a half-century after discovering a Billie Holiday, he announced his latest find: Stevie Ray Vaughan. The artwork for Stevie’s Texas Flood album shows a joyous photo of Double Trouble sharing a laugh with their executive producer. John Hammond passed away four years later.

    In 1981, my research into the life of Charlie Christian led me to the excellent book John Hammond on Record: An Autobiography, in which Hammond described his role in bringing the pioneering electric guitarist to the Goodman organization. I had to talk to him. Four days after I interviewed Benny Goodman about Charlie Christian (read it here: http://jasobrecht.com/benny-goodman-interview-charlie-christian/), I reached Hammond through Columbia Records in New York City.  Portions of our conversation were assembled into as as-told-to account for my March 1981 Guitar Player magazine cover story on Charlie Christian. Here, for the first time, is the entire conversation as spoken. Mr. Hammond began the conversation.

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    You spoke to Benny?

    Yes.

    Did he have positive things to say about Charlie Christian?

    Yes.

    I wish they had been translated into Benny’s attitude to Charlie once he was with the group, but, you know, you can’t ask for miracles.

    They didn’t get along too well?

    No, they got along alright, but when Charlie got sick, that was the end. I mean, Benny never talked to him. I used to go out to see Charlie on Staten Island, but I guess Benny hated sickness, you know. And then he wanted me to pay half the funeral expenses. [Laughs.] So Benny was very strange about Charlie, because Charlie helped revive Benny’s career! I mean, helped stimulate Benny’s career, let’s say, with the Sextet. Because that was one of the great small groups in the history of jazz.

    When you first heard about Charlie Christian through Mary Lou Williams, were jazz guitarists playing electrics?

    Yeah, there were two. One was Leonard Ware in New York. I had him on my third Spirituals to Swing concert, in 1938, but unfortunately the machine in which he recorded had a “wow” in it, so we were never able to put those things out. He was very good, but he was not in Charlie’s class. Charlie was an original. There’s never been anybody like Charlie on the guitar. He was a complete revolutionary. The other jazz guitar player was Floyd Smith, but he played a Hawaiian guitar, you know. And Hawaiian guitar is bad enough, but amplified, it was excruciating!

    Too sharp?

    Yeah. There are all those horrible glissandi and the rest, you know.

    How did you come to meet Charlie Christian?

    I flew out to Oklahoma City. I was on my way to record Benny in California, so because of Mary Lou’s enthusiasm, I’d wired ahead to Oklahoma City, to Charlie, just saying that I was coming. And I got there after the most excruciating trip, because there were ten stops of the little prop plane from Chicago to Oklahoma City. There was the whole band meeting me in an old 1926 Buick, and we all piled into the car. And then I stayed at the hotel where Charlie’s mother was a chambermaid. The afternoon that I got there, I went over to the Ritz Café and I heard Charlie, and I was completely knocked out. But the band was terrible! Charlie was the only really talented guy in the band. And so I had a terrible crisis of conscience then, because I knew Charlie was the whole guts of the band, but Charlie was only making $2.50 a night, three nights a week.

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    I had a terrible amount of arguing to do with Benny to bring Charlie from Oklahoma City to California. But luckily Benny was on the Old Gold Hour at that time, radio, and they had a couple-of-hundred-dollar budget for guests. So I said, “Well, why don’t you do this: Why don’t you charge the expenses to Old Gold?” So Benny said, “Alright, John, if you say so.” And Charlie arrived the date of my first Columbia session with Benny in 1939. This was, I would say, August of 1939. He arrived at the studio when we were doing “Swinging the Dream” and “Darn That Dream” and a couple of other things on that very first Goodman session. And Benny didn’t have time to listen to him properly in the studio. Benny was opening that night at the Victor Hugo restaurant. This is all in my book – I don’t know if you ever read my book.

    Yes, I did.

    Yeah, that’s all in the book. Not to repeat myself too much, but we sneaked Charlie in through the kitchen while Benny was having dinner in the break between the dinner session and the regular session. Just before the show was the Trio and the Quartet, with Lionel Hampton and Fletcher Henderson and my friend Artie Bernstein and Nick Fatool on drums. We set up the amplifier on the bandstand – luckily, there was an electrical outlet there. And poor Benny got up and got back to the stand and saw Charlie Christian there. He just had a fit! He beat off “Rose Room” – I guess he figured maybe Charlie wouldn’t know “Rose Room.” And if Charlie didn’t know “Rose Room,” you’d never guess it, because 47 minutes later – that’s how long “Rose Room” lasted. I think that was probably the most explosive session I ever heard with Benny’s group. I had a few friends who were standing at the bar, and they came through and the audience just went crazy, and Charlie was signed. And from $7.50 a week, Charlie suddenly made $150 a week with Benny.

    And, of course, the thing that’s fantastic is that that Saturday night was the night of the broadcast, and that was the night that Charlie set the riff for “Flying Home.” That’s really Charlie’s tune, despite the fact that Benny and Lionel cut in on it. I mean, that was the start of the Sextet. And then we had to wait until we got to New York to record the Sextet. We recorded the Sextet about a month later.

    What was Charlie like as a person?

    Oh, he was wonderful. He was pretty naïve. I tried to describe how he was dressed in the book, you know. He had very narrow shoes, which pinched [laughs], but he looked very sharp! He had a purple shirt, I remember, and a strange kind of tie. He looked like a yokel! But he was a lovely guy. And, of course, this was probably the culmination of Charlie’s life – those two years that he was with Benny – because not only did he play in the Sextet, but for a while he also played in the band. And the rhythm section of Benny’s band at that time was just unbelievable. I mean, the following year Mel Powell was on piano, Big Sid Catlett was the drummer, John Simmons, who was a marvelous bass player, and Charlie.

    How did Charlie’s playing change during those two years?

    Not too much. It was already developed by that time.

    Did he ever mention who his influences were?

    No. Charlie started as a bass player. So I think Walter Page was one of the big influences in Charlie’s life. And I don’t know who his guitar influences could have been because there were no other known electric guitar players at that time. Charlie was an original.

    How quickly did he have an impact on other players?

    I’d say the week the first records came out. [Laughs.] You know, he just revolutionized everything.

    How was popular was he during his lifetime?

    Enormously so. He won the Metronome Award, I remember, as the best guitar player. He just had a fantastic following among musicians, particularly, and also among the public, because in his own little way, he was a fantastic showman – without every vying for it. He just had it.

    Was he flamboyant?

    Not at all. He was about as flamboyant as Lester Young, which means not very flamboyant.

    What was Charlie’s role in pioneering bebop?

    One of the reasons he died when he did, I think . . . Because he had TB, which we didn’t find out until Benny got to Chicago. He was coughing, and Benny sent him to the Michael Reed Hospital, and that was when they found out that Charlie had already had TB. He was warned by the doctors to be terribly careful not to smoke and to get his rest. But he got to New York and there was never any rest. He played with the band – they worked the New York hotels at the time – and then afterwards he would hang out at Minton’s up in Harlem, on 188th Street and Seventh Avenue. And he was up there all night. At the same time, Dizzy used to hang out up there – I think Charlie came a year or so later. But anyway, I would say that the real architects of bebop were probably Charlie Parker, Charlie Christian, and Dizzy Gillespie.

    When was the last time you saw Charlie?

    I saw Charlie about three or four days before he died, out at Seaview Hospital on Staten Island. That’s where Charlie died. Fortunately, his trained nurse out there was a good friend of mine. This was in the spring of 1942, and I was at my family’s house for dinner, I’ll never forget, and the nurse called me and said, “Please” – she didn’t think Charlie would last even a couple of more days. And she asked me to please get in touch with Benny and have Benny send some kind of a wire or send some fruit or something, to show him how much Benny stilled loved him. I don’t know whether Benny ever did or not. I have a feeling maybe he didn’t. But Charlie died within a couple of days. And then his funeral was up at the Mother Zion A.M.E. Church on 137th Street in New York City. And then we shipped the body to Oklahoma City. I made all the funeral arrangements, I remember.

    Did many people come to the funeral?

    Not too many, no. Some did. You know, sickness and death is a terrible hang-up for musicians, and I don’t think Benny was there. But I don’t think too many people were there. This was nearly forty years ago, so it’s hard for me to remember exactly how many were there, but not enough.

    Do you think Charlie’s significance to jazz remains undiminished?

    Undiminished. The two great guitar players in jazz, for my dough, were Eddie Lang and Charlie Christian. And they couldn’t have been more different, but they were both complete originals.

    This covers what I’m looking for, Mr. Hammond.

    Alright! Thank you so much, Jas.

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    © 2011 Jas Obrecht. All rights reserved. This interview may not be reposted or reprinted without the author’s permission.

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      2 comments on “Producer John Hammond Remembers Charlie Christian

      1. Charles Shaar Murray on said:

        Fabulous interview, Jas! Wish I’d had access to this transcript when i was writing the Charlie Christian section in Crosstown Traffic!

      2. Randolph Roeder on said:

        Terrific …. I’ve read every single thing that I’ve come ever across having to do with Charlie Christian, so imagine my delight seeing these 6 articles pop up here on your site ‘in full’ …. Always looking forward to your writing, Jas.

        Great work !

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