John Hammond was a key figure in American popular music, bring diverse talents such as Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Stevie Ray Vaughn, to widespread audiences. He also helped promote entire categories of music, including jazz, blues, and folk, contributing significantly to the popular revivals of these fields. Duston Prial's biography is insightful, based on careful research in libraries and through interviews. The book is well written, and it will be an important document in maintaining Hammond's well deserved reputation as a cultural icon.
Hammond, however, appears as a somewhat distant character in Prial's account. One never really gets a sense of John Hammond's inner, subjective sense. Prial at times seems more concerned with pointing out where Hammond errored in his own autobiography -- "John Hammond on Record" (written with Irving Townsend and published in 1977) -- such as in the case of the reported causes of singer Bessie Smith's death. Prial fails to consider that Hammond actually may have believed (or internalized after so many retellings) the accounts that attributed her death to racist treatment following a car accident. Instead, Prial tells us, "The whole episode was an unseemly case of Hammond's not allowing the facts to get in the way of his good story."
In some cases it in the book it is not clear why Prial favors one version of events over another. The classic example is his account of Bob Dylan's trying to get out of his Columbia records contract. Readers interested in this incident should compare the richly insightful if brief account given by Hammond in his autobiography with Prial's retelling. These quibbles aside, Prial's book makes for enjoyable reading.