“I used to get up on the stage, and I’d play my songs and I not say anything,” explains John Hammond. “Sometimes, I’d say where I got the song from or something, but nothing else. Now, I do a lot of reflecting, and I give context to how I got inspired by certain artists, and the fact that I had played with just about all of the rediscovered masters of the past including Bukka White, Son House, Lightnin Hopkins, and John Hurt. I was on shows with all of them, and then going to England and hanging out with Brian Jones and Eric Clapton and John Mayall and all the English Invasion guys and meeting Hendrix and hanging out with him. You know, I’ve done a lot of bizarre things: The Band was Levon & The Hawks when I met them, introducing them to Dylan and that kind of thing.”
John Hammond’s legacy is one of the most unique and star-studded in all of blues. The son of one of the Vanderbilts, he grew up in New York prep schools, but in a career that spans 53 years approaching 4500 shows, he’s headlined over Bob Dylan, featured Jimi Hendrix in one of his bands, and borrowed Michael Bloomfield’s band for gigs in Boston, Philadelphia and New York.
At 74, he’s recorded nearly 40 albums produced by some of the industry’s biggest heavyweights including Tom Waits, J. J. Cale and David Hidalgo of Los Lobos. He’s shared bills with Howlin’ Wolf, Jimmy Reed and John Lee Hooker.
He’s been lauded as a blues legend by The New York Times, and Atlantic Records exec Jerry Wexler wrote in the liner notes to his Trouble No More CD, “I came to scoff and I stayed to pray.” But he was vilified by jazz critic Ralph Gleason who, according to Hammond, described him as a thin, thick-lipped thug.”
Hammond has earned seven Grammy nominations and one win, and is a member of the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame. His most recent CD, Timeless (2014) was recorded live, at Chan’s in Woonsocket, RI.
I have steadily followed his career longer than any other artist except the Rolling Stones and found his guitar picking to be consistently spectacular, both electric and acoustic. His vocals, while sometimes criticized for mimicking the vernacular, are not only in keeping with his guitar playing but also as prickly and intense as any of his many mentors.
“I took a lot of s*** from critics and writers (who say), ‘How can you be doing a black man’s music and all this?’ I say, ‘It’s music. It’s for anybody who wants to do it or can pull it off. It’s my passion, blah, blah, blah.’ So, I was used to being shunted to the side or ignored or whatever, but it never deterred me because anytime I was on gigs with these phenomenal players I never got any s*** from them. They were always encouraging to me.”
He’s been called the white Robert Johnson. In fact, it was Hammond’s father who is credited with posthumously rediscovering Robert Johnson when he reissued Johnson’s only recordings in 1961on a Columbia Records LP called King of the Delta Blues Singers. One of the most influential if not most influential talent scout of the 20th century, the elder Hammond had already been credited with discovering Billie Holiday and would go on to sign Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Aretha Franklyn and Stevie Ray Vaughan to the label.
John’s father was also John Hammond, although he had a different middle name. The elder Hammond promoted Robert Johnson as the bluesman who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for upgrading his guitar prowess from rudimentary to inspirational, and thereby turning a generation of young white musicians into blues fans.
He had wanted to book Robert Johnson into a 1938 Carnegie Hall extravaganza From Spirituals to Spring that introduced “race records” artists like Ida Cox, Big Joe Turner, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and Big Bill Broonzy to an erudite New York audience. But he discovered that Johnson had just died. And yet when a teenaged John Hammond asked his famous dad about Robert Johnson in 1959, the young would-be blues artist was surprised that his father even knew of the then obscure Robert Johnson.
“I went to (Dad’s) place in 1959. He was having a dinner party and invited my brother and I up there. I had heard these Robert Johnson recordings, just two of them actually from the Sam Charters Country Blues album, and I was just blown away. So, I asked my father, ‘Have you ever heard of Robert Johnson?’ And he looked at me. ‘Funny you should ask.’ (giggle) And he opened his cabinet, and he had four ’78s. He told me that he’d been trying to find Robert Johnson for his Spirituals to Swing production in New York, and he tracked him down, found out that he’d died.”
John’s parents were separated, and he was not close to his father, having spent most of his time in various prep schools. “I knew that my father knew Big Bill Broonzy because I’d gone to see him and when I was seven, but I had no idea that he knew Robert Johnson, yikes! So, anyway, there was a guy at Columbia who made up a tape for me of all these Robert Johnson records. I think there were nine songs and like I was in heaven. (chuckle) In any case, it just cemented my passion.
“So, I learned all those songs and played them on stage, and I was completely into it. And I was a blues fanatic. I was just in the right place at the right time so many times. I played New York. Gerdes’ Folk City was my first show there, and that went over really well there. I shared the bill with Phil Ochs for a week and we were both signed up to Vanguard Records.”
The year was 1962. John was 20, and of the artists playing the Greenwich Village/Harvard Square coffeehouse scene at the time, he was light years ahead of most in his musical abilities. Where did his extraordinary talent come from? It wasn’t from hanging out with his father.
“I don’t know. I can’t explain myself. I was just ready to play. I went to two prep schools and a progressive school in New York, the Little Red School House, and then I was just not a good student because I didn’t live with my father. I stuttered so badly that every new exposure to new kids was always a really humiliating experience for me. I finally found something I really wanted to do, and I just went for it big time.
“I got a guitar in 1960, and I started playing professionally in ’62. I just played and played and played. I knew all the songs I wanted to do. You know, some records. I don’t know how to explain it really. This was what I wanted to do. I found something that I really wanted to do. I didn’t have a great educational experience, and I went from school to school.
“I was playing at Gerdes (Folk City in Greenwich Village), and there was (Vanguard Records cofounder) Maynard Solomon in the audience, and he thought I was really good or something. So, I was offered a contract. I was too young to actually sign it, but they made arrangements. I’d just turned 20 and made my first record in December of ’62 at the Broadway Masonic Temple. That was number one, and it was released the next year. And I played at the Newport Folk Festival which was a big deal in ’63, and I was on the Blues Workshop with John Lee Hooker, and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Dave Van Ronk, and Mississippi John Hurt. It was like yikes, holy cow. I was outside of my body. It was an outrageous scene.
“There was a review in the New York Times by this guy Bob Shelton, and it was a huge, almost half a page review of my show there, and it was a review of my album as well, and it was a big deal. This was ’62. So, I had signed up with this guy Mannie Greenhill who had Folklore Productions in Boston, and he became my manager/agent, and he got me gigs like in Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa and all through the East Coast and the West Coast, and I was happening and I just stayed on the road. I went everywhere. I got to be on those shows with all these phenomenal players. The beginning of a long ride.”
From the beginning of his career, John was hanging with the mentors who had inspired him. By the mid-60s he’d established a rapport with Ed Pearl, owner of the famed Ash Grove in LA and had opened for Lightnin’ Hopkins, Doc Watson and other great folk and blues acts. “I got a call from Ed Pearl who said, ‘How would you like to open for Howlin’ Wolf for a week?’ I said, ‘Oh, yeah. I could do that.’ He said, ‘Well, it’s in three days,’ and I’m in New York, right?
“So, I borrowed my brother’s car and drove like a maniac and got there on the day of the show. I was there early to see Howlin’ Wolf’s sound check. He was on route from Chicago. So, I waited and waited and still on route from Chicago. So, anyway, I changed my clothes. The place was sold out. Wolf didn’t play a lot of gigs in Los Angeles, so it was a big deal, and everyone dressed to the nines, and I got up and Wolf was still on route from Chicago. It was time for me to go on. I was flipping out.
“I didn’t know what to think or do. So, anyway, I got up and I played my 25-minute set, and I then I turned to go off stage, and I went over pretty well I thought, too. Ed Pearl was stretching his hands out. ‘Play some more. Play some more.’ Oh, God, and I played three more songs, and I completely wore out my welcome. I’m walking back stage, and I open the door to the dressing room, and there is Wolf standing there, and he says, ‘How did you learn to play like that?’
“And I couldn’t remember my name.
While Wolf’s band set up, John got to talk to his idol. Here he was face to face with a man who was bigger than life both physically and musically, a man whose entire repertoire John knew. “Wolf sits me down and tells me all those stories and blew my mind. He said he was inspired to want to sing and play by hearing Jimmy Rogers, the yodeling brakeman. and they actually knew each other which blew my mind. And then he said he learned to play guitar from Charlie Patton, and Charlie Patton was full-blooded Cherokee. I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘Yeah, he was Cherokee. If things got rough, he went back to the Reservation.’
“Oh, my God! This was stuff I didn’t know, and he went on and on, and we played for a week and I saw some of the greatest shows I ever saw. He was just unbelievable. Then, I got to work other shows with him in Chicago. We played New York, and we became friends. He seemed to understand where I was coming from and opened up.
“He was over the top, man. I didn’t even know he played the guitar. I know he played harmonica, and he sang his ass off and that kind of stuff, but I’m backstage with him one night, and he takes my guitar and he plays “Stone Poney Blues,” and he’s a huge man. His hands dwarf mine, you know what I’m saying? And he plays beautifully note for note, and then the end he flips the guitar three times over and plays the last three notes. And I’m sitting there just mind boggled. I didn’t even know that he could do that.
“It’s like I’m sitting blown away. This guy is so outrageous and rolls on his back and kicks his legs up singing, ‘I’m a tail dragger. I wipes my tracks.’ Holy s***. He told me that he learned to play guitar from Charlie Patton, right? He said Charlie Patton was the greatest entertainer he ever saw. I mean that he played behind his back and did somersaults and did all this s***. I’m just trying to imagine this. Then I see Wolf going through his antics on stage and it’s like unbelievable. What a guy! Holy s***.”
By the time Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler sent John Hammond to Memphis to record in 1969, the bluesman had already recorded with Jimi Hendrix, members of The Band and The Stones. But to him these musicians were contemporaries. The young white audience these artists were building were fundamentally clueless of the Delta and Chicago blues artists who were their idols’ inspiration. Jerry Wexler, on the other hand, was one of the architects of the Atlantic Records sound. He had built his reputation on producing people like Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, and Wilson Pickett and is credited with coining the term rhythm and blues. Wexler was hooking John Hammond up with producer Tommy Cogbill whose credits included Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Elvis Presley and Joe Tex. John had certain preconceptions about what these recording sessions in Memphis would be about.
He was in for a big surprise.
“I went down there and met with Tommy Cogbill. He had his own studio, and his own players and stuff, and I just couldn’t connect with him somehow, and I called Jerry and I said, ‘Listen, this isn’t gonna work out.’ He said, ‘Well, you’re down there. Why don’t you go over to Muscle Shoals. I have a friend Marlin Green down here who’s got his studio, and there’s some really good players. That’s where Aretha’s recorded, and Pickett and all those guys you know,’ and I’m thinking. “‘Holy s***.
“So, I go down to Muscle Shoals, and I meet this guy Eddie Hinton whose one of the guitar player guys in this session, and all of these guys are white. And I’m saying to myself, “Holy s***!” And they thought I was gonna be black.” And so there was this real disconnect.
“So, anyway, Eddie said, ‘I have a friend coming tomorrow who I think you’ll really enjoy this guy. He knows your music and all that.’ And it was Duane Allman. So, Duane came the next day, and I’d been trying to tell these guys what I wanted to do, and nobody could seem to understand what I meant. As soon as Duane got there, he knew what I was taking about. ‘I want to do these Howlin’ Wolf tunes and stuff.’”
Duane had done a whole bunch of Memphis session before founding the Allman Brothers. “Yeah, he had, right. He played on The Weight and all blah, blah, blah. So, anyway, Duane translated for me and the band got it, and they’re really talented players, these guys are.”
John Hammnond’s best selling record to date has been Wicked Grin released in 2001. It was produced by Tom Waits and features Augie Myers on keyboards, Charlie Musselwhite on harmonica, and Larry Taylor on bass. AllMusic calls it “a stunning collection that infuses these unusual tracks with a blues man’s spirit and a crackling energy that practically reinvents the songs, instilling them with an ominous, rhythmic swampy feel.” The collaboration combines Hammond’s strong points as an interpreter with Waits’ quirky compositions, and the combination is pure magic.
“Tom Waits asked me to record with him on a project he was involved in on the West Coast. I went out there with my wife Marla. She and his wife Kathleen were hanging out, and Tom had really gotten his s*** together. They had three young kids who were doing really well, and Marla said, ‘What do you think of the idea of Tom producing an album on John? He could be home every night, take care of the kids.’ So, all of a sudden, we have this project out of nowhere, and when I told the label about the idea, they flipped out. Tom Waits would produce an album on you? Holy cow. So, we made this album, Wicked Grin. They put a rock and roll bus out there for us, and put the band together and rehearsals and all this s***. It was amazing.”
Talking to John Hammond is like picking up a blues encyclopedia and arbitrarily opening to pages throughout the tome and finding some new revelation about him, the genre, and how his blues blends in with rock, folk, and Americana. His life continues to unfold like the peels of an onion. The closer you get to his core, the more interesting it becomes. The revelations are myriad. He doesn’t write many of his own songs, and that may be why he’s not as well known as many of the people he’s worked with. But he’s no less talented.
“I’ve outlived a lot of the critics,” he told me in 2014. But he doesn’t have a bucket list. “Uhm, not really I’ve been all over the world and played with so many great players, but you keep meeting new players that are really good. So, I’m just gonna see what pops up.”
Visit John’s website at: http://johnhammond.com
Interviewer Don Wilcock has been writing about blues for nearly half a century. He wrote Damn Right I’ve Got The Blues, the biography that helped Buddy Guy jumpstart his career in 1991. He’s interviewed more than 5000 Blues artists and edited several music magazines including King Biscuit Time.