Featured Interview – Tom Hambridge

image

Cover photo © 2023 Laura Carbone

imageThe foremost producer in the blues world today, Tom Hambridge possesses a magic touch. Not only have his releases produced six Grammys in the past 12 years – three for Buddy Guy and one each for James Cotton, Keb’ Mo’ and Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, but he’s also had a major hand in many of the songs they contain.

As great as those accomplishments are, however, Tom still looks in the mirror and sees himself as a drummer. And for good reason. When Mick Jagger brought the blues to the White House during the Obama administration, Hambridge was on the skins. A two-time Blues Music Association percussionist of the year and seven-time nominee, he also fronts his own band, the Rattlesnakes, from the drum stand when not keeping time for Buddy on tour, too.

He was doing just that a few weeks ago when Blues Blast caught up with him in Syracuse, N.Y., where  — immediately after our chat — he was headed for the Chevy Court stage at the New York State Fair for a soundcheck on the 86-year-old legend’s Damn Right Farewell Tour.

A warm, down-to-earth and soft-spoken presence, Hambridge came into the world on Dec. 20, 1960, in Buffalo, N.Y. “My mom played a little piano, and my older brother played a little guitar,” he says, “but it wasn’t anything like they did it for a living. But there was always music in my house. My older sisters, my brother and parents all had records. And they were playin’ all the time. So my ear got used to hearin’ a lot of stuff.”

For Tom, beating out a rhythm became an instant passion as a toddler, when he started out banging on pots and pans in the kitchen. It didn’t take long, he says, before my parents started saying: ‘Look! He’s pretending he’s drumming!’

“At one point, they got me a toy drum set. And, evidently, I kinda burned through that pretty quick. I broke it, and they said: ‘We need to get him a real drum set.’ Thank God they did! I think I was around five, and it was Christmas. They bought one from a neighbor.”

It proved to be a major cut above the kit most parents would gift a youngster. Manufactured by Kent, a small Upstate New York label founded by former Gretsch employee Bill Kent and his brother Ed, the drum and tom shells were constructed of durable, two-ply maple while the bass drum was six-ply to support the weight.

“I still have that set today,” Hambridge says. It’s something a treasure because he credits using it to play along with records back with his ability to keep time so naturally today – something that, in his case, is as easy as breathing.

“I don’t practice,” he confesses, “and I don’t warm up. Sometimes, other drummers will say: ‘Why don’t you do that (chuckles)?’ But I don’t – and I’m not proud of it…not at all…’cause I love watchin’ drummers that practice, go over rudiments and workout.

“I have drummer friends who practice eight hours a day. But I’m performing every night or playin’ on a record. When I sit on the drums, I feel comfortable and do what I do. It’s like riding a bike or something. It’s wonderful that I’ve won the BMAs, but I don’t think about it very much.

“It’s kinda a tool that I carry in my toolbox.”

A master craftsman at everything he attempts musically, Hambridge credits his father for putting him on the path he walks today, showing him by example how important it is to be a hard worker who sees a job through to the end while always remaining humble and treating people right throughout whatever success might come.

Tom was still in the third grade the first time he played in public, joining forces with his older brother to entertain at a bar mitzvah. “I killed two birds with one stone there,” he jokes, “because I didn’t know what a bar mitzvah (a Jewish coming-of-age celebration) was and I’d never done a gig before.

“My brother was five years older than me, played guitar and started a band. And, for a couple of years, I was his drummer. Back then, I always played with older people. My sisters would tell their friends: ‘If you ever need a drummer, my brother plays.’ They might have gone: ‘Well, he can’t be that good’ or whatever. But they’d try me out and I’d be in the band.”

By the time, Hambridge reached his teens, he’d already acquired an interest  music in everything from jazz to bebob, country to soul and rock to pop thanks to the tunes spinning on the family turntable. While attending Amherst Central High School, he played in several garage bands along with the school’s jazz ensemble and orchestra. And his skill set jumped by leaps and bounds at jam sessions at the Bona Vista, a once-beloved nightspot in downtown Buffalo that faded into history after he’d attained adulthood in the ‘80s.

“Some of the guys from Spyro Gyra would sit in,” he remembers. “We’d play some jazz, some blues. I think that was very helpful because – even then — I wasn’t thinking in ‘genre’ terms. If they played a Latin groove…a bosa nova, I had to play it, too. If it was a swing thing, I had to play swing.

“We could be playing ‘Georgia on My Mind’ and then go into ‘Sweet Home Chicago.’ I had to find a way to play it and make it feel good. It opened me up…I wasn’t thinking ‘oh, this is blues…, this is…whatever.’ But I was listening to it, too. My sisters were listening to the Beatles, but my brother was listening to Muddy Waters, John Mayall, Eric Clapton and the Allman Brothers, too.”

After graduation in 1979, Hambridge earned a scholarship to Boston’s Berklee College of Music – like Julliard in New York City, a leader in the field with alumni that include Gary Burton, Paula Cole, Vanessa Collier, Al Di Meola, Anthony Geraci, Wyclef Jean, Quincy Jones, Branford Marsalis, John Mayer, Steve Vai and a host of others.

“Berklee was great, and it was great to be in Boston,” Hambridge remembers. “There was so much happening musically…there was a club scene — and I started gigging the minute I got there. I immediately started searching want ads for bands looking for a drummer…hopefully…that I could play with and make some money.

“I’d be taking my kit out of my drum locker and my classmates would be goin’: ‘Hey, you’re goin’ the wrong way! The practice rooms are over there.’ And I’d be goin’: ‘No, I’m gonna take ‘em out to Mass(achusetts) Avenue and put ‘em in a cab.’ ‘Where you goin’?’ ‘I’m playin’ a gig tonight at some bar.’

image“They couldn’t understand it. They’d come to Berklee to learn how to do that and then go into the world, and I’d been gigging for what seemed like my whole life.”

Long before he graduated four years later, Tom had established himself as a first-call player, working with local promoters in assembling backup bands for major touring artists and laying down rhythm for Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Percy Sledge, Gary Puckett, Little Anthony, Martha & the Vandellas, Sha Na Na and others.

“It was unbelievable! It was such a training ground,” he says. “It was a gas, and a lot of ‘em became my friends. Today, I’ll get a call from Martha Reeves…and Billy J. Kramer of (the Liverpool band) The Dakotas called me this morning!”.

Tom stayed in Beantown following graduation and founded his own group, T.H. and the Wreckage, winning several prestigious Boston Music Awards and recording a series of CDs in the process, most notably Born to Rock, which took home album-of-the-year honors in 1988. During that same period, he also spent three years as lead singer/percussionist in guitar god Roy Buchanan’s road band, not meeting the headliner after winning an audition until a few minutes prior to their first gig.

With the Wreckage in his rear-view mirror, Hambridge recorded the album Still Running under his own name in 1996 and has released six more CDs since. But it’s amazing that he’s done so considering how in-demand he’s become as a record producer – something that came about totally by chance – and came to fruition without any training.

“That wasn’t something I set out to do,” he admits. “T.H. & the Wreckage were pretty successful around New England. But the thing you had to do back then – and kinda have to do now – is to put out a single to get local airplay and help draw people into the clubs.

“We put out four or five albums. When we went into the studio, I kinda became the producer because I was running the band. We didn’t have a budget, so I said I’d schedule the sessions, mixed it and told people what to play. I was writing all the songs and having to stay to sing ‘em. We ended up having five local No. 1 songs on WBCN-FM, the big rock station in Boston.

“The music was being played on other radio stations in New England, and other bands would come to me and say: ‘I love the sound of “Judgement Day,”’ which was a big hit. ‘I love the sound of that. Who wrote that?’ And I said: ‘I wrote it with the guitar player.’ ‘Who produced it?’ ‘I did.’ So then they’d ask me: ‘So, can you do that for our band?’ I said: ‘Well, sure. I can try.’

“My training really was just my ears – listening and just creating stuff that I thought was one-tenth as good as a Beatles’ record (chuckles). I would aspire to that.”

Before he knew what was happening, Hambridge says, “I kinda became ‘producer guy.’ I didn’t set out to do it, but found that I could do it and enjoyed doin’ it, too.”

His big break came when Susan Tedeschi, a Boston native, recorded her debut album, Just Won’t Burn, with Tom at the controls. Released on the Tone-Cool imprint, it exploded to the top of the charts, becoming the best-selling blues CD of the year, achieving platinum-record status with sales exceeding one million copies – a feat almost unheard of in the blues world.

As Tom notes today, back then, Tower Records operated listening booths that allowed potential buyers to screen music before buying it, and if you didn’t grab the listener in the first 30 seconds, you’d lose the sale because the customer would move on to something else. With that in mind, he wanted to open the disc with his original, “Rock Me Right.”

“The first thing you heard is Susan’s voice: ‘You say you haven’t been rocked in a long, long time,’” he says. “They needed to see her picture and immediately hear that voice – and it had to be aggressive – like she was in the middle of a song.

“I wanted to start it on fire. And then within five seconds, her guitar came in…just her guitar and her vocal. And then another five seconds later, the band came in like a powerhouse.”

When Tom suggested the idea, he says he met with initial resistance from the label owner. To his ear, he feared his blues audience would be offended because of the title’s obvious connection to rock-‘n’-roll. But his attitude change after Hambridge pointed out that B.B. King had recorded “Rock Me Baby,” one of the biggest blues tunes ever.

The song became such a success, Tom remembers, “that radio deejays told me that people literally were stopping their cars after hearing it on the air and phoning the station to ask: ‘Who is that – and how can I get it?’”

Not only did the tune launch Tedeschi’s career, it also put Tom’s in orbit, too.

Johnny Winter heard it and loved it, discovered that Hambridge had written and produced it and then reached out with an invitation to contribute to I’m a Bluesman, his next release for Virgin Records. Tom contributed two songs – “Cheatin’ Blues” and “Lone Wolf” — to the disc and played on three of the 13 tracks, and the disc went on to earn a 2005 Grammy nomination for contemporary blues album of the year. Hambridge played drums on both of his originals and a cover of the Michael Burks hit “I Smell Smoke,” too.

In earlier years, bands usually approached Tom with an album’s worth of finished songs in hand, wanting him solely to work his magic in the recording studio. With his growing success, however, things began to change. Artists and labels were now seeking him out in hopes he’d work the same voodoo for them, too.

The requests trickled in slowly in the beginning but quickly became a torrent. Before Hambridge realized what was happening, he admits, he suddenly had “a new thing. A lot of people came to me and asked: ‘We want you to produce, but can you write the songs, too?’

“Fast forward, years down the road, it’s big record companies and big artists calling. Now, it’s became a niche thing for me. On 90 per cent of the records I do, I either co-write with the artist or write songs for them that I think can make a successful album.”

imageBecause of the growing demand for his work, Hambridge relocated from Boston to Nashville in 1998 and immediately fell into the right circles as a songwriter. Thinking he was still in New England, Sha Na Na founding member John “Jocko” Marcellino called wanting to fly him out and back his band in Las Vegas. Instead, he ended up introducing him to MCA Records executive Chip Young, a legendary session guitarist and producer who was working in the publishing department.

Young scheduled a meet-up, telling Tom to bring some tunes with him. Instead, Hambridge handed him one of his solo CDs. Young played it in its entirety, immediately asking: “Okay, how much do you want?”

“I said: ‘For what?’” Hambridge recalls.

“’A publishing deal.’”

In the end, Hambridge made the smart decision. He held on to all of his publishing rights, but his charts were quickly making their way into boardrooms all across Music City. Now an ASCAP Award winner for his work in country music with other honors in blues, rock and more, he’s written so many hits that Buddy Guy and others in the blues world lovingly refer to him as “the white Willie Dixon.”

It’s the highest of praise, considering that Dixon – a giant of a man who stood six-foot-six — was so productive during the golden era of Chess Records that a photo of him with a computer printout of his royalty report appeared in an early pressing of Living Blues magazine. The document was so long that it It wrapped around his neck three times all the way from the floor and back again before disappearing out of camera range.

Among the folks who’ve recorded his 600 or so tunes are Rascal Flatts, Hank Williams Jr., Billy Ray Cyrus, ZZ Top, George Thorogood & the Destroyers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Foghat, Steve Cropper, Meat Loaf and a host of blues artists, including Bernard Allison, Ana Popovic, James Cotton, Delbert McClinton, Jimmy Thackery, Shemekia Copeland, Marcia Ball, Joe Bonamassa, Guitar Shorty, Michael Burks, Joe Louis Walker, Quinn Sullivan and many, many more.

More often than not, the songwriting process is a team effort that begins when Hambridge and the artist simply hang out and chat. Sometimes – as in the case of six-time BMA nominee Frank Bey’s autobiographical All My Dues Are Paid, they’re based on discussions about the artist’s life story. Others – like Bonamassa’s “Just ‘Cos You Can Don’t Mean You Should” – come from casual conversations…in this case, a wry comment that Joe made about a TV show he was watching.

After hearing the phrase, Tom says, everything — the opening lyric, verses and arrangement — was already taking shape in his head. It’s a blessing, he says, that he actually is able to  write a new tune in the morning shortly after getting out of bed – something he tries to do on a daily basis, providing that life doesn’t get in the way.

“I say to people…whether it’s Tommy Castro or Casey James or Buddy…’if we just get in a room and start talking, I’ll start writing songs that say something – and mean something to you,’” he says proudly.

“When I was sitting with Kingfish, I asked: ‘662, that’s your area code, right? Tell me about the ground…tell me about the smell…tell me about the weather.’ I’m already cultivating a song in my head. And then I go: ‘Okay…I got an idea…it’s called “662.” People get high down there? Alright. That’s a line in the song. People go to church? We’re gonna put it in the song, too.’

“It becomes personal. And they when I hear it on the radio or see him performing, it’s full circle…it’s wonderful!”

No matter the medium or artist, “if I decide to do it, I’m all in,” Hambridge insists. “I want to make the best record the artist will ever have. If they go on to have someone else produce their next one, I still want mine to be the one that folks are talking about. But I’m honored when they call me back and want to do another one.”

That’s exactly what happened with Buddy.

Tom struck up a friendship with him shortly after Hambridge signed his first recording contract and served as the opening act on a Guy tour. Buddy listened to his act one night then sent word he’d like to speak with him in his dressing room. The discussion quickly turned to Hambridge’s setlist, which included tunes Guy identified as belonging to Tedeschi and Thorogood. He expressed surprise when Tom informed  him he’d composed them.

Eight months later, Hambridge got a call from one of Buddy’s representatives, telling him that the master wanted to work with him on his next CD. The end result was 2010’s Grammy-winning Living Proof, which returned Guy to the rock-solid foundation he’d laid for himself at the start of his career in the ‘50s. He was still playing the fiery guitar runs that captivated an entire generation of fret masters in the ‘60s, but also revisited the stinging whole notes upon which he built his early success.

Using the same method described above, Tom penned all 12 of the songs in the set in partnership with Guy, Gary Nicholson and Richard Fleming, all of which were chockful of highly autobiographical material borne in intimate conversations with the master.

Looking back, Buddy made it easy, Tom says because – then and now – he’s so open to suggestion that it’s easy to find common ground.

Almost all of Hambridge’s productions go the way he’s planned. But that’s not always the case. The Steve Cropper-Felix Cavaliere Stax release, Midnight Flyer, is one exception.

“I was such a big Rascals fan and such a big Steve Cropper/Sam & Dave/Otis Redding fan,” he says. “I was thinkin’ like…‘let’s write “Groovin,’” let’s write “C’mon Up” and “I’m a Soul Man!”’ (laughs) “But they’d already done all that stuff.

image“We started writing that one in the studio. Felix had this drum machine and was playing these funky loops. They wanted to make some gospel and some pop-flavored stuff.”

Sure, it had a somewhat retro-soul feel, but it went in a completely different direction, and Tom loved the final product, understanding that “they were tryin’ to find a thing together!”

That said, Hambridge truly has a special touch in the studio. Out of the 100 or so CDs he’s produced, 13 have received Grammy consideration. One particular favorite is Cotton Mouth Man, James’ Cotton’s final album, which was recorded after the harmonica giant had lost his voice to throat cancer. Tom called out the big guns — Gregg Allman, Ruthie Foster, Bonamassa and Keb’ Mo’ — to handle vocals on all tracks but “Bonnie Blue,” a number that Mr. Super Harp delivered in a hoarse whisper as he paid tribute to the plantation on which he was raised.

Although Tom’s own albums haven’t received as much notoriety as his work for others, they’re just as special. His most recent effort, 2018’s The NOLA Sessions, was recorded in a five-day span in New Orleans and mastered at Abbey Road Studios in London and released in 2018. It features contributions from Gulf Coast giants Sonny Landreth, Ivan Neville and Allen Toussaint, whose keyboards and vocals on the opening track, “Blues Been Mighty Good to Me,” were his final session.

In a world dominated by his other works – including Tommy Castro’s When a Bluesman Came to Town, Keb’s Good to Be…, Kingfish’s 662 and Buddy’s The Blues Don’t Lie and The Blues Is Alive and Well and other discs currently soaring in the stratosphere – including Ally Venable’s Real Gone and Selwyn Birchwood’s Exorcist, it’s easy to understand how they can be lost in the shuffle.

But he’s definitely worth a listen. And despite currently working on a new Kingfish CD and another with Albert Cummings, he’s got a special serving of his own music on the horizon.

“I just signed a deal with Quarto Valley Records,” he says with a sparkle in his voice, “and I made an album – tentatively titled Blu Ja Vu — that should be coming out by the end of the year,”

“For years, I’ve had all these guys I’ve been opening for – Buddy, Lynyrd Skynyrd, ZZ Top – sayin’: ‘I loved your last record. When are you gonna make another one? I’ll play on it if you want me to.’

“I’ve finally called in a couple of those favors. One song that’ll be on it is the new single that’s playing on Spotify and other outlets now – ‘Blues Don’t Care’ – a duet with Kingfish. There’s another track on it with Buddy, one with Joe Bonamassa — and even one I recorded with James Cotton before he passed away. It’s his last recording.”

It’s no exaggeration that Hambridge – a huge Beatles fan — has worked with just about everybody through the years. Ask him, though, and there’s still one person on his bucket list to record: Paul McCartney. “But I’ve worked with all my heroes,” he says, “and I pinch myself about it. If it all ended today, I’d be okay!”

Hopefully, that day is a lo-o-ong time coming. In the meantime, Tom says, “find me on Spotify, Apple or wherever. All the music I wrote for ZZ Top, Rascal Flatts and Buddy on there, but you can also find Tom Hambridge’s stuff, too. If you enjoy Kingfish, you might enjoy me!”

Check out what Tom’s been up to and what he’s up to next by visiting his website: www.tomhambridge.com. And while you’re at it, give him a shout-out on social media, too!

Please follow and like us:
0