A FEW MINUTES WITH… John Hammond
By Don Wilcock
It’s nothing short of divine justice that veteran bluesman John Hammond has sold out
his Saturday show (April 6) at Caffe Lena. Bob Dylan first introduced him to the Caffe in 1961 before he’d recorded his first album. At the time, John was head and shoulders above the average folk singer plying the coffeehouse circuit. And he’s been a cornerstone of the blues pantheon ever since.
“I’ve always had a vision of what I’ve wanted to do,” he says today. “I haven’t always been right and made a lot of mistakes and so forth, but I always felt it was my choice to be what I am and never really wanted to compromise what I set out to do. When I’ve recorded, I’ve always felt I should be doing what I thought was right, and I mean I’ve been experimental at times. I’ve done stuff that was maybe beneath me or above me. I don’t know, but I’ve always tried to do what I thought was right. I’m a blues singer, and its what’s inspired me.”
He’s as good and intense an acoustic – and at times electric – guitarist as any in the tradition of the icons he’s hung with for almost 60s years from Rev. Gary Davis, Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James and Jimmy Reed to Sleepy John Estes, Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson. His voice is the richest and most expressive of any white folk artist. And although early in his career he was criticized by some critics for adopting a mannered style of vocals emulating his Delta progenitors, I’ve always loved his expressive and beautifully articulated delivery. His vocals on classic blues songs like “Drop Down Mama” and “Howlin’ for My Darling” explode with emotion
coming across like they’ve been resurrected from the dead. As indeed they have.
John’s self-proclaimed mission has been to work with and be respected by musical giants through relationships that range from Dylan to Dr. John, from Doc Watson to Brain Jones, from Phil Ochs to Jimi Hendrix. His most successful album, Wicked Grin (2001) came about as a result of his and his wife Marla’s personal relationship with Tom Waits and his wife.
While John’s records may not have sold as many as some, his personal relationships, on the other hand, are virtually unprecedented in blues history. He became close friends with the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones, toured with Clapton and hung out with John Mayall, Bill Wyman and most of the British rock artists that were re-introducing blues to young rock audience in the mid-60s. He introduced Dylan to Levon Helm and The Band.
“In 1964 when I made that So Many Roads album with The Band, Michael Bloomfield and Charlie Musselwhite, Bob was at the recording session, and I introduced him to Levon Helm and the guys.”
Perhaps his most amazing connection was with Jimi Hendrix who played in Hammond’s band before going to England to become famous in 1966. “He was playing behind me, so he was playing the stuff that I was playing, but he just added this other dimension to it because he could do all those incredible solo leads. I mean he played with his
teeth. He was a showman by nature.
“Anybody who saw him play knew this guy was gonna be a huge star. I mean I knew. It was just a matter of time. He was in the right place at the right time, and it happened to be with me, and Chas Chandler (British producer and founding bass player for The Animals) jumped on it and offered him the trip to England. Very soon after
that, he was the biggest star in England.”
Like Robert Johnson, Hammond got good fast signing his first record contract when barely out of his teens after picking up the guitar at 18.
“Well, listen, man, it’s impossible to articulate how things come to you. I mean, when you all of a sudden get it, and you all of a sudden know how to play things that you didn’t know how to do, that kind of thing happens, and I’m sure Hendrix had an epiphany, and all of a sudden knew what to do.”
If you have tickets, I’ll see you there. If not, check out the Caffe Lena website next time and plan ahead.