by Michael Buffalo Smith
After three decades, John Hammond proves he's still a vital performer in American music. One of the very few white blues musicians performing at the beginning of the first blues renaissance of the mid-'60s, he found himself onstage alongside artists such as Mississippi John Hurt, Rev. Gary Davis and Skip James. Hammond has been called a white Robert Johnson, combining powerful guitar and harmonica playing with expressive vocals.
He's the son of none other than John Hammond, Sr. who worked for Columbia Records as a talent scout. A major player in the industry, Hammond, Sr. was trying to find Robert Johnson for a show at Carnegie Hall, only to discover the bluesman had died.
In the late '60s and early '70s, Hammond, Jr. worked with with people like Delaney Bramlett, JJ Cale, Duane Allman and The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, as well as Band guitarist Robbie Robertson (and other members of the Band when they were still known as Levon Helm & the Hawks), Dr. John, Charlie Musselwhite, Michael Bloomfield and David Bromberg.
He performs both solo and with his band, but either way, it is always a great show. We caught him a few years back performing with just an acoustic guitar and harp, and it was phenomenal.
Swampland spoke with John about his long and varied career.
What was your first exposure to the blues?
It’s kind of hard to pinpoint exactly, but when I was seven years old I went to hear Big Bill Broonzy with my father -- that was in 1949. Ever since then the blues has been part of my vocabulary and consciousness.
Your father was a major figure in the music industry.
He was someone that was passionate about everything he enjoyed in life. His major passion was music. He was a stride piano freak. He went out to hear James P. Johnson in the ‘20s, and in 1932 he did the last recording dates on Bessie Smith. That got him started and everything else is kind of known history.
Isn’t it true that he was going to find Robert Johnson at some point?
Yeah, in 1938, about one month after Robert died he was trying to locate him for the spiritual swing concerts that he put on in Carnegie Hall.
John, who were some of your major music influences?
I first heard Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee in the early '50s. They were just outrageously dynamic country blues legends at that time. That was a major influence there. I would say that Robert Johnson was the one that sort of crystallized it for me. Having heard a lot of the blues artists of the '30s like Blind Willie McTell and Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell and Blind Boy Fuller -- you know, these were phenomenal musicians and virtuoso guitar players -- but I think that Robert Johnson was the synthesis of all those guys. He had heard all the styles and then came up with his own thing. That was my inspiration to begin playing the guitar.
I was thinking about the blues and the legendary Highway 61 and I wanted to ask you, do you recall the first time you made that trek? Were you seeking out anyone in particular at that time?
No, not really, because when I went into the South I was already playing shows at that time. I played in Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas and Florida. I think it all became crystal clear to me in 1991. I did a documentary film for an English TV station called The Search for Robert Johnson, and it is available on Sony video. I don’t make any money off of that, by the way. It was a true experience for me. I went down Highway 61 to all the places that Robert had played and where he was married. There was no script and I was put in front of all these folks that had known Robert in the early days. That was my first outsider look inside. Honeyboy Edwards was involved as well as Mack McCormick who had been instrumental in finding out the details of Robert Johnson’s life, and it was exciting for me. I learned a whole lot. It was amazing. I enjoyed it.
You have worked with so many great producers and I wanted to ask you what it was like working on Wicked Grin with Tom Waits?
It was miraculous, and I had always admired Tom. To record with him and be involved with the way he sees things and his music -- which I had heard from the outside -- I was a fan without really knowing the full body of his work. He was amazing and a very dynamic guy and inspirational. To be around him put me in awe. He is truly an American phenomenon.
I want to jump back a few years ago to one of my favorite John Hammond albums, 1969’s Southern Fried...
I had been sent by Atlantic Records to Memphis to record with Tommy Cogbill producing. I got down there and whatever it was, I didn’t seem to connect with him on what I perceived his direction to be. I called Jerry Wexler and said that I didn’t think it would work out. So, he sent me down to Muscle Shoals Sound. These guys backed Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett and all these guys.
I arrived and assumed they would all be black studio musicians. They were all white guys. They were all a clique and everyone knew each other and their wives and it was a homegrown kind of thing. I liked Marlin Greene and he was a very easygoing and likable guy, and then Jimmy Johnson who is just a terrific guy. They all seemed sympathetic to me. I had these tunes that I wanted to do, and some were Howlin’ Wolf tunes and stuff, with Barry Beckett, Roger Hawkins and David Hood and all these phenomenal players. I mostly connected with Eddie Hinton. He was a cool guy, great guitar player and songwriter, and a great singer in his own right. I had been there for about three days and we had cut some tunes and I was feeling very frustrated and couldn’t get across some of the ideas that I had in mind. Then this guy Duane Allman and his friend Berry Oakley showed up and they had driven from Macon in this old milk truck. They walked in the door and everybody was like,”Hey, Duane, how are you doing?”
Eddie Hinton said he was the guy that played the slide guitar on “The Weight,” but it was still not clear in my mind. Then Duane said he wanted to meet John Hammond. We decided to do a tune together and we did “Shake for Me” and my jaw just slacked. This guy was just phenomenal. So, all of a sudden all of these guys that I could not communicate with before understood exactly what I meant and that was the beginning of a short lived, but intense relationship. This was before The Allman Brothers Band was happening. Duane was just phenomenal and a really cool guy; and everything just came together and we made the whole record in one week. I didn’t get to know all the guys that well, but Duane, Berry and Eddie Hinton were the ones that I knew. Eddie was my connection to Muscle Shoals.
Yeah, I saw also where Eddie actually produced an album for you in 1975.
For Capricorn four years later. He wrote the song "Can’t Beat The Kid," that was the title to it.
You touched on it a little while ago, but could you sum up for us who Eddie Hinton was...for those of us that never had an opportunity to meet him?
He was wonderful, funny, eccentric, so talented that it was perhaps more than his body could take. He had so many ideas and was so talented that it was too hard for him to put it under one umbrella somehow.
Tell me about your experiences with Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett.
Oh, my gosh - I met them on a tour of the most bizarre places in Utah, Oklahoma, Arizona, Texas -- the tour package was Delaney and Bonnie and friends, Billy Preston and his band and me solo. All on one bus. They were extremely talented and treated me so well. I got to meet them that way. Towards the end of the tour Delaney said that he could produce a record for me that would be a major hit. Columbia Records didn’t seem to know what to do with me.
I went up to Clive Davis who was just becoming the head of Columbia and I said that I had a producer that really thinks he can do something. “Oh, who is that?” I said, “Delaney Bramlett.” He says, “Who?” They had a number-one and two hit in the U.S. at that time and Clive Davis didn’t know anything about it. I showed him Variety, and anyway I brought them up to Columbia Records and introduced them to Clive. Delaney comes right up to him and smacks him on the back, grabs his hand and says “Well, hey Clive!” Then Bonnie gives him a big ol' kiss on the face.
Then he decided they were going to produce a record and I went out to LA and stayed with them at their home in Tarzana. In one week we had made the I’m Satisfied album. I think it was one of the best things that I had done up to that point. It was very over the top and heady stuff. Delaney says, “Man, if this ain’t a hit I am going to kiss your ass on Broadway.”
So, then Clive bought up everything they ever did for Atlantic and signed them up for Columbia and they forgot about my record. I think that they printed maybe 5,000 copies of that record. But Delaney and Bonnie were very talented and imaginative. Talk about a guy with a facility. He was just able to translate his thoughts into sound. Anyway, unfortunately, they got signed up for Columbia, went into the studio for one day and then got divorced. Nothing ever came of their deal with Columbia and the album was forgotten about. Too bad.
Another guy you have worked with was J.J. Cale.
Oh yeah, he is another unique individual that I met on the road when touring. He said more or less the same thing...that he could produce another record for a major label for me. He is a wonderful person and great guy. He went on tour in Europe when he hadn’t been there for 18 years and he brought me with him on the road. We had some wonderful times. What a great guy.
Such a talent. I am jumping all of the board now, but is it really true that you once had Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton at the same time?
Yeah, that’s right.
That is amazing.
I had met Jimi in New York. He had been fired from the band he was with and he was kind of stranded in New York and hanging out in the Village in 1966. I was playing at a club across the street from where he was jamming at the Cafe across the street. My friend Ben came down and said that there was a guy across the street playing all your stuff from the So Many Roads album. He said this guy was unbelievable and I needed to hear him and meet him. I went over there between sets and introduced myself and at the time he called himself Jimmy James.
He said he was stranded in New York and asked me if I could get him a gig. I put a band together with him and put us into a place called the Cafe Au Go-Go. This place was packed out all week every night . Then he was discovered by Chas Chandler who gave him a ticket to England and a recording deal. He was gone for a year on a tour with the Monkees, and then he returned to New York. I had put a little trio together and was playing at the same club called The Gaslight. It was Charles Otis on drums and Lee Collins on bass, and I had met Eric Clapton in 1965 on tour in England when he was playing with John Mayall. Eric was in town with Cream and Jimi had just dropped out of this tour with The Monkees, so they came back to the Gaslight at the same time and they both came up on stage and played with me every night for a week. I had to pinch myself. This was a tiny club that held maybe 60 people at one time. So many people that were at that shows over the years has come up to me and said that they saw me doing that show with Eric and Jimi. (laughs) Yep, we were there. I tell this story and some people don’t even believe that it is true.
I wanted to ask you about your thoughts on the sitting in with The Allmans at the Beacon last year? Also, your thoughts on Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks?
Well, Warren is just one of those dyed-in-the-wool great players, a very steady even keel, great chops. Then, Derek is phenomenal and he's just a kid. I had stayed in touch with Butch (Trucks) and he would tell me about his nephew and how good he is, and like Duane Allman reincarnated -- yep, sure. Then I heard him play and he was right! Unbelievable. Those guys have still got it. I don’t care what they have been through and all their changes going down, because I knew them all. I toured with them when they first started and I was hanging down in Macon. I knew Dickey really well and all those guys. What a scene that was. I mean, you know, years go by and stuff but when you got it you got it. Gregg can sing his ass off and that’s the real deal.
Could you compare the difference in playing between Duane Allman and Derek Trucks?
I guess it’s the slide. In many ways Derek has gone beyond what Duane was doing and you have to remember that Duane passed right at the time he was getting started. They have the same enigmatic source, wherever it comes from they have got it. It is hard to compare.
How did you hook up with G. Love to produce your new album?
G. Love was a young guy from Philadelphia and was a fan of mine and came to the show at age 18. He was too young to get into the show. He waited outside until the first couple that looked old enough to be his parents came by, and my wife and I walked in and he approached us and asked if we would take him in to see the show. So, we did. (laughs) Then several years later I went to this club called Maxwell’s in Hoboken, New Jersey. He was really good. Blues, hip hop stuff and he played different stuff. He played guitar and harmonica on a rack like I do. My wife and I were very impressed and felt he was a really talented guy. So, now he has produced my album, full circle.
This album turned out phenomenal. How do you feel about it?
I am really excited. It was recorded five days in May and supposed to be released in September. The label I was with kind of went under and got absorbed by EMI’s Blue Note label. Then, finally it is being released and I am very excited about it.
What are your immediate plans?
To tour, of course. We have a release party at B.B. King’s in about 10 days in January. We are excited about that and hoping that this will translate into some tours with the band. We are very excited.