John Hammond’s Happiest When He’s Singing the Blues

John Hammond knows how hard it is to keep good help.

In the early 1960s, near the start of his career as a traveling blues singer and guitar player, Hammond toured Canada and happened upon a band called Levon & the Hawks.

He liked them as players and got along with them as friends. In 1964 he brought them to his hometown, New York City, to back him on an album. Plans were laid for the Hawks to become Hammond’s regular touring band. Instead, they wound up working for Bob Dylan, accompanying Dylan during his transition from acoustic folkie to electric folk-rocker. Later, they emerged on their own as the Band, one of rock’s touchstone acts.

“Dylan kind of bought them away,” Hammond recalled over the phone recently from New York. “I just didn’t have the dough.” Ironically, Dylan, himself, had been discovered and signed by Hammond’s father, John Hammond, the noted Columbia Records producer and talent scout.


After all these years, the memory of Dylan commandeering his band brings a rueful tone to Hammond’s voice. It wasn’t the personal slight that bothers him, but the loss to the blues--a form that Hammond, 45, has stuck to with missionary zeal since he first hit the road at 19. “They stopped playing blues” after joining Dylan, Hammond said. “That hurt me more than anything, because they were so good, man, and so hot.” Hammond said it also hurt when, more than 10 years later, the Band didn’t invite him to be part of its “this-is-your-life” farewell concert and film, “The Last Waltz.”

The Hawks weren’t the only soon-to-be-famous unknowns that Hammond worked with. For one night in 1966, his backup was a young guitarist named Jimi Hendrix, whom he met on the Greenwich Village club scene.

“I didn’t know who he was” when a friend introduced them, Hammond recalled. “He said, ‘Yeah, man, I’ve heard your record.’ He said he was kind of broke and down and out and was stuck in New York. I said, ‘Maybe I can find us a gig.’ ”

Hammond found one at the Cafe Au Go-Go, where he and Hendrix performed one concert as a duo. Several British rock stars were at the show, including members of the Rolling Stones and the Animals. They were stunned by Hendrix’s playing.

“They were there to hear me, and they got to hear Jimi,” Hammond recalled. “He was gone. He was discovered at that gig. Chas Chandler (former bassist of the Animals) brought him over (to England) to record.” As a result, Hammond said, he never got to play with the budding virtuoso again.

Through most of the ‘70s and ‘80s, keeping good musical help hasn’t been a problem for Hammond. Working only occasionally with bands, he has instead championed the blues in its most primal form--one man with a harmonica and an acoustic guitar. Hammond, who will play at noon Saturday in the daylong Irvine Meadows Blues Festival, is one of the few performers keeping alive the raw, rural style of Robert Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson and other formative players who laid the foundation for the blues and its rock progeny.

(Another performer still carrying on in the acoustic country blues style is Taj Mahal, the strapping, vibrant singer-guitarist scheduled to play the Irvine Meadows festival at 2:15 p.m.).

It’s a durable tradition that speaks with direct passion, and Hammond is known for bringing it to life with foot-stomping, string-busting, raw-voiced performances. But as durable as the acoustic blues may be, Hammond worries whether anybody will be breathing new life into them a generation from now.

“As long as the records exist, it won’t get lost,” he said. “But in terms of people who feel inspired to play it, that’s what I worry about. There seem to be so few who want to play the acoustic style. Everyone wants to play the electric guitar and make a whole lot of noise. I’ve met a few (younger players) who are playing blues, and they like the acoustic stuff, but they’re still playing electric, and they feel they need a band to pull it off.”

Hammond was 9 when he saw Big Bill Broonzy in concert and came away with his first impression of the blues.

“He had gigantic hands, and I wondered how he could play those little strings with them. And what a voice--filled the room without a microphone.”

By 11, Hammond was spending his allowance on blues records--25 cents a shot if you knew the right places to shop. He said he took his buying cues from the songs he heard on the radio, and not from his famous father (the senior Hammond died last year, leaving behind an unrivaled track record of discoveries that included Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Ray Vaughan).

“People assume I got the impetus (from his father), that I grew up around this big record collection,” Hammond said. In fact, his parents were divorced when he was 5, and Hammond was raised by his mother.

“I don’t want to say anything that would make anyone feel that I’m not respectful of him,” he said of his father. “I admire so many of the things that he did. But for whatever reasons or circumstances, we weren’t close. For better or worse, I got into (music) on my own. That I chose to be a musician--he wasn’t happy with that at all. He and I never were close enough for him to relate how he felt about it. Believe me, it was very awkward. But later he was very proud.”

Hammond began playing blues guitar at 17. He enrolled for a year at Antioch College in Ohio; at 19, with no experience except occasional performances at parties, he moved to Los Angeles to be a blues man.

“I went as far away as I could from everything I knew,” Hammond said. “I was really struggling to find my own voice somehow. When I found something I really loved, I just went with it all the way. I knew when I left that I was going to be doing this forever.”

The first confirmation that his instincts were right came after he opened a show for the Staples family, the famous gospel-soul singing group. “It was Pop Staples who gave me my first real pat on the back. He said, ‘That’s fantastic.’ He used to play blues when he was younger, and it was just encouraging.”

Over the next three years, Hammond shared bills with the likes of Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters--"the who’s who in blues.” None of these influential black players ever questioned the authenticity of a young white man singing the blues, he said. “There was no color thing. The fact that I was into playing music professionally and loving it was obvious. The only hassles I got were from newspaper writers and radio interviewers who had to make a big black-white thing out of it. I would tell them, ‘I don’t know, either you can (play the blues) or you can’t,’ ” regardless of color.

Hammond continues to play the blues live in a touring regimen of about 160 or 180 dates a year, singing classics from the country-blues songbook, or giving acoustic treatments to Chicago’s urban blues. Late next month, his first U.S. album in five years, “Nobody But You,” is due out on New York-based RBI Records. The album, already released in Europe and England, was recorded early in 1987.

Unlike some performers who stay close to blues or folk tradition, Hammond isn’t given to expounding between songs on the origins and stylistic fine points of the songs he plays. Nevertheless, he cares deeply about sending listeners back to the original sources.

“My goal is for (the audience) to get off on what I’m doing. And if they do, by nature they’ll just have to get off into the old stuff. It’s a natural progression. I’m not an archivist. I’m not a raiser of a lost art. I’m a blues singer, and I play the old style. These songs I do, I didn’t write ‘em, but when I do ‘em, they’re mine.”

Hammond says he has no regrets about sticking with tradition during the mid-'60s, a time when Dylan, Paul Butterfield, the Band and the British Invaders were exploding older folk or blues forms into rock hybrids that reached a much wider audience. He affirms the point in a voice that takes on an extra quantum of quiet force as it delivers a blues man’s credo.

“I wasn’t a songwriter, and the songs I liked best were just absolutely blues. Blues is the most powerful, sexy, funny, sad--it’s the deepest stuff. I don’t ever get tired of playing it.”

The Irvine Meadows Blues Festival with (in order of appearance) Harmonica Fats, Papa John Creach (both backed by the Bernie Pearl Blues Band), John Hammond, Buddy Guy, Taj Mahal, Bo Diddley with the Cash McCall Band and the Neville Brothers, will be Saturday from 11 a.m. until dusk at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre, 8800 Irvine Center Drive, Irvine. Tickets: $19.50 and $16. Information: (714) 855-8096