With a Little Help From His Friend

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Blues singer John Hammond's career has been all about the nose-to-the-grindstone life of the working musician. But even in this blue-collar context, a little storybook magic has fallen--twice in fact, once at the start and now again some 40 years later.

The first time was one of those only-in-L.A. scenes. Hammond, the Greenwich Village-raised son of legendary record producer and talent scout John Hammond Sr., had come to Los Angeles to start his career, so naturally he was working at a gas station.

"A Porsche drives in with the top down and a big Martin J-45 [guitar] in the back seat," Hammond, 57, recalls. "And I'm pumping gas checking out this guitar, and the guy driving the car says, 'Oh, what, do you play?' and I said, 'Yeah, a little.' And he said, 'Well, play me a tune.'

"So while the gas was pumpin' I played him a tune. It was [singer] Hoyt Axton. He said, 'Man, that sounds great, I'm gonna get you a gig.' He got me a gig at the Satire Club in South Gate. . . . I played a week and was held over for a week."

That launched Hammond toward his deal with Vanguard Records, triumphs at the Newport Folk Festival and collaborations with the Band, Duane Allman, Dr. John and the elite of the blues world. But by the end of the '90s, Hammond was unsure about his future with Virgin-affiliated Pointblank Records after giving the label four Grammy-nominated but poor-selling albums.

"I had that uneasy feeling that maybe I wouldn't get to do a fifth album," Hammond says. "It didn't seem they were happy with the sales."

Waits Brings Some Visibility

Cue the storybook ending, courtesy of the idiosyncratic and revered singer-songwriter, Tom Waits, an old friend of Hammond's who agreed to produce Hammond's new album. "Wicked Grin," which came out this week, also turned into a set of Waits songs (two of them newly written) as the sessions proceeded.

"When Tom agreed to produce this, everything changed, and I began to realize Tom's weight in the biz," Hammond says. "When they heard that Tom was gonna produce they just flipped out."

Waits had never produced a record other than his own, but his admiration for Hammond made it an easy decision when Hammond's wife, Marla, first proposed the project to Kathleen Brennan, Waits' wife and collaborator.

"I couldn't say no," says Waits, a former L.A. denizen who now lives in Northern California. "It's funny, he's been on the back roads. He's like a cantor who knows all the sermons. He has invaluable experience and finesse. I don't know anybody that can play guitar like that except guys who are old enough to be his grandfather. . . . He's like a guy who knows what to do if your flamingo's sick."

Waits obviously still favors the kind of colorful imagery that made him a hipster hero in the mid '70s, but he's keenly aware that on the commerce side of things, his stamp on the record could mean valuable attention for his friend.

"I hope so," Waits says. "That's how it works kinda, unfortunately, all things being equal, which they never are. So you kinda have to tip the scales. . . . You want to turn the light on and aim it over there if you can. . . . John's deserving of a lot of attention, and you want to be in the mix so you can make a difference."

Not that Hammond was struggling. His career had leveled into a comfortable pattern of touring and recording, spiced by collaborations and varied musical formats. The constant was the blues, a music he embraced as a teenager living in the Village with his mother and brother.

His parents divorced when he was 5 and he didn't have much contact with his father, who is most famous for discovering Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. Young Hammond, who then had a "Jr." on his name, went to Antioch College in Ohio to study art, but soon began playing blues in local clubs, then set out for L.A. and his epiphany at the gas pumps.

Hammond and Waits met on the road in the mid-'70s and became firm friends, but their musical interaction has been minimal. Waits wrote a song, "No One Can Forgive Me but My Baby," for Hammond's 1992 album "Got Love If You Want It," and Hammond appeared on Waits' 1999 "Mule Variations."

'A Step Outside of Myself'

On "Wicked Grin," a band that includes Waits, veteran bassist Larry Taylor and legendary Texas organist Augie Meyers, plays with relaxed command, isolating and magnifying the blues component of such noir scenarios as "Heartattack and Vine" and "Murder in the Red Barn." (The core of the band, which takes its name from the album title, is backing Hammond on his current tour, including shows at the Coach House on Sunday and the Knitting Factory Hollywood on Monday.)

Says Hammond, "I wish I had the vocabulary to describe articulately how intensely inspired I was. I got some kind of energy from Tom that enabled me to go inside myself and pull out these feelings, and find ways of singing that I had never done before. So I was quite changed by it, or transformed.

"I am a blues singer, and this is a step outside of myself. I didn't think I could do this in the beginning, and I finally realized that here was an opportunity to do something extraordinary, and I was ready to do it."

Watching from the producer's chair, Waits got a good view of Hammond's approach.

"If you don't write, you hear a song and you still go through the same process that you do when you're writing. You attach yourself to it and it pulls you behind it and you go where it goes. That's what John does. He hears a song and he knows in two minutes whether he can sing it, and if he can he's already singing it before it's over, and if he can't he's on to the next one. It's like pickin out shoes or ties or hats. . . . For a writer, it's flattering to have someone like John do your songs. He makes me sound good."

*

* John Hammond's "Wicked Grin," at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, 7 p.m. Sunday. $15. (949) 496-8927. Also at the Knitting Factory Hollywood, 7021 Hollywood Blvd., L.A., 9 p.m. Monday. $12 in advance, $15 day of show. (323) 463-0204.

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