By Jacob Katel
By Laurie Charles
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Abel Folgar
By Kat Bein
By Jacob Katel
It's hard to believe that a New York City kid whose father discovered everybody from Billie Holiday to Bruce Springsteen, and whose lineage can be traced back to the Vanderbilts, would devote his life to a tradition birthed in the backwoods and bayous of the South. But that's exactly what bluesman John P. Hammond did.
Hammond's pops was none other than the famed record producer and talent scout John H. Hammond Jr., who, besides Holiday and Springsteen, burnished the legends of Pete Seeger, Aretha Franklin, Leonard Cohen, and Bob Dylan. Then there are the Hammonds' ties to the ultimate New York blue bloods — the younger Hammond is the great-great-grandson of William Henry Vanderbilt.
But, as you'll see, not much of that royal lineage rubbed off on our John, who set out for a life as an itinerant blues musician and never once looked back. I won't spoil the story (read on), but I will say it includes the likes of Muddy Waters, Lightning Hopkins, Jimi Hendrix, Tom Waits, and G. Love. On the road again, as he has been almost constantly since 1960, Hammond is set to hit the Colony this Saturday. It won't be his first time in the Magic City, and it undoubtedly won't be his last. Nevertheless, if you've got a hankering for some down-South soul channeled by a genuine living legend, well, you won't wait till next time. New Times nabbed the bluesman by phone; here's how he spilled some of his life's great story.
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New Times: You're a descendant of the Vanderbilts, which are of course New York royalty. Did that bring with it any sense of civic responsibility?
I never really pondered this at all. Through my grandmother, who I barely knew, I guess there is some connection. I grew up as John Hammond, modestly, in Greenwich Village. I was born in 1942; my parents were divorced when I was five, so I didn't really have a whole lot to do with that side of the family.
So you were born during World War II; was your father in the war when you were born?
He was in the Army from 1943 to 1945.
Your father famously discovered and/or signed everybody from Billie Holiday to Bruce Springsteen. Do you have memories of any of those artists hanging around the house when you were young?
My dad's best friend was Count Basie. And when I did see my dad, on occasion I did get to see Count Basie and his band — Freddie Green, Jimmy Rushing, artists like that who were all friends of his. On occasion I got to see a recording session or two, but it wasn't really significant. I got into playing music on my own. I got a guitar when I was 18 and started playing professionally when I was 19.
Everyone assumes that I was brought up with my dad and knew all of this stuff, and I didn't. I got into this on my own. I started to buy records when I was 11 or 12. Alan Freed had this rock and roll show in New York, and my favorites were Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley and Larry Williams and Jackie Wilson — these phenomenal rock and roll guys who were very close to blues.
In my midteens, I got into the country blues artists who were recorded in the 1930s. Occasionally I would ask my dad if he knew anything about these artists; he was more of a jazz guy, but he was familiar with Robert Johnson and artists like that. There was a little bit of a tie-in, but not as much as everybody thinks.
Yep. [I recorded with] Wolf and Muddy and Willie Dixon; I toured with John Lee Hooker. When I started playing professionally, I worked on shows with Son House and Mississippi John Hurt, Fred McDowell, and Lightning Hopkins. It was pretty heady. I was in the right place at the right time.
Was this in the Village?
Clubs in the Village, California, and just about everywhere. As soon as I left home, I was out there. I went everywhere and anywhere. I really was curious about what it was to be an itinerant bluesman and became it.
So it's also true that both Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix were in your band for a five-day stint at the Gaslight Café in New York back in the 1960s?
That's as true as can be.
How'd that come about?
Well, I knew Jimi from when he first came to New York. He was hanging out in the Village and I was playing in a club across the street from where he was jamming. A friend of mine brought me over and introduced me to him, and we became pretty good friends. I met Clapton when I was over in England in 1965. He was playing with John Mayall at the time, and we hung out a whole lot together. He's just a terrific guy and a great guitar player.
Do you still keep in touch?
I've seen him on occasion. But he's in a higher atmosphere than I am.
You also have a long-standing relationship with Tom Waits, who produced and played on your 2001 album Wicked Grin, comprising mostly his songs. How'd that come about?
Basically it was my wife Marla convincing his wife Kathleen [to get] Tom to produce an album for me. It turned out to be one of the best things I've ever done.
Did you end up recording with him again after that?
I had recorded with him on his Mule Variations project before this, and it was during the time I was recording with Tom that all the seeds were sown.
Being on Mule Variations is some accomplishment — that's one of the most cited and influential albums of all time!
It was. It was very intense. I mean, Tom is an amazing guy and he's very generous.
Over the summer, you marked your 4,000th live show. Congratulations!
It's my 4,000th show with this agency. I was with four other agencies before them. So it's up to around 6,000 jobs probably.
Yikes! So a question about whether you'll have 5,000 by decade's end is moot. You'll have, like, 7,000!
Yeah, something like that.
So you don't see yourself stopping anytime soon, right?
Yeah. I feel as good as I've ever felt.
Your latest LP, Push Comes to Shove, was produced by G. Love. How'd that come about?
Well, he's been a fan of mine for years and years. He once came to a show of mine when he was underage and waited around for a couple who looked old enough to be his parents and asked them to take him in, and it turned out to be my wife Marla and me. I've known him since the early-on for him. I toured with Garrett, played shows with him, and hung out with him. He's a very, very talented guy — very much into the blues, although that's not his thing particularly. And, as I say, he's been a big fan of mine. It was also my wife Marla who suggested he produce the Push Comes to Shove record.
That's the most recent, right?
That's the last thing that's been released. I've recorded a new album that will be out in spring.
Great. Back in '91, you were featured in the documentary The Search for Robert Johnson. How'd that happen?
It was a British film crew. Chris Hunt and Caz Gorham had this idea for a film about the roots of Robert Johnson. I was contacted and asked if I'd be interested to be involved, and when I found out they weren't going to trivialize his life, I got involved. There was no script. It was like a thing that developed as it went along. It was really fascinating, a big adventure.
Didn't your father reissue a bunch of Robert Johnson's music back in the early 1960s?
He did. My father also tried to get Robert Johnson to play a 1938 concert that he produced called "Spirituals to Swing."
And Johnson was murdered that year...
Well, I don't know anymore if he was murdered. We think he died of natural causes. According to Gayle Dean Wardlow, who calls himself "The Detective of the Blues," Robert Johnson was born with syphilis, and this disease was in his genes I guess, and at some point he just died.
What kind of blues would you characterize yourself as: Delta, Chicago?
I'm a country blues player with a leaning toward the Delta.
Do you see the form becoming more or less influential as time goes by?
I think blues will always be discovered and rediscovered by every generation. I mean, there's something American about it right down to the core. It's like true American folk music.