Saturday, July 28, 2007

I'm Tore Down (Part 3)

Bluesman John Hammond briefly had Jimi Hendrix as his lead guitar player, but then Jimi headed for England (see most recent post below)...

"That summer of 1967 I went to Atlantic and told them about the stuff we'd cut earlier for Red Bird. They were interested and bought the tunes and my contract, and used them on the album I Can Tell in the fall. We also cut Sooner or Later then, but it wasn't released till the next year."

From 1967 until last year ((article dates from 1970)), Hammond was just playing anywhere he could, Chicago, both coasts, some festivals--sometimes alone, sometimes as John Hammond and His Screamin' Nighthawks, though the only other mainstay in that time was drummer Charles Otis.

"Let me tell you about him," says Hammond. "Charles Otis is a legend in his own time. He began playing at sixteen in New Orleans with Professor Longhair. Then he went on the road with Lloyd Price--he's on 'Lawdy Miss Clawdy.' He also played with Fats Domino, Little Richard, Huey Piano Smith, Charles Brown, Lowell Fulson, Otis Redding, The Coasters, The Dixie Cups, Alvin Robinson--in other words, everybody in r&b. In The Girl Can't Help It, Charles is the cat drumming behind Little Richard. He's 37 now, but he's ageless. He's had numerous offers from cats like James Brown, But Charles won't go out on the road anymore with anyone but me," concludes Hammond with obvious pride.

Atlantic made no further moves with Hammond, Otis, and whoever else, however, until last fall. "They sent me down to Muscle Shoals, and I think we made a monster--a meat package, no fat on it anywhere. This new guy Duane Allman's on guitar on four cuts, lead and slide. Now I've heard The Allman Brothers album and I don't like it much, but he played his ass off for this one." The new album, called Southern Fried, has just now appeared.

What are Hammond's future plans? "Well," he muses, "right now I could have an eight-piece band of the baddest cats in the land--all these New Orleans cats that are tight with Charles. But I still can't afford to keep a band like that together. But if I could, man, we'd make a shot heard 'round the world.

"If I can't get big money and big concerts," he goes on, "I don't know what will happen. I can't keep going on the road ten months of the year much longer. I've got a wife and kid now. She's a woman, she knows I'm a musician and she's strong; but this year starts my ninth year. I've played everywhere, I've worked hard, I've got all the credentials--now I've got to get into the concert scene."

Hammond listens in silence for a moment to Little Walter blowing blue and lonely in the background, then says, "I've never been in a strong bargaining positions with the record companies. I've never got any front money at all, so they were never forced to put any promotional hype on my albums. Even this new one--Atlantic says they'll push it, but it's all on faith at this point.

"It's hard not to be bitter, but I'm not. I've met and played with so many incredible artists--I've gotten to play with all my idols, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf. Listen, I shared a bill with the Wolf one time, and he used to call me back out every night. He said, 'Damn, oh you got a lot of heart, John.' A black person can see that I feel what I'm doing--that I'm not just imitating. Because of my family, I've just known so many black musicians in my life. Like my middle name Paul--I'm named after Paul Robeson, my godfather. But it's never been, like, being part of a white group looking on a black culture. I've just been there, so I'm not ill-at-ease now wherever I go. I get hassled more by whites," he adds bitterly, "than I do by blacks."

And as a result, Hammond's manner seems a strange mixture of shyness and egotism--of courtly politeness on one hand and occasional nervousness on the other (evidenced possibly by the slight stutter that shows up in his speech, though never in his singing). So many of his friends and one-time back-up men have become astounding successes, and so many white critics have accused him disdainfully of something akin to "blackface" mimickry ((Greil Marcus is one over the many years who never cut John any slack)), that it should be no surprise to find Hammond somewhat defensive in his pride and confidence.

"People think I've had all these inroads in music because of my father," he says. "He's really a spectacular man, and I got to hear the music because of his position. But I've done it all myself. I wanted to be on my own, making my own living, making my own mistakes--and I have been since I was eighteen. In fact, there was a time when my father tried to discourage me from music.

"I began playing because I loved the blues, I loved all these black musicians who are truly great figures in American culture. And I wanted to help propagate, help continue the life of this stuff that was going out of style. I knew I could do it, and I have--I know I've turned a lot of people on to this pure art form, this roots thing of American culture. And a lot of black artists have benefited, so I feel good.

"The blues is comin' back," he says, " and comin' back pure--the basics, the truth. It's so real, it makes some people embarrassed. In today's age of super-technology when there's no feeling and very little thinking, the blues is a shot of pure energy."

He stops and gestures into the gathering waves of sound from Little Walter's harmonica. "That's so real, man. That's his heart you're listening to."

It's over. John Hammond, bluesman, heads back to the motel and then to his last night at the Medicine Show--still on the road, still paying his dues, still working and waiting.


The irony of this 1970 article, of course, is that it could have been written yesterday or a year ago, because the language and ideas expressed (especially in this third part) are still pertinent over 35 years later. Though his hair is graying and he's recognized as a major founding figure of the post-Chicago blues scene, playing and singing for nearly 50 years now, John Hammond is still out there scuffling, shifting from label to label, cutting fine albums with tunes ranging from Robert Johnson to Howlin' Wolf, Chuck Berry to Tom Waits... and maybe still hoping to hit it big.

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