Sunday, July 22, 2007

John Hammond, Bluesman (Part 1)

Once there was a fine Boston-based rock-and-politics magazine called Fusion. It survived for several years in the late Sixties and early Seventies as a solid rival to Rolling Stone. Among those writing for it were Robert Somma (Editor), Michael Lydon, Paul Williams, Robert Christgau, Lenny Kaye, Sandy Pearlman, Nick Tosches, Jonathan Demme, Robert Gordon, John Gabree, and William Kunstler. The magazine even published Peter Guralnick's first book.

As far as I know, Fusion has vanished into rock history now, but I published a few decent pieces in it, and I intend to resurrect a couple of them over the months ahead, starting with my portrait of white bluesman John Hammond, Jr. (not really Junior since his middle name Paul was not also his dad's, but usually identified that way)--still going strong today though not much more financially successful now than he was back then. The article's title was "Songs of the Road."

John Hammond, Sr. is one of the few giant figures in the recording industry. His efforts in discovering, recording, and monitoring neglected or future musical talents has long been legendary in a business short on memory. As an executive of Columbia Records and as the man best known to the rock generation for having signed up Bob Dylan, John Sr. is, in the words of his son, a "spectacular" man, one whose grace and tact are as obvious as his concern and intelligence.

So how does it feel to be John Hammond, Jr. when the year is 1970, when the really big brass rings are mostly gone and it isn't 1960 and there aren't any clubs or people left who haven't heard about Chicago Blues or Joan Baez or civil rights? Where do you go when all the months and years have slipped by and the lives of friends are measured in words like career and culture hero...

The club has character, atmosphere, as they say. No perpendicular sign outside announces its presence, only the word "Tavern" and a couple of beer ads in the dingy front window. But a chain just inside the door (due to the cover charge) suggests that this is no working man's beer-parlor; and once you dig that, you got it all. Band sound and crowd drone; ceiling looming down over parallel layers of spilled Oly, wall-to-wall bodies, and cigarette/pot haze as thick as catatonia; walls and supports decked out with such jagged addenda as mammoth deer antlers, a copy of Goya's Naked Maja, bare and glaring red lights, a vast, ragged U.S. flag, and posters proclaiming the very man now performing on the non-stage over at the left.

Clearly, the word has gone out: John Hammond's in town for three nights, and the Medicine Show Tavern in once again the place to be. (Concert halls and discotheques may control live rock these days, but the Medicine Hall is trying to make it--in backwater Seattle!--by booking in blues people: Lightnin' Hopkins and Son House in recent months, and now white practitioner John Hammond.)

Hammond's Blues Band--blacks Harry Holt, bass, and Charles Otis, drums, plus the man himself on vocals and small electric Gibson--is into the second set of the evening. All three musicians wear suits and ties, but there's no mistaking them for businessmen. Holt's bulging natural and sly smile peer around the neck of his bass, while Otis hides behind his shades and flickering sticks and his well-earned reputation as one of the best r&b drummers around. Hammond's looks are more complex: a bit of the Jagger leer framed in long dark hair, but an angular and gawky body like a high school basketball star--and the sounds issuing from his guitar and throat are flat-out black.

At 27, John Hammond has been scrabbling and scuffling on the road for over eight years. Aside from maybe Dave Van Ronk, he was the first white blues performer to get on record (in the rock era at least), both as country acoustic and then later as big-city electric; and his eight albums have even featured members of The Band and The Stones on occasion. But the chart sales have always managed to elude his grasp. So, although Hammond's deep involvement with black blues has served as the model for many young whites, performers and listeners alike, widespread popular recognition has not been his.

The audience at the Medicine Show at least voices approval--a couple of hundred hip kids, whooping and whistling and cheering wildly. The set opens with Muddy Waters' "I Can't Be Satisfied," all bottleneck strains and machine-gun drums, then moves into John Lee Hooker's "Sugar Mama," with Holt's bass heavily pronounced and Hammond getting into some wah-wah. He's really working out now, really going through changes: arching his body around, shaking the hair and sweat streamers back from his eyes, attacking the mike with his slack-jawed, explosive vocal delivery, as thick and slurred and black as two-days-old coffee.

Close your eyes and it's a South Side Chicago bar. There's "Mojo" and "Forty Days" and a "Cross Cut Saw" that stutters and booms with harsh guitar--and then "Spoonful," creeping in slow and evil and deadly, with Hammond outdoing even the Wolf, adding his own gutty and gritty inflection to those famous opening words: "Could be a spoonful o' coffee, Could be a spoonful o' tea..."

When fatigue and an increasingly erratic sound system finally bring the set to an end, the John Hammond Blues Band exits through cascading applause. Once into the tavern's combination storeroom-office-sound booth, Otis and Holt wander off to quench their thirst, but Hammond settles down to demonstrate acoustic bottlenecking techniques to a pair of inquisitive fans. he seems tired but pleased with the band's performance; and he agrees to do an interview the next afternoon.


At that time, Hammond arrives resplendent in jeans and a pythonskin jacket ("I'm not up to the pants yet"), armed with a mug of coffee and a pack of Camels, apologetic for his slight hoarseness, the result of having sung every night for over six weeks. With a disc of Magic Sam playing in the background, Hammond launches into a near monologue on gigs and people and dues:

"Robert Johnson was where I started. When I was 16, my father ((see intro above)) played me a record of Johnson's 'Terraplane Blues.' Something clicked in my head. That's when I became a blues singer."

Lightnin' Hopkins was another formative influence, but Hammond was playing only for himself and for friends--in the Village and during one wasted year at Antioch College--until early '62. "I had a job at a hotel in Florida, busman, roomkeeper, maintenance man, and in the off-time I was practicing guitar. I'd go into this little town, Boca Grande, and stand on the street corners playing for the black people in town. I met this cat Albert McCall who encouraged me and showed me some stuff on harmonica--I'm sure he's still playing there at the Phosphate."

That spring he began playing the club circuit in L.A.--the Satire, the Insomniac, the Troubador, the Ash Grove. After a stop in San Francisco, he moved on to Chicago in the fall. "I met up there again with John Koerner and Dave Ray, and we drove up to Minneapolis in this old hotrod V-8 Ford I had. Got a job playing with Koerner at Matty's Bar in Minneapolis. We had this duet thing going--two guitars, two harmonicas. I got to know those guys very well."

Then on to Gerde's Folk City in New York, where he attracted enough attention to get a contract from Vanguard Records. Hammond cut an album that winter, but Vanguard didn't get around to releasing it until the following September. Meanwhile he was playing dates up and down the East Coast; remember those innocent days when a white kid playing black music was still something remarkable?

Hammond continues, "Then I was asked to the Newport Folk Festival. I went over well and made some friends." He's being modest. His performance was actually an astounding success; just listen to the black artists cheering Hammond on in the background of "No Money Down" (on the first Blues at Newport album)....

((I'm splitting the article there for now, but with one bit of added info: Hammond's father was the man who staged the famous Spirituals to Swing concerts in 1938 and '39; and he tried to track down Robert Johnson to bring him up to NYC for the first one, but Johnson had been murdered by then. Younger John's connection with tragic bluesman Robert was in a way made back in 1938! Next time: The Band, Mike Bloomfield, Duane Allman, and a certain Jimmy James...))


Victor Bravo Monchego, Jr said...

Let's say we give Knicksgirl a swift kick in the arse right out of your page. By the way, another fine pc. of rock history.

Rhoda said...

Keep up the good work.