It should be no surprise that singer/guitarist John Paul Hammond is a musician. It’s in his blood.
Hammond, who on Friday, June 7 will play the State Theatre in Falls Church, Virginia as part of the 2013 Tinner Hill Blues Festival, is the son of famous record producer and talent scout John Henry Hammond. By his son's account, the elder Hammond discovered artists ranging from Billie Holiday to Lester Young to Bob Dylan to Bruce Springsteen.
Sometimes referred to as John Hammond, Jr., Hammond the son has had several brushes of his own with musical history during his forty year career.
He is the only musician known to play in a band featuring both Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton. He also advised Hendrix to travel to England—a move that essentially launched the guitarist to fame.
Hammond befriended Willie Dixon and Duane Allman, got to know Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf and shared a show with Jimmy Reed. He enlisted members of the Band as his back-up band for an album—then saw Bob Dylan steal them away. He attended parties hosted in New York City by blues shouter and songwriter Victory Spivey. Spivey once recorded him playing with Otis Spann and Bob Dylan in the same session.
Performing live on guitar and harp-on-a-rack in a barrelhouse style, Hammond plays classic blues songs from the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s. He has recorded more than 30 albums since debuting on Vanguard Records in 1962. In 1985 he won a Grammy for the compilation album Blues Explosion, which also featured Sugar Blue, J.B. Hutto, Luther “Guitar Junior” Johnson, Koko Taylor and Stevie Ray Vaughan. He has received four other Grammy nominations, including one in 2010 for his album Rough and Tough.
In 2011, Hammond was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame by the Blues Foundation.
He spoke to Beldon’s Blues Point about his long career in the following interview:
BBP: I did see you at the Hamilton (in November, 2012). I guess you were opening for Coco Montoya?
Hammond: This was in D.C., right?
BBP: Yeah. Yeah. I really enjoyed your show, I must say.
Hammond: Thank you.
BBP: Well, I was reading about your background, and you’re part of the Vanderbilt family, right?
Hammond: Um, indirectly. My father’s mother was Emily Sloane, who—her mother was a Vanderbilt. And I never got to know that whole scene at all. My dad was a rebellious guy who broke away from his family and all of that stuff and I mean was practically disowned by his family. And so I grew up not knowing much about that side at all. I grew up mostly with my mother, who was Irish, born in Toronto, just off the ship from Ireland. So that was my reality as a kid. You know, as I got older I heard all of these things about my father’s mother and her Vanderbilt connections. My grandfather, John Henry Hammond, was the son of a very strange dynamic guy from the Civil War era, a general in the army who became a scout for the railroad and all of this stuff. A real character. So that’s my background.
BBP: Wow. I was curious also—just as a thought—are you related to Anderson Cooper from CNN?
Hammond: Indirectly, indirectly, yes. Anyone that had a Vanderbilt connection, all of these trainspotter types are quick to say (affecting a pompous type voice) “Oh, you’re related to (whomever). He’s your third cousin twice removed.” I don’t pay attention to that stuff.
BBP: Well, I don’t know why I thought of that. It just sort of popped into my head. But anyway you were talking about your dad, and I understand your dad was pretty important in the music business in his own right. That he actually discovered Billie Holiday?
Hammond: Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Lester Young, Charlie Christian, Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons—he put the band together for Benny Goodman, then went on to discover artists like Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, um, Bruce Springsteen…
Hammond: It goes on and on. He was quite a guy.
BBP: But I understand you really didn’t have a lot of contact with him as you were growing up.
Hammond: Well I didn’t grow up with my dad. My folks were divorced when I was five. I saw my father on occasion. My brother and I grew up with our mother, basically.
BBP: But did his line of work influence you at all?
Hammond: Maybe indirectly, but I wasn’t part of his household, so I got into this on my own. It’s my own passion.
BBP: Well, why the blues, of the different styles of music you could have gotten into? What about them attracted you?
Hammond: When I was seven, my father took me to hear Big Bill Broonzy, who was one of the great country blues players. I was very impressed. I don’t know how the seeds were sewn, but as I got older, I just sort of gravitated towards blues music and all of that passion and feeling, to me, it was where it all came from. I just got deeper and deeper into it. And when I was 18, I got a guitar, and when I was 19 I started playing professionally. It’s all I wanted to do.
BBP: Hmm. And I understand that you were a big fan of Jimmy Reed, that he had a lot of influence…
Hammond: Oh, yeah. I got to be on a show with him.
Hammond: 1964. In Oakland, California.
BBP: You were playing with him?
Hammond: Yeah, I was opening the show. It was a show put on by a record producer named Chris Strachwitz who had a label called Arhoolie Records. And I got to know Chris: he’s a big blues fanatic, and he put on shows, recorded artists and so forth. He was—is—a terrific, dynamic guy.
BBP: And what was it like meeting Jimmy Reed for the first time? He was somebody you admired all of those years.
Hammond: It was awesome. I was so humbled I don’t think I said more than four words, like, “so nice to meet you.” And I watched his show intently. He was just amazing.
BBP: Wow. And I also understand that you were a big fan of Robert Johnson.
Hammond: I was, but I never met Robert Johnson (laughs). He died before I was born.
BBP: Yeah. He died before a lot of us were born.
Hammond: But I got to know a lot of great blues players, including Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. Willie Dixon. I could just name hundreds of other artists that I’ve toured with and played with—got to know and—I’ve had an amazing career.
BBP: Yeah, I’ve been reading all about you. You certainly have. Tell me about Willie Dixon though. I know that you were a friend of his.
Hammond: Well, he was happening on many levels. He was a songwriter of course, and wrote songs for Muddy and Howlin’ Wolf and Little Walter and just about everybody. He was also a great bass player—bandleader—he put artists on the map, you know from obscurity to having recording deals and so forth. He worked hand and glove with Chess Records and he took care of himself. I mean he got his songs published, he made money that way. He was a very happening guy. He was from Vicksburg, Mississippi. I’d driven through Vicksburg on my way to New Orleans once and I said “Oh, I was in your hometown, Vicksburg” and he said (imitating a very deliberate tone of voice) “don’t talk to me about Vicksburg.” Ooooh. So I guess he didn’t have wonderful experiences there. He had been a professional boxer for a while. He was a big, tough guy, but a really nice person.
BBP: A lot of musicians in the past I know were boxers. Jackie Wilson, the great R&B performer. A lot of folks. But you were described to me as the only person in the history of music who ever had Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton together in the same band.
Hammond: (laughs) For about a week, yeah.
BBP: How’d that happen?
Hammond: Well, I met Eric in 1965 when I was on tour in England. I hooked up on some shows with John Mayall and his Bluesbreakers and Eric was his guitar player. So we hung out a bunch in England and played a bunch of shows together. They actually backed me on a TV show called Ready Steady Goes Live and we became friends at that point. And in 1966 I was playing at a club in New York and was introduced to Jimi Hendrix who was a fantastic guitar player and a great guy. I got to know him as a friend and I put a little band together with him as my lead guitar player and he was discovered and went over to England and became a huge star in Europe. In 1967 I put my own little band together, just drums and bass and Cream came over for their first tour in the U.S. and Hendrix came back to the U.S. from England, where he was a huge star. And they both had some time off, and they both came down to this club where I was playing with my little band. And they both said “Hey, suppose we sit in with you?” Every night that week they came in and sat in. It was just phenomenal.
BBP: How did they sound together? How was the mixture of…
Hammond: Oh, they were just incredible. They fed off each other; they were both great players, very passionate about blues music and—no problem.
BBP: That’s incredible. I also know that you actually played with Levon Helm and some members of the Band?
Hammond: Yeah. I met them in Toronto in1963. They had just left Ronnie Hawkins and they were on their own and playing gigs in Toronto. I went down to hear them one night and became good friends. I would go to their shows, they’d come to my shows, and they were in New York in 1964 trying to get a demo tape together. And it wasn’t going so well, and I was already signed to Vanguard Records. So I approached Vanguard and I said, “I’ve got a little band together. Can we have a recording session?” And reluctantly they said okay, and so we had three hours to do whatever we wanted to do, and we made a whole album called So Many Roads. Levon (Helms) and Robbie (Robertson), Rick Danko and Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson and the whole Band was my band for a while. My friend Bob Dylan came to the recording date and I introduced them to Bob and the next thing I know, they were playing with Bob!
BBP: (laughing) He stole them from you, huh?
Hammond: Well, yes. Well, I mean not that they were ever my band; they were always their own band. But they recorded behind me on that So Many Roads record.
BBP: Did you ever record with Dylan himself?
Hammond: I did. I went to a recording date, he asked me to play some guitar. Highway 61 Revisited, but it was obscure. I think I may have been on one track in the background maybe. Or perhaps it didn’t make it, I don’t know. It wasn’t a big deal to me.
BBP: But getting back to Jimi Hendrix, you actually advised him to—when Chas Chandler approached him—I think it was at the Café Go-Go in New York?
Hammond: The Café Au Go Go.
BBP: Right. You actually advised him to take Chas Chandler up on his offer.
Hammond: Oh, definitely. Oh yeah. He was so good. He was so dynamic, that how could you not suggest that he go over and make his own career happen? I mean he’d been a sideman for –for three or four years. He’d been with a band called Curtis Knight and was fired in New York, I think, for probably upstaging him (laughs). And I mean he was so dynamic, it was just incredible and he was a really, really nice guy.
BBP: Do you remember the conversation? Do you remember his reaction?
Hammond: He said “Man, this guy has offered me a ticket to go to England and record.” And I said: “You just have to do it. You’re not going to have a whole lot of chances like that just off the bat.” And he came back and looked me up when he’d already become a huge star.
BBP: Hmm. Well, I’ve heard you are a great electric player. Over the years, your trend seems to be to do acoustic shows, one man acoustic shows.
Hammond: Yes, that’s what I enjoy doing most. I can play some electric guitar but that isn’t my real focus. I prefer the solo style that I’ve developed over all of these years and I feel that’s my strongest point. I do enjoy playing the electric guitar, but having a band together and all of that, that’s not been my focus.
BBP: But you have done some albums where you’ve played electric…
Hammond: Yes. Yes.
BBP: The one you recorded with David Hidalgo from Los Lobos….
BBP: How do you know when something calls for a band and when something calls for you to play solo?
Hammond: Usually it’s the record label that says “well, we don’t want a solo record.” So it’s kind of on my shoulders to put a band together. What I like to do and have done in the past is to do some cuts on the album being solo and some with just a piano or a smaller combo, and then some with a full band; you know drums, bass, piano, whatever. And I’ve made albums in the past with big bands and horn sections and all of that stuff, and I’ve had a chance to do a whole lot of stuff over the years.
BBP: Yeah, I kind of picked that up. One thing though. Do you—you don’t really do a lot of original material, do you?
Hammond: I’ve got some songs of my own, yeah. I think I played some that night. I don’t think of myself as a songwriter. I’m a blues singer and I know hundreds and hundreds of songs so I have a lot to fall back on, be inspired by.
BBP: But it seems like your aim seems to be to kind of pay tribute and homage to the genre.
Hammond: I do songs that I like. I’m definitely in the genre. This is my life. I think that blues music is always relevant and dynamic—very honest—and I’ve been inspired to do this for my whole career. A great song deserves to be sung, and I don’t think you have to be a songwriter to be a good singer or player.
BBP: But when you do write songs, what artist do you think of?
Hammond: Well, they’re so many that I’ve been inspired by. I just go with the feeling that comes, you know?
BBP: So it’s just a collection of people who are calling to you in the background as you’re writing your songs, right?
Hammond: I get inspiration; I don’t know where it comes from. But it does come.
BBP: You know something else I was curious about? I’ve seen a lot of people do this—Bruce Springsteen—you did it at your show at the Hamilton. Playing the harmonica and playing the guitar at the same time. That must be very hard. How do you..
Hammond: Well, it isn’t anymore. It used to be like a huge challenge right at the beginning, but I began playing harmonica and guitar almost at the same time. So in order to put them together, I guess it’s like a piano player that has a left hand independent from the right hand. And after a while, you don’t even think about it: it just flows. It’s hard to put in the words.
BBP: It’s just something that happens more or less.
Hammond: Yes, that’s what I’ve started out to do and got to a point where I could do it and was encouraged to do it and felt like I was getting better.
BBP: And I guess at the same time you’re throwing in the singing as well, so that kind of complicates things…
Hammond: That one man band aspect.
BBP: Right. I mean, are you kind of following a blues tradition when you do that?
Hammond: Well, there’s only a handful of players that play on the rack like I do. Jimmy Reed was one. I don’t know if you ever saw Doc Watson play…
BBP: That might have been before my time…
Hammond: Great harmonica player on the rack. It’s uh…you have to be a little nuts to do it, I think (laughs).
BBP: When you say “the rack” you mean…
Hammond: the harmonica on a rack while you’re playing guitar.
BBP: Got you. Now I also hear that you actually look for obscure blues songs that are actually in danger of disappearing.
Hammond: I don’t go out of my way to look for stuff like that. I mean, if I hear it by chance or whatever, and I feel “oh, that’s a good one,” that’s the kind of way I go about it. I don’t go looking for them.
BBP: It’s just something you hear and you try to incorporate it.
BBP: When you hear something, is there something particular that appeals to you?
Hammond: it’s got to appeal to me; otherwise I don’t want to be involved with it. There are so many great songs out there, it’s what I feel that I can do that I like that I can make it mine. I think that’s where all singers are. Find something you can latch onto and make it your own.
BBP: I mean can you put into words what about a song grabs you? If somebody were to ask you what you would look for, or what would strike your ear?
Hammond: Well it would have to do with the words and how they go together, what the image is that it creates in your mind. I’m a guy who’s been on the road 51 years, I’ve seen a whole lot of stuff and I can relate to traveling. I can relate to every statement you can make in the book: passion, adventure—when a song grabs me it has to be something I can relate to.
BBP: Something in your personal experience, in other words.
Hammond: Yes, I guess. I’ve had a lot—a lot –of that.
BBP: That’s interesting. Now I know you’ve played with a lot of musicians over the years, we kind of talked about that earlier. And there were others too that we didn’t mention: Dr. John, Duane Allman, Roosevelt Sykes. Which of these musicians actually taught you the most? I mean, did any of them actually take you aside and say “John, you need to do more of this…”
Hammond: No, nobody ever did that. I traveled with a fellow named Charles Otis from New Orleans, who, when I put my first band together, he was the drummer, and he’s been on the road with Professor Longhair and Little Richard and Alvin Robinson and Frogman Henry, all of these great New Orleans players. I mean he’d been on the road and knew about how to comport yourself, you know, how to be professional and not go crazy. Charles taught me a lot about, just how to be yourself in your own shoes and be professional; respect your audience, you know, that kind of thing. Charles is my friend to this day. We made many records together, travelled all over the place and…you’ll meet folks like that in your life that will hip you to things. One of those guys.
BBP: Wow. How did you hook up with Roosevelt Sykes? The reason I ask is because I actually saw him back in the seventies.
Hammond: You did? Wow, I was on some films with him. And we became friends, and I was going to make a record, and I wanted that sound of just piano and guitar. And I asked him if he’d do it, and he said he would. So I flew him up to New York; he wanted $700. And so the record label was going to write him a check and he said “no, no, no, I want cash on the piano.” (laughs). So he got the cash on the piano and we had a great time. I was on a lot of gigs with him; just a phenomenal guy.
BBP: That’s incredible. What year was this?
Hammond: Probably ’75.
BBP: Hmm. That’s about the time I saw him.
Hammond: It was called Footwork.
BBP: Hmm. That’s the name of the album?
Hammond: Yeah. An album I made with him. I also had recorded with him back in the ‘60’s for Victoria Spivey. When Sykes came to New York he played at Gerdes Folk City and this was a hangout for Victoria Spivey who was an old time blues shouter from the 20’s and 30’s. And she knew Roosevelt and anytime he came to New York, she’d be there, and the idea was to invite everybody in the band up to her place in Brooklyn and she’d record you there on a tape recorder. And so I went up there many times and I got to record with some phenomenal players, including Otis Spann and Bob Dylan. It was back in the wild 60’s, ’65 or ’66, or around there.
BBP: Otis Spann and Bob Dylan in the same session?
Hammond: Oh yeah. And they’re still available. I don’t know if they’re on CD yet, but I imagine they are somewhere…
BBP: Wow. What a combination. I mean…
Hammond: …on the Queen Bee label.
BBP: Queen Bee label? And these are based on recordings that Victoria Spivey made on a tape recorder?
Hammond: Yeah, on her tape recorder with her friend Lenny. She’d feed you a huge fried chicken dinner and then you’d have to play (laughs). It was a wild scene.
BBP: It sounds like an awful lot of fun.
Hammond: It was.
BBP: Who else would show up for those things?
Hammond: Well, a harmonica player named Bill Dicey. Babe Stovall. Anybody who was coming through and playing;if she liked you, you’d be invited up to her place.
BBP: Well it sounds like you’ve known a lot of interesting people. Duane Allman, how did you meet him?
Hammond: Well, I was recording for Atlantic in 1969, and Duane came to the recording session, he wanted to meet me. He had heard some of my earlier recordings. So one of the players on the recording date, Eddie Hinton, knew Duane and introduced him to me. And Eddie said to me “you’ve got to hear this guy play, he’s phenomenal.” So Duane played a little bit, and I said “Oooo. Would you like to be on this next tune we’re going to record?” And it was just mind-boggling. Everybody in Mussel Shoals knew of Duane, he had played behind Aretha Franklin; he had played behind other artists that were recording for Atlantic…so anyway we became really good friends. At one point the Allman Brothers band actually opened for me in St. Paul—probably ’69 or ’70—and then I opened a lot of shows for them later (laughs).
BBP: You returned the favor in other words.
Hammond: Oh, man, we were good friends.
BBP: Wow. That’s something. You’ve had some pretty amazing experiences there with musicians. I was wondering, how do you think the blues has changed? I know you like the more traditional styles, but the things that the modern artists are putting out, what’s your take on them?
Hammond: Well, you do too much, it isn’t blues anymore. You do too little, it becomes a ballad. It’s hard to put into words. I mean blues; you’ll know it when you hear it… (Hammond had to stop our conversation briefly at this point to take another call. Our interview resumed upon his return.)
BBP: Just a couple more I want to throw at you. You know it was funny, I was watching TV the other night, and they showed that movie Little Big Man.
Hammond: Oh yeah…
BBP: And I understand that you were involved in putting together the soundtrack for that?
Hammond: I did the soundtrack for it. I mean I didn’t do the cavalry stuff, but I did the entire guitar playing. 1970.
BBP: Mmm-hmm. Yeah. That was the year that movie came out.
Hammond: Yeah, they flew me out to Hollywood. I said to Arthur Penn, “I don’t think the music that I play existed back then.” He said “it doesn’t matter, it will work.” So they sat me in front of a five-hour movie, and where they wanted to have music, I would play; there’d be a little strip that would come on the film and then I would start, and they recorded it as I played to the movie. It was an amazing, amazing experience for me.
BBP: Was that the only movie you ever did? Were there others?
Hammond: I was involved in two other films vaguely. One was called Matewam, a John Sayles film and one called The Indian Runner; it was a Sean Penn film.
The Tinner Hill Blues Festival is held annually in Falls Church, Virginia to honor blues guitarist John Jackson, who lived in Virginia and died in 2002. Scheduled for June 7-9, 2013, this year’s festival will also feature singer/guitarist Big Bill Morganfield, Sheryl Warner and the Southside Housewreckers, The Acoustic Blues Women, Guitarist Roy Bookbinder, Beverly Guitar Watkins, pianist Daryl Davis, singer Mary Ann Redmond and singer Sista Monica, among others. For specific performance times and other details, check out the Tinner Hill Website at: