John Hammond Blues Cruise
Sails Into McCabe’s

August 2, 2013 8:00 and 10:00pm

By Ross Altman

john hammondHeir to the Vanderbilt fortune, wealthy son of illustrious record producer John Hammond, raised in private schools and scion of privilege, no one could be less likely than John Hammond, Jr. to have met Robert Johnson at the Crossroads, where the famed King of the Delta Blues guitarist sold his soul to the devil. But there is more to his story than meets the eye: John Hammond, Jr. may have his illustrious father’s name, but he didn’t exactly grow up around the man who discovered Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. His parents were divorced and from a young age he saw his father only a few times a year.

For all practical purposes he fell in love with this proto-American art form on his own, when he happened to hear a record of blues-man Jimmy Reed at Carnegie Hall. That’s the album without the artist on the cover—just a bare stool, center stage, with a guitar leaning up against it to the side, and harmonica holder perched on top. It’s my favorite album cover of all time, and it must have sung to John Hammond, Jr. too, since he said it sealed his fate.

To prepare for his upcoming stop at McCabe’s on August 2 at 8:00pm (sold out) and 10:00pm (tickets still available) I have been re-listening to Hammond’s Vanguard CD Country Blues, which includes the Jimmy Reed song Little Rain Falling, an amazing recreation of Reed’s style that combines the best of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee into one riveting performance. Hammond plays guitar and harmonica in a way that reveals complete mastery of both instruments. You really can imagine you are listening to two musicians for the price of one.

New York Native John Hammond got his start in the same Greenwich Village folk scene that inspired the recently reviewed movie Greenwich Village: The Music That Defined a Generation. And yet, in the same way that Maria Muldaur (whose McCabe’s concert was also just reviewed) was ignored by the movie, so was John Hammond, which basically short-circuited the country blues revival that happened alongside the white folk singer revival. At the heart of that blues revival was John Hammond. Unlike the others he never claimed to be a songwriter, or an all-around traditional musician, but rather focused on one thing only and did it to perfection—the blues. His early Vanguard albums recreated the long-lost songs of Blind Willie Johnson, Blind Willie McTell, Willie Dixon, and Robert Johnson, as well as those who were still performing, like John Lee Hooker, Sleepy John Estes and Mississippi John Hurt. He shifted easily from the Delta blues of Robert Johnson and Bukka White to the Piedmont blues of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee and the Blind Reverend Gary Davis.

He embraced the entire range of blues expression, including Chicago’s electric blues.

Indeed, Hammond’s open-minded mastery of electric blues put him right in the middle of the most electrifying super-group of the entire rock era: For five halcyon days he put together a trio with Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix—before Hendrix moved to England to record at Hammond’s suggestion and encouragement. When they met Hendrix was fresh from Seattle and couldn’t get a recording deal in New York—unlike nearly every would-be white folk-and-blues singer of the time. So Hammond told him he had to go to England when the opportunity to record there came up and Hendrix seemed reluctant to follow through on it. For five days Hendrix, Hammond and Clapton held center stage at The Gaslight Café in NYC; then Hendrix flew to England and the rest is history. John Hammond, Jr. did for Jimi Hendrix what his father had done for Holiday, Dylan and Springsteen: he discovered him and recognized his future greatness before anyone else.

John Hammond, Jr. also helped Bob Dylan by introducing him to The Band, before they were The Band—and were performing as The Hawks. On the back of his first Vanguard recordings you’ll see Levon Helm playing drums and Robbie Robertson playing guitar. You see they were a part of John Hammond’s band before they backed up Dylan. Once again, Hammond had his father’s well-traveled ears and was able to recognize future greatness years before it was signed, sealed and delivered.

Through a number of incarnations, somewhat like Dylan in this respect—acoustic to electric and back again, solo to band and back again—John Hammond’s primary performing metier has been the rural country blues of the great solo artists like Big Bill Broonzy—who John Hammond Sr. booked in his famous 1938 Carnegie Hall concert From Spirituals to Swing—demonstrating once and for all the great range of African-American music from its source in the Negro Spirituals to its creation of the blues and ultimately jazz—the uniquely American music forms that have been our greatest contribution to World Music. In that historic concert Hammond, Sr. brought together black blues artists like Broonzy with white jazz pioneers like Benny Goodman—both as a musical statement and an early statement on behalf of civil rights—at a time when you did not typically see integrated performances on the concert stage. John Hammond, Sr. was a civil rights activist as well as a musical explorer, and gave his son John Hammond, Jr. the middle name of Paul as a tribute to his friend Paul Robeson—who like him integrated a life devoted to both music and civil rights.

John Hammond, Jr. plays a number of acoustic guitars, including bottleneck slide guitar on a 14-fret National Reso-Phonic Guitar for a preternaturally acoustic/electric hybrid sound that seems made for the blues. Hammond’s voice is also an essential instrument in his performance. As the New York Times wrote early on, “Hammond has captured the tension, rhythmic drive and emotional anguish of the deep blues…His voice is a supple, multicolored instrument.” He has recorded 34 albums, including his most recent Grammy-nominated album in 2010—Rough and Tough. He has been nominated six times for the Grammy in traditional blues and won the award in 1985 for his compilation album Blues Explosion.

One of Hammond’s more adventurous departures in a life full of them is his upcoming Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise leaving from Ft. Lauderdale, Florida and sailing into the East Caribbean from January 19, 2014 to January 26 with Hammond on board. But thankfully you don’t have to go that far to hear him.

Hammond turned 70 last November 13, and has not been out to the west coast in many a year. He’s not getting any younger, so this is a rare chance to hear one of the last remaining great solo blues artists of the 1960s. If you are like me, with a treasured collection of old records from the black blues masters of the 1930s, 40s and 50s, and you wish you could still hear this music from the source—well, close your eyes and open your ears—John Hammond is still playing, singing and bringing them back to life right down here at McCabe’s, where Hammond’s never-ending blues cruise lands on Friday, August 2, 2013.

For Hammond, it is a welcome return engagement. Just outside the restrooms in the narrow hallway leading to the theatre in back, hanging on the wall is a small picture that is worth a thousand words. It was taken at McCabe’s during a previous Hammond concert—with the great African-American Arkansas-born blues barrelhouse piano player and singer Roosevelt Sykes (1906-1983), the Honeydripper himself—whose 44 Blues and Nighttime Is the Right Time became standards in the genre. He and Hammond are standing side by side—pioneer and protégé.

They are both smiling broadly, each happy in their own way to be links on the chain of this great tradition. Roosevelt Sykes, like so many of the blues masters John Hammond learned from, performed with and eventually molded into his own style, is gone now. But Hammond carries their music with him wherever he goes, and keeps their music alive for the next generation. In 2011 he was inducted into the New York City Blues Foundation Hall of Fame. So you can bet that somewhere in this country is a young blues guitar player looking forward to meeting Hammond the way he once looked forward to meeting Muddy Waters and Lightning Hopkins. This one-time folk revivalist has now become the tradition-bearer.

John Hammond may have been born with a silver spoon in his mouth, but he long ago traded it for a mouth harp, and the steel-string guitar in his devoted hands.

I wouldn’t miss him for the world.

Ross Altman may be reached at greygoosemusic@aol.com