Over the past four decades, John Hammond has distinguished himself as one of the finest traditional blues guitarists, vocalists and harmonica players alive.
Initially bursting upon the NYC folk scene while still in his teens, he has stayed on course ever since, and never looked back. Introduced during his formative years to the otherworldly country blues of the late great Delta icon Robert Johnson, Hammond (named after his father, famed A & R man and record producer John Hammond, Sr., who discovered and/or nurtured the talents of Count Basie, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Billy Holiday, Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Ray Vaughan, among others), Hammond set about learning the vocabulary and the idiosyncratic musical tics of the rural blues, and now, at age 64, is arguably the finest and most authentic practitioner of this art form in the world today.
Over the course of his career, he has released a steady stream of critically-acclaimed albums, several of which have been nominated for Grammys in categories not known for being filled with hype (he also has one such award on his shelf). His 2001 CD Wicked Grin, which found him interpreting the songs of his friend, legendary songwriter Tom Waits, showed a side of Hammond’s talent that few save for his most devoted fans knew existed.
Those who have seen Hammond’s mesmerizing shows for themselves often speak reverently of the intense moods he conjures up with just his trusty resonator guitar, finger slide and blues harp. He counts old running mates Dylan, Eric Clapton, Dr. John, Robbie Robertson and the late Jimi Hendrix among his fans, and legend has it that the late guitarist Duane Allman once drove for nine hours straight in a borrowed truck to show up and sit in on one of Hammond’s recording sessions back in the day.
This will be the singer’s first solo concert in Savannah in almost five years. Opening the show will be local acoustic guitarist and singer Michael Maddox, a blues devotee whose rare public performances are as impressive as they are infrequent. I caught up with John Hammond by phone during a brief lull in his non-stop international touring schedule for a lengthy interview about his past, present and future activities.
Connect Savannah: The blues is built on very intense emotions. How difficult is it to regularly summon up that sort of performance?
John Hammond: Well, I don’t know how exactly to explain where this energy comes from, or my inspiration. I’ve never doubted it. I just go with it every time. This is just what I truly love to do, you know?
Connect Savannah: Have you ever seriously considered giving up music as a career?
John Hammond: That’s never been the case. I began when I was nineteen, and it seemed like the greatest thing in the whole world to do. It still does.
Connect Savannah: Do you have a certain pre-show ritual to prepare for a gig?
John Hammond: Not really. Or if there is one, it has simply become second nature to me at this point and I’m not aware of it. I don’t really plan my shows. I let them come through me and I let the audience give me energy as well. I’ve always enjoyed that position of being scared to death in a way and yet also knowing that I wanna let it all out. It’s hard to explain in words.
Connect Savannah: Is it easier to express yourself through music than words?
John Hammond: (laughs) What hard questions for a Sunday morning! It’s something I love to do so much that I have geared my whole reality to it. I drive and I perform and this is music that I crawled inside of a long, long time ago. It’s the real me, I guess — in a lot of ways. I’ve tuned myself to it, so I look forward to playing live. It’s challenging and scary sometimes, but it is what I seek to do somehow. I know it may be hard for folks to understand my devotion to this. I just love to play. It comes down to that. And I love Savannah, too. It’s a place I’ve been to many times in the past. Not so much recently, though. Tim Coy had a club down there called the Night Flight Café which I thought was spectacular, and I did many, many shows there. That’s when clubs would book you for a whole week, so you could take the time to see where you were and really get a feel for the place. Thanks to Tim, I got to see an awful lot of Savannah, and understand its history and its vibes.
Connect Savannah: They don’t make clubs like that any more.
John Hammond: No, they don’t. Places like that are special. I think a club has to do with who makes it happen, and the dynamics of the town or city. All of that comes together to make it what it is. I don’t think I would ever get into promoting shows. It’s a rough business! (laughs)
Connect Savannah: Most of your LPs are full-band, yet most of your shows are solo.
John Hammond: I started out as a solo act and I have always felt that was my strongest suit. I record with bands because labels want to get airplay, and they think that you have to put a band together for that. I still play often with a trio, and now we’ve made a record for Blue Note. It’ll be out in January. It’s me with piano, organ, bass and drums, and it came out dynamite! So, I’m a solo act, and that’s my strongest suit, but I have a great, great band. No kidding.
Connect Savannah: Dylan remarked decades ago that he hoped one day he could carry himself the way cats like John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters did. How does John Hammond stack up to his own musical heroes? Have you joined that club, or are you still on the outside looking in?
John Hammond: Well, if that’s the case, I’m very pleased, because I work my ass off. My reality is to get the gig and pull it off, and I’ve met some really wonderful folks on the way. If I’ve been an inspiration to some, I’m really pleased. But, you know, if you see someone who loves what they do and really can pull it off, it can’t help but be truly inspirational. I mean, this is my life. It’s not like I “deign” to tour. I have to tour. This is how I make my living. Cats like Dylan and Clapton, these guys don’t really have to work if they don’t want to. In my case, I have to, and luckily, I love to.
Connect Savannah: Until recently, you never released songs you wrote, but the Ready For Love LP opens with your own “Slick Crown Vic,” which is one of the most memorable tunes on the record. Have you written songs all along, and are only now sharing them?
John Hammond: No, no, no. When I started to play professionally years ago, I wrote about four songs, but I was hanging out with guys who could really write good songs, like Dylan, Tim Hardin, Phil Ochs, John Sebastian... They could write, and it was a little intimidating to me. I knew all these great old tunes that they thought were great, too, and I didn’t feel like my calling was as a songwriter. But lately, my wife Marla encouraged me to see what’s inside of me. It turns out that since I know the genre and the styles inside out, I can put words together and come up with strong tunes. It’s a really good feeling.
Connect Savannah: Will this Savannah gig be a retrospective of sorts?
John Hammond: Well, I guess every show is a retrospective of sorts in that I know so many songs. I do what I feel good about, and sometimes, things will just to come to me that I haven’t played in years. There’s a handful of songs I do every night because it gets my engine going, but I allow things to just happen, too. I may dip into some of the brand-new songs, I really don’t know.
Connect Savannah: How many songs do you have in your current repertoire?
John Hammond: About four hundred.
Connect Savannah: What would the John Hammond of the early ‘60s who got so turned on to Robert Johnson and his peers think of the John Hammond of 2006?
John Hammond: I think I’d be impressed. You know what I mean? I don’t think I’ll ever get to the point where I want to be, but I’m so much farther along than I ever thought I would be. I’m very pleased to be in my own shoes.
John Hammond plays American Legion Post #135 (1108 Bull St.) Tuesday at 8 p.m. with opening performer Michael Maddox. The show is sponsored by Tiny Team Concerts, Connect Savannah and Annie’s Guitars & Drums. Tickets are $20 in advance and $23 at the door, and can be charged online at www.tinyteamconcerts.info, or bought with cash at Primary Art Supply, Le Chai Wine Gallerie, Marigold Beauty Concepts, Angel’s BBQ, Silly Mad CDs and Annie’s Guitars & Drums. This show is 21+ only.