I’m a lucky guy
John Hammond bör definitivt placeras i kategorien "bluesens levande legender". Under sin 38 år långa proffesionella karriär, har han samarbetat med en imponerande mängd världsberömda artister. Han har för det mesta varit verksam som soloartist i festival- och konsertsammanhang, men har också erfarenheter med egna elektriska bluesband. Hans virituosa gitarrteknik har inspirerat och lärt många gitarrinstrumentalister och hans rykte i Amerikanskt musikliv har lett till flera skivinspelningar där han deltar som gästartist, eller backas upp av kända musiker på sina egna skivproduktioner.
John Hammond har minst 4 Grammy nomineringar och 1984 vann han en Grammy Award för albumet "Blues Explosion". Hammond blev nominerad till W.C. Handy Award i 1997 och 1999. Han skrev också filmmusiken till "Little Big Man", med Dustin Hoffman.
Yours Truly träffade Mr. Hammond på Skånevik Bluesfestival i Norge. Mannen är mycket sympatisk och tillmötesgående. Under intervjuen, som här återges på orginalspråket, plockade han upp ett paket cigaretter och bjöd på en "American Spirit". Det blosset och Mr. Hammonds karismatiska närvaro inspirerade till den första frågan.
- Talking to, and listening to the music of John Hammond, you’ll get offered "american spirit". Is that what it’s all about?
- Ha, ha. I don’t know about american, but it sure is spirit.
- You’ve been inspiring many good guitar players with your style, technique and expression. So I’ve been told a lot of times.
- Oh, that’s nice to know. I worked very hard with what I do and I’ve come a long way since I started playing professionally in Los Angeles in 1962. I kind of invented myself... I had been a blues fan for throughout my early teens. I was in school in Yellow Springs, Ohio. I picked up a guitar there and started to play and it sort of changed my life. It really got me into another way of I seeing things. I left college at Antioch and started playing professionally. I went as far away from home as I could get to. And I started playing little clubs, made some money and got a car and drove back east, through Minneapolis and Chicago. I got back to the East Coast and started playing in nightclubs in New York. And I got signed up to Vanguard Records. I had been playing less than a year. So, it was an amazing beginning.
- Was it any situation in particular that made you turn to the blues?
- I don’t know anything in particular, but there were series of concerts that I attended. I used to go to see the Allan Freed Rock’n’Roll shows in New York when I was in my mid teens, I guess I was 15-14. I saw artists like Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent. The Allan Freed shows were really spectacular, and that they put on shows with like maybe 10-12 artists. So you got to see any sort of angle of Rock’n’Roll. At that time Rock’n’Roll was like blues and R&B, you know. And you got to see all the various sources. It was galvanizing to me, it really made me focus on the music that I was just attracted to. I don’t know, it’s hard to find one reason, you know.
I remember I was in art school in Maine, I went to Higgins school of painting and sculpture. There was a fair, a state fair, it was more like a carnival. And they had a tent for these blues players. They was accounting Johnny King, who I have not seen or heard of since. But he played guitar, played a lot of blues. I said: "Oh Man! That sounds great"! I flipped out over that.
In 1960 it was another folk revival. And blues was prominently represented by a lot of rediscovered artists like Son House and John Hurt. Just the originators of the music, were being rediscovered and playing on college campuses and coffee houses, and stuff. I came along at the right time, at the right place, you know. I fit right into what was going on, I was of that generation that was reexamining American folk music, seeing all the sources. I felt very inspired and motivated to get out there and do it.
- Were you already a guitar player by then ? And a harmonica player. I felt something like a "Dylan expression" in your harp playing.
- I didn’t get a guitar until I was almost 18, and started playing when I was 19, professionally. It didn’t take me very long, I knew all the songs, I knew how I thought they should go, ha, ha. It was like discovering a talent that I didn’t know I had.
Yes, I began both guitar and harmonica at the same time. And I knew Bob Dylan when he first started playing. I met him in New York when he had hit the folk scene. He and I became very good friends and hung out together a lot. He also loved blues very much. He was a big fan of the country blues, as well. I don’t know about sounding like Dylan, I don’t think so, ha, ha! But maybe in the expression, or whatever, maybe so.
- Do you remember your very first gig?
- My very first gig? Uh! That would have been on my way to California. I stopped off in Aspen, Colorado. I knew a girl who was at art school there. I looked her up and wanted to hang around, just to be around her. She talked me into going down to this club called "The Red Onion", ha, ha. I had never really played for a nightclub audience before. It was a thrill to say the least. I was outside of my body, I think, when I was performing that night. It was an amazing night. But I knew that I was going out to the West Coast to start my carrier. I was ready.
- So you got organized on the West Coast?
- Yes, that’s where I actually got my shit together. I worked up enough songs to be able to do 3 or 4 shows a night. I was so lucky to get a job at a gas station, pumping gas with a friend of mine. And one day, this car drove in... This was the Wilshire Shell station, ha, ha, ha! On Wilshire Boulevard. This car that drove in was a Porsche convertible. This was in 1962. And this big guy drove in, got out of the car and said: "Fill it up". He walked away into the bathroom, I guess. In the backseat of this car was a Martin guitar. I mean, it was a beautiful Martin guitar. So, I filled it up, looking at this guitar.
The guy comes out and I say to him: "Man! That’s a beautiful guitar".
He answered:" Oh, you play the guitar"?
I said: "Yeah, I’m just starting out".
He said: "Well, play me a tune"!
So, I picked up his guitar and I played this tune for him.
He looked at me saying: "Man, you sound really good, I bet I can get you a gig".
I said: "What do you mean"?
He explained: "Well, I’ve played a lot of clubs around here. My name is Hoyt Axton"
So, I introduced myself and he wrote down the address of this club in a part of Los Angeles called South Gate.
He told me: "You go down at this club, and you play at the open mike tonight. If they like you, I bet you can get a gig there".
So I went down at this place and I played for this couple who owned the club. It was the "Satire Club" in South Gate. They liked me right the way and I got hired to play this gig. In those days your gigs was by the week and not just a night. Anyway, I was on this show with a Chicano guy named Chico Mesquez who was a phenomenal player. He played Hughie Carmichael tunes, had this beautiful voice and played the guitar solo. All the girls just flipped out over this guy. I really dug, I thought this guy was like...you know.
"I’d like to be like that", you know what I mean? It was very inspiring.
So anyway, I was held over another week at this club. One night an owner from another club, who was, I guess, told to hear me play, or whatever. He offered me a gig at this bigger club called "The Insomniac" in Hermosa Beach. I got onto that gig, an one gig led to another. I got to play at "The Ash Groove", which was this really big club in Hollywood. I opened the show for the Staple Singers. That’s when they were just a Gospel Group, no drums, no bass, just Pops on the guitar and Mavis, Pervis and Cleo. Oh man! It was like a thrill!
So, I made an impression on the West Coast. I did a demo record for Decca, that didn’t go anywhere. I got on the TD Show, a local TV-show, playing with Hoyt Axton and some other players. I got to know Hoyt really well, he became a real mentor to me. I made enough money to get a car and moved back to the East Coast, which is my home, you know.
And I hit this jackpot, you know. I got a gig at this club called "Gerde’s Folk City, the only club in New York that Lightning Hopkins played at, Roosevelt Sykes, John Lee Hooker. I mean, it was a Blues Club. So, I got this gig and the first week I was signed up to Vanguard Records. In the end of November -62, I made my first record which was called "John Hammond", ha, ha, ha. You know, that led to everything that’s come since.
- Then you got a reputation and started to travel to Europe, eventually?
- In 1965 I went to England. To be a little more precise, in 1964 I was playing a gig in New York at a club called "The Village Gate". I had a little back up group, a drummer and a bass player. I was playing with a trio format. This group came in one night, real late. They hung around to hear my show and at the end of the set, two guys walked into the backroom, my dressing room. It was Brian Jones and Bill Wyman. They were over in New York for their first tour to the United States. It was late, the show was over. I said: "What’re you guys doin’? They said: "Oh, we just got to New York and we’re checking it out". I said: "Well, come on down to my place".
I lived at that time in a loft, way down town in an area that is now called Trebecca. I had a loft apartment in Duane Street. My rent was 35 dollars a month which was affordable. The whole building was full of artists and sculptors and they were all into music. They were having a big party upstairs from where I lived. I brought Brian and Bill up there and we had a great night, you know. These far out people in a big party, we had a great time.
The next year I went to England and I looked up Brian Jones and spent about a week with him. You know, hanging out, going to the clubs that was going on. And then I had a little tour. I met some phenomenal players. I was on a radio show with Alexis Korner, who is like THE GUY, the English blues maven. I met so many great players over there. I was there for maybe 2 month. In that time I broke a lot of gigs, I played on tours with John Mayall when he had Eric Clapton playing guitar. I worked with Graham Bond and I met guys like Donovan. I really hit the scene, man! It was like I met all those great players and got to know them. It was really exiting times.
I came back to US and I was still recording for Vanguard. But I wanted to make some recordings with this band that I had met up in Toronto, called Levon & The Hawks. So, I made this album with them. Actually, it was before I went to England I made the record. It was released when I came back from England and was called "So many roads". It had Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson on guitar, Garth Hudson and Rick Danko, and Richard Manuel, who of course became "The Band" . Dylan came to the recording day and I introduced him to Robbie and all the guys. The next thing I knew, they were his band, ha, ha.
You know, Bob had become like a major sensation. He was really turning the world on its ear.
Anyway, I’m rambling on and on here.
- Attending a John Hammond live performance is like walking into a Blues library.
- I’ve done these songs longer than the guys who recorded them lived, you know, ha, ha, ha. I’ve been playing Robert Johnson’s songs for 38 years. I know the source of it all. These guys were virtuoso musicians back in the 30th. They were phenomenal instrumentalists and great singers. I can only imagine how their performances would be unbelievable. But truly inspiring to me. Just hearing it brings me into another state.
- Was it hard to technically handle the original material?
- Oh, yeah, man! It was the hardest thing I ever did, it still is. And yet, at the same time, it’s the easiest I’ve been ever done. I don’t know how you make that make sense, but it’s the hardest and the easiest. I love it more than I can ever say. And yet I’m just terrified at the same time. It’s so overpowering, the feeling is so big.
- I noticed that you technically play all over the neck, and even above it. Is that your temperament you add to your expression of the blues?
- Oh yes! I wish sometimes the audience had been a little more receptive to what I’m doing. I can come on right after very good bands, but very loud as well. So I can get a lot to overcome just volume wise. And the audience sometimes don’t give me any slack at all, it’s terrible. And yet, I will always play my show and I’m professional. I love to play but sometimes I wish they would have been a little more receptive.
- But here we are in the middle of "nowhere" (Skånevik, Norway).
- That’s alright, I play everywhere in the world. I’ve played in little tiny places in very remote parts of the world. I know what a good reception is and what a cold reception is. I wish I had a better reception last night, but I tried my best. I think there were some people who got into it, pulled up chairs and stuff. But I think acoustic blues is not on the top of list here in Sandevik.
But this isn’t "nowhere", believe me. This is a beautiful place. I’ve worked in Norway enough times to know this is a wonderful country and there are some really nice things happening here. A kind of openness and a culture that withstood all the bullshit of Europe and has remained individual and unique. I admire that a lot. It’s so beautiful here, it’s just a gorgeous country.
- At one point of your show, you suddenly came up with "My time after a while". Is that a Buddy Guy influence on you?
- Well, I learned it from Buddy Guy, but the song is by a man named Robert Geddins. The way I found this out was; I just worked up the song and decided how I could play it solo. It was at the "Sacramento Blues Festival, California, about ten years ago. I said: "Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to do this tune, a Buddy Guy song, "My time after a while". And while I was adjusting the microphones, or whatever, this old guy comes to the stage. He bangs on the stage, shouting: "Excuse me, excuse me. Buddy Guy didn’t write that song. I wrote that song"! And, woh! I met the guy who wrote that song so I said: "Excuse me ladies and gentlemen, it’s not a Buddy Guy song, it’s a Robert Geddins song, ha, ha, ha. And I proceeded to play it. I like that song a lot. It’s not an easy one to play solo, but...
- There’s another thing I’ve been wondering about, perhaps a lot of other people along with me. You did a song called "Killing Floor". What does it stand for? What does it mean, that expression?
- Just the words alone are withered enough to be able to understand. But, in the abattoirs, a slaughter house, you go on the killing floor. And that’s where the animals were slaughtered.
And it’s used metaphorically, to describe when you’re down at the bottom of the barrel. Where it’s doggy dog, basically. Down on the killing floor means down to the rock bottom, when you’ve got nothing left to lose.
- Mr. John Hammond, is there any difference between black blues and white blues, that you want to talk about?
- Blues is blues, you know. It’s music for one thing. As far back as blues began, there were white blues players, there were black blues players, of course. There were jazz artists, they were black and white. It didn’t matter to the music, but it mattered to the racist mentality. The United States, you have to realize, was totally racist. Segregation was the law. I mean, it was sick, it was really a real blotch on anything good that America has ever produced. There will always be that blotch that will stain it and make everybody be a little circumspect about the wonderfulness of America. Because racism was so bad that if you were a white artist that played blues and you wanted to record, you could not play blues. It was like a segregator right down the line. If you were white, you were labeled a country player. If you were black, you were a blues player. I mean, it was so sick and so ridiculous. It separated musicians who were just playing music. You know, it’s just music, man. It’s not threatening to the world.
In any case, because of the racism’s there were no white blues players and there were no black country players. And yet there were black country players and there were white blues artists, who recorded even. As far back as goes the 20th. So, you go figure it out.
I worked a whole lot of gigs with Howlin’ Wolf. And this is a guy I got to know and he told me something that totally blew my mind. He learned to play from Charley Patton. Charley Patton was known as the father of country blues, okay. Howlin’ Wolf told me that Charley Patton was a Cherokee Indian, who worked on a plantation. But if things got tough he’d go back to the reservation. Go figure that one, Charley Patton was an American Indian and yet he was the father of country blues, ha, ha, ha. And he was regarded as a black person because he wasn’t white. Give me a break!
Howlin’ Wolf also told me that his idol was Jimmie Rogers, "the yodeling brakeman", who called himself a blues singer. Howlin’ Wolf told me a lot of stuff that really opened my eyes to how bizarre the United States history is, ha, ha, ha.
You know, it’s just that there’s so many things that make the blues. And inspiration comes from the most unlikely sources sometimes. Blues is not black & white, it’s music. It’s something, if you feel it and you love it, there shouldn’t be a barrier. It seems like the only people that are categorizing it are racists that have to express; "Oh, blues, that’s black and country, that’s white"! And there’s no middle ground and that’s absurd. Believe me, I’ve been put through this one so many times, but let me just say; blues is blues. And if you can do it, you can do it. And if you can’t, you can’t. If you’re into it, you’re into it. If you’re not, you’re not. Don’t give me this black & white bullshit, that’s just bullshit.
- How many records did you cut, and what’s the title of your most recent recording?
- In terms of what’s available in the stores today, I guess it’s about 12 or 13, perhaps. Maybe more. I know I’ve recorded over the years about 28 albums of myself alone. I’ve been on a lot of anthology records, and even backed up certain artists on their records.
My recent release is called "Long as I have you" which is the title of a Little Walter song.
It’s got Charley Batey & The Nightcats backing me up for 12 of the tunes, and 3 of them are just solo acoustic. Actually not solo, I've got a washboard-player with me named"Washboard Chaz Leary" and he’s from New York. He lived for many years in Colorado, where I met him. He and I worked gigs together and recorded together in the past. Gee, I’ve gotten the chance to work with, just in the last 6-7 years, so many great players, including Duke Robillard, J.J. Cale, Charles Brown who just passed. What an amazing man he was. I’ve been very fortunate to work with some great players, to have a chance to record things that I always wanted to do.
Now, I’m with Pointblank, Virgin which is a label that’s been very, very good to me. They have actually promoted my records. When I signed up with them it was on the strength of having recorded with John Lee Hooker. I was on his album "Mr. Lucky" and I did two tunes with him. He was recording for Pointblank at that time. So, that brought my name to their attention. At this time, pointblank was in London, that’s where they were based, out of England. The man who has it is John Wooller, who’s Scottish. He’s a blues fanatic, he really loves the music. In this day and age, that’s a rarity, cause there’s so many record big guys that... All they care of is dollars and pounds, francs and kronors, or whatever. This isn’t a matter of music, it’s a matter of the money. And that’s the way it is. I feel very lucky to who I have gotten with, a label that actually like the music, actually like what I do! They come to my shows! They promoted my recordings, they’ve helped to promote my shows. It’s been very, very satisfactory.
I’m about to make my 5th record for them. It’ll be produced by Tom Waits, who I just recorded with last year. His album is out there now, like on the charts. He hasn’t had a new album out in 8 years, or whatever. Tom Waits is a friend and a really unbelievably talented player. And loves blues, a big talent. So, I’m very exited about this. This is the longest I’ve been with one label for my whole carrier. It’s been really very nice.
- To take it home, from Vanguard, through other things to Pointblank.
- Oh yeah! Colombia, Atlantic, Red Bird, Rounder, Capricorn. I’ve been with a lot of labels and I’ve seen very little in terms of promotionally record sales. It has all helped my carrier, it has all helped me to grove as an artist. So, I feel very fortunate, a lucky guy.
Intervju av Palle Paulsson / Jefferson#122
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