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Jersey City artist John Hammond reflects on Obama, civil rights and the blues
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John Hammond reflects on Obama, civil rights and the blues

By Bob Weinberg
Special Correspondent
February 1, 2009

The old man was very much on John Hammond's mind during the inauguration of President Barack Obama.

Blues singer Hammond's father and namesake, who died in 1987, was a civil rights champion: the first white man to sit on the board of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; a record executive who promoted the careers of black artists including Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday; a concert producer who, in 1938, took the radical step of pairing black and white performers onstage at Carnegie Hall.

Watching the inauguration on television, "I thought about my dad and my mom, and how they would have just been so thrilled to see [President Obama]," Hammond says quietly from his home in Jersey City, N.J. "I'm sure somehow they know."

Inaugural week unlocked a tide of memories for this son of a legend who has worked with, or crossed paths with, numerous icons of American music. Hammond, 66, has carved out his own niche since debuting on Vanguard Records in 1962 ? as a player of foundational blues and, at the same time, an occasional risk-taker able to steer the genre in unexpected, productive directions. He performs Saturday night at Miami Beach's Colony Theater.

Figurative fathers ? Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf ? also crossed Hammond's mind as he watched the first black president take the oath of office. He remembered the kindness of these mentors and tour mates toward the young white kid who avidly interpreted their music.

Watching Aretha Franklin sing at the swearing-in, he flashed back to her first recording session for Columbia Records in 1960, which he attended. Franklin would gain her greatest fame with Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records, but it was the elder Hammond who discovered the Detroit diva and brought her to New York. Young Hammond was the same age as the 18-year-old preacher's daughter.

Hammond, like Franklin, is old enough to remember when touring with a racially mixed band could be inconvenient at best, dangerous at worst.

"It was a challenge," he says. "I played shows in North Carolina and Florida, South Carolina, Georgia, when things were like the old days. ... Even in Boston and Philadelphia, these hotels had no room for us. And you could see all the keys hanging on the slot, so you knew that was a lie. So we mainly stayed in black hotels."

Many inaugural viewers figured the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery was just livening the benediction with a bit of vintage churchspeak ? "Lord ... we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get in back, when brown can stick around." Hammond recognized the rhyme as the chorus to Big Bill Broonzy's Black, Brown and White. That record came out in the 1950s, not a welcoming time for songs about racial equality.

Hammond's father had booked Broonzy for the integrated "Spirituals to Swing" concert in 1938 at Carnegie Hall as a replacement for his first choice, Robert Johnson, who had died under murky circumstances a few months earlier. A decade later, the producer and Columbia Records A&R man took his 7-year-old son to hear Broonzy perform.

Hammond included a version of Johnson's Crossroads Blues as well as Broonzy's This Train on his self-titled 1962 debut. He remembers recording the album in the cavernous Brooklyn Masonic Temple ? and his voice, guitar and harmonica resounding off the vaulted ceiling.

"I had no idea what it was to record," he says. "I was on, like, my 40th song, and [label chief] Maynard Solomon said, 'John, I think we have enough here.' I just thought you record all the stuff you know and just pick out what you like after that. I was just goin' for it."

"Just goin' for it" aptly describes Hammond's method. Renowned for traditional blues and r&b, he recorded an entire album of his buddy Tom Waits' artfully strange songs, 2001's Wicked Grin, and received rapturous praise. Last year, he continued a recent foray into songwriting, penning five tracks for his G. Love-produced recording Push Comes to Shove.

While most of the recording remains well within Hammond's comfort level of foot-stomping country and urban blues, he also took a detour into hip-hop with a brash redo of the blues classic Tore Down.

Don't expect to hear much in the way of hip-hop on Hammond's next, as-yet-untitled recording, which returns him to the solo-acoustic format and is slated for release in March on the Chesky label. As he did with John Hammond, he recorded this one in a New York church.

Unlike his first recording, this one will feature one song by Waits and two originals. But his father's legacy, and the presence of the fabled bluesmen Hammond met and toured with, resides in every note he pulls from his strings and every tortured gust that blows through his harp. Son House, Bukka White, Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James ? Hammond knew them all.

"I could see the source of [the music] and see how they play it and make it real," he says. "Of course, I added who I am to it, but that's what blues demands you to do. You have to be yourself and find yourself within that."

Bob Weinberg is a Hallandale Beach-based writer and associate editor for Jazziz magazine. He blogs at

Posted on: 2009/2/1 9:29

Jersey City artist credits New York gigs, classic artists for finding his own Jazz and blues style
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Jazz and blues artist credits New York gigs, classic artists for finding his own style

BryAnn Becker in South Dakota
January 8, 2009

Washington Square Park in 1960s New York was thriving with musicians.

Blues artist John Hammond was among them, playing with musicians such as Bob Dylan, Jos? Feliciano and John Sebastian.

Hammond, who will play solo acoustic guitar Saturday at the Orpheum Theater, says musicians were drawn to the area like a magnet.

"We all hung out together, and it was a dynamic time. They were all really talented artists that all had their point of view and their passions. ... I got to play on the shows of all these guys. I felt like I belonged," says Hammond during a recent phone interview from his home in Jersey City, N.J.

Sioux Falls musician Brian Masek calls Hammond a great storyteller and musician. "The background that he brings is as much a part (of the show) as his music," he says.

Masek, along with the Victoria Pennock Band, opened for Hammond the last time he played in Sioux Falls.

Hammond, 66, has spent 47 years touring on the road. Along the way, he's earned multiple Grammy nominations.

Beyond the New York scene, Hammond credits Jimmy Reed for bringing out his individual style.

A turning point for Hammond was Reed's 1958 performance at the New York Apollo Theater. Reed was the first musician Hammond saw playing the harmonica and the guitar.

After that, Hammond started playing both as well. "I guess the seeds were sown," he says.

Hammond penned five of the eight tracks on his latest album, "Push Comes to Shove," produced by hip-hop producer G Love.

The number of original tracks is unusual for Hammond, who normally does not do much songwriting.

"I had a rush of inspiration to write these songs. I had never recorded them or even played them before," he says.

The title track and album title were inspired by Hammond's friend, drummer Charles Otis.

Hammond recorded with Otis in 1965, and Otis was the drummer in Hammond's first band in 1967.

"I got to know Charles really well. He had all these phrases and isms. He was a great storyteller. Expressions like 'push comes to shove' and 'come to find out' became catch words and very familiar to me. When it came to songwriting, I would think of expressions that Charles would use and elaborate on them," Hammond says.

Hammond will release a solo acoustic album this spring, which he says will be representative of his live shows.

Admittedly, Hammond still gets nervous before a show, but he doesn't use a set list.

"I have a way of doing things. It's hard to put into words exactly. I have a feeling. I'll start out with a song and see how the audience goes, and it kind of comes to me. It's still very exciting (to perform)."

Reach BryAnn Becker at 977-3908.

Posted on: 2009/1/8 15:43

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