Waist Deep in the Blues

music-profileJohn Hammond, Jr. has helped revitalize the Blues genre and kept the classics alive for over 40 years.

He’s stimulated interest in the Blues through his live performances and over 30 albums, from his self-titled Vanguard release in 1962 to this year’s In Your Arms Again on Back Porch Records.

A Grammy Award winner and four time nominee, John has won seven W.C. Handy awards, which are universally recognized as the highest honor given to Blues artists. (In 1909, Handy wrote down the first Blues song “Mr. Crump Blues” in Memphis, Tennessee.) John has shared the stage or recorded with Blues masters such as John Lee Hooker, Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. He also hosted the Bravo TV special “The Search for Robert Johnson,” which has been released on Sony Home Video.

Every biography mentions that John is the son of the legendary Columbia Records talent scout and producer who discovered Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan, Benny Goodman, Aretha Franklin and others. A fact that is usually neglected is that he was actually raised by his mother in New York City. John Sr. did take him to his first live Blues show to hear Big Bill Broonzy in 1949, which made a lasting impression on seven-year-old John.

John wouldn’t begin playing the guitar until he was 18. He was particularly fascinated by the slide guitar, especially after seeing his idol Jimmy Reed perform. While he was growing up, most of his friends were Rock ’n’ Roll fans, while he preferred the Blues. When he went off to art school in Maine, then a year at Antioch College, he finally found peers who loved playing and hearing Blues music. This helped him decide that performing the Blues should be his life’s work.

He moved to California to get as far away from home as he could, but he didn’t stay out West long as the burgeoning East coast Folk scene brought him back to New York in 1962. John attracted quite a following by performing Country Blues and, within a year, he had a recording contract with Vanguard Records.

From there, John’s career took off. In the mid-1960s, he put together a band for the then unknown Jimi Hendrix. He also recorded with Bob Dylan and produced an album for Michael Bloomfield.

John recorded eight of his own albums in the 1960s, eight more in the ’70s and has continued at about the same rate since. Besides performing with other artists, he produced a number of albums, including three hit albums by Stevie Ray Vaughn & Double Trouble, and projects by Bruce Springsteen and George Benson.

The meat of John’s recordings and performances have been interpreting Classic Blues songs from the 1930-50s. He has been credited with revitalizing the careers of Classic Blues players and introducing to modern audiences songs by Robert Johnson, Lightning Hopkins, Willie Dixon, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Little Walter, Jimmy Reed, Sonny Boy Williamson, Chester Burnett—the list goes on and on.

Hammond has not limited himself to the Acoustic Blues but has made forays into contemporary Blues, Folk, R&B and more. In 2001, he released the critically-acclaimed Wicked Grin, which is an album of Tom Waits’ songs. This was quickly followed by Ready For Love, produced by Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo and including songs by George Jones, Jagger/Richards, Willie Dixon and Waits. This release also marks Hammond’s first-ever recorded composition.

Earlier this year, John released In Your Arms Again, with two more of his own songs. The recording features songs by Chester Burnett, Ray Charles, Willie Dixon, John Lee Hooker, Percy Mayfield and Bob Dylan. This project was recorded in Salina, Kansas, in an old Gothic-style church that is now used as a concert hall and recording studio. John decided to emphasize the basics by performing with only bass and percussion in addition to his own guitar, harmonica and vocals.

John tours year-round. Look for him in your town or, perhaps, join the fun on the Legendary Blues Cruise next January out of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where he’ll perform with over 70 other Blues artists.

 

Bill Groll calls Austin, Texas, home. Visit www.CountryRootsMusic.com to learn more about his taste in music.

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