Blues Valentine

After nearly three decades, the fateful desert meeting between Tom Waits and John Hammond is fully realized with the release of Wicked Grin

At first, Hammond wasn't going to perform any Waits material; in fact, he went into the studio without any sort of a set list, only this "vague notion" that he wanted to record some old R&B tunes. Hammond hoped only that Waits might suggest one or two of his songs he could record, and thought he might even like to take a stab at "2:19," a song that appears only on import versions of Mule Variations (and a song on which Hammond originally performed). Waits handed Hammond his catalogue of songs, some of which he barely knew and some of which he'd never heard, and told him to thumb through it and find some material he liked. He wound up choosing about 18, a dozen of which made it onto the finished album (only one, the trad gospel closer "I Know I've Been Changed," isn't a Waits original).

"But this wasn't meant to be a tribute album," Hammond says. "This was me doing some great songs. It was an organic thing that grew from day one. I am amazed at the depth of Tom, that he's able to jump into something he's never done before and just be completely relaxed with it. He saw how serious I was. I wasn't there to party or have a good time. I was there to make some good music, and he picked up on that right away. And the guys in the band were so there, and they've all worked with him before, so they know Tom. It was just magic."

Sometimes, a man chooses to make his life in music; luckier, though, are those chosen by the music. Hammond, when pressed, considers himself the latter: It was almost inevitable he'd make a life out of the studio and on the road. His old man, John Hammond Sr., discovered Billie Holiday, Charlie Christian, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen. For starters. Father and son were never close -- John Jr.'s parents divorced when he was young, and he lived with his mother -- but the kid could no more escape his legacy than he could his eye color. By the time he was 18, John Jr. dropped out of Antioch College, moved to New York City and became perhaps the leading figure of the country-folk revival . . . at least until a kid named Robert Zimmerman moved to town from Minnesota.

'Cause it's time: John Hammond waited nearly 40 years to make the best album of his career.
Theo Fridlizius
'Cause it's time: John Hammond waited nearly 40 years to make the best album of his career.

Hammond released his first album on Vanguard Records in 1962, then spent a lifetime deciphering the mystery of the blues. He never wrote songs; instead, he interpreted everything from Blind Lemon Jefferson's "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean" to Robert Johnson's "32-20 Blues" to more recent material by Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry. In the 1970s, rock audiences had a hard time figuring out quite what to make of Hammond -- the Village Voice's Robert Christgau once wrote that Hammond wasn't "forceful enough for rock and roll" -- but bluesmen lovingly accepted Hammond as one of their own; only last year, Hammond toured with B.B. King, two old-timers sharing their secret language.

"Blues and music in general was my passion I had," Hammond says. "Then I had to deal with school and all the other things you deal with when you're younger and trying to get it together. I knew I wasn't happy in school, and when I connected my personal passion with what I wanted to do in life, it all clicked for me. It's about when what you love privately becomes something you want to make public. I've been very willful and gone with my own instincts, and I've been wrong a lot. I've made a lot of mistakes in the business, but I've always gotten to do my gigs to support myself and my kids and my marriages, some successful and some unsuccessful. I've screwed things up, I've been a jerk way too many times, and I don't suppose that will ever end. But in terms of knowing what the basics are of translating that passion into ability, that comes from a lot of work and hitting those points in your life when you have to shit or get off the pot." He laughs, then takes a deep drag off his cigarette.

"Everything has evolved. When I began playing, I knew this is what I wanted to do for my life. I knew that blues was something you grow into. It's not a thing that you start out at the top. It isn't big bucks. It's a real career, and if you have the luck and the stamina to deal with the road you have to deal with, then you have a career, and it doesn't matter that you're older. I'm gonna be 59 this year, and that's serious, but I don't feel 59. I feel great, ya know? I have all these good feelings about what I do. I've made my mark here and there. If this record does well, it'll just be such a breath of relief -- to have done something that will make the label feel good about having me over all these years. I don't think I've made a lot of money for them over the years. Perhaps this is just the next step for me. I don't know. That I have a chance now to tour with this band is mind-boggling, ya know? If it goes well, if the album sells, gee, then things can open up in a larger way for me, and it'll be really terrific."

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