‘I don’t like the word ‘cover,’” says Jersey City-based blues singer-guitarist John Hammond regarding his recent Back Porch/ EMI Records release, “Push Comes to Shove.” “When you do a song, you make it your own.”
For more than four decades, that was Hammond’s approach to the music he loved, as he sang songs by Bo Didley, Robert Johnson, Little Walter Jacobs, Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, and dozens of other classic blues and R&B songwriters. But in recent years Hammond has blossomed into a songwriter in his own right.
“Push Comes to Shove,” produced by his wife, Marla, and Philadelphia-based rapper-singer-songwriter guitarist G Love, an avowed Hammond fan, showcases five original Hammond songs. It reveals a side of himself he never really knew existed before. “The last two records I’ve released, I’ve written seven songs, and the record before that was my first song in 44 years,” he says in a phone interview. “For years, I really felt reluctant to try my hand at songwriting. I knew so many great songs, I didn’t feel that was necessarily what I had to do, but my wife has been encouraging me, and I find it isn’t as hard as I thought.” Hammond has been happily married to the Brooklyn-raised Marla for 15 years, and he escaped Hudson Street in Lower Manhattan for more spacious environs in Jersey City 13 years ago. (Also living in Jersey City most of the last two decades is folk singer and impresario Richie Havens.)
Hammond, son of the legendary Columbia Records talent scout and impresario John Henry Hammond, began performing professionally in 1962. He doesn’t seem to have lost one iota of his enthusiasm for performing in the last 46 years, a rare thing in the world of folk music, jazz, and blues. I first saw Hammond in the fall of 1980, opening for Muddy Waters Band at the Stanhope House.
John Paul Hammond — his middle name is after Princeton native Paul Robeson, a friend of Hammond’s father — was born Nov. 13, 1942, on Sullivan Street in Greenwich Village. He moved to McDougal Street when he was five, after his parents split up in 1947. Contrary to popular belief, he was not raised by his legendary father.
“I grew up mostly with my mom and my brother, so I saw my dad on occasion. Every now and then I’d hear something or be brought to a recording session, but in terms of his playing stuff out of his collection for me, I can remember only one time, when he knew I was interested in blues and the Robert Johnson stuff in particular. He had a Vocalion 78 of [Johnson’s] ‘Milkcow’s Calf Blues’ that he played for me, which I flipped out over.”
His father, John Henry Hammond, raised on East 91st Street, was a well-heeled record collector before morphing into a record producer and talent scout. Growing up through the Depression years, Hammond was a socialist of sorts, who paid for several of his early recording sessions himself. In a career that spanned five decades, the older Hammond, who died in 1987, produced or signed everyone from Billie Holiday to Count Basie and Fletcher Henderson, and later on, at Vanguard and Columbia Records, he signed and worked with Robeson, Pete Seeger, Aretha Franklin, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen.
The younger Hammond attended the Little Red Schoolhouse in the Village and while he showed promise as a painter and sculptor, once he got his first guitar as a teenager, that was it, he knew what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. The cover of “Push Comes To Shove” is a photograph of a sculpture Hammond created as a nine-year-old.
“I saw the Village go through some dramatic changes, but it was always a Bohemian part of New York,” Hammond says. “It was where intellectuals and writers and musicians and artists had studios and there were gathering places for all of them in the ’30s ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s. And in the ’60s, the folk music scene just blossomed. I started to work in the clubs in the early ’60s, and I just never looked back.”
Hammond began his career after leaving Antioch College in Ohio and heading west to California. He made his way back to New York City by November, 1962, and caused enough of a stir on the local scene that he was booked at the following summer’s Newport Folk Festival, in August, 1963. “By the time I had my first festival show at Newport, I was already signed to Vanguard Records and I started to work on organized tours almost from the get-go,” Hammond says.
He admits he has been relatively lucky compared to many performers in the folk and blues genres. “I mean, to do this for a living is a struggle, but I’ve always had success to some degree and I’ve always been able to make a living at it.
“I started my career in Los Angeles. I had gone as far away from home as I could get. I started to get work almost immediately out there. I never felt confined to New York or just being a local artist. I always wanted to be itinerant, on the road and going from town to town. To me, that’s how you get a career. If you stay and become a local favorite, as my friend [drummer] Charles Otis likes to say, you become like old furniture.”
Once Hammond told his father he wanted to pursue a career as a blues singer, his father’s reaction was not what he expected. “He told me it was a big mistake. That was pretty heavy. He wasn’t thrilled at all, and I think he was kind of embarrassed.
“I had been a music fanatic and a blues fan particularly, starting about age 14 or so. I was in art school and found out it was the one thing that I could do well that kept me sane in my teenage years. When I got a guitar, the music became more important to me than anything else,” he says of his two years at Antioch College in Ohio.
“In 1962 in Los Angeles I was on an audition night with the Staples Singers, playing at the Ash Grove. The owner of the club let me do a set to open. And Pops Staples really gave me a big confidence boost: he really was a great singer and a great musician and a great guy. He somehow knew where I was at. He gave me that kind of encouragement that sustained me. That’s one of the big nights that I remember.”
After about eight months on the West coast Hammond returned to New York at the end of November, 1962, and auditioned at Folk City and got a gig there for two weeks with Phil Ochs. “That was my first New York job and I was discovered that week, as was Phil. Maynard Solomon signed me up to Vanguard Records, and that was the beginning of my recording career, although I’d recorded a demo for Decca in Los Angeles that didn’t go anywhere,” he says.
By August, 1963, Hammond had a big feature article in the New York Times — a white blues singer was unusual in those times — days before his appearance at the Newport Folk Festival. “I was only 20 at the time, so it was a heady experience,” he says.
Since his early days recording for Vanguard Records, Hammond has released more than 30 albums, including an ill-fated 1973 album for Columbia Records — the president of the company, Clive Davis, signed him — called “Triumvirate,” which included his friends, Dr. John and the late guitarist Michael Bloomfield. At that time, Dr. John was riding high on the success of his single, “Right Place, Wrong Time.”
“Triumvirate” is a good example of how the best-laid plans can go wrong in the record business. It’s a sore point, Hammond admits. “It was supposed to be a big hit. We had already taped a TV show on ABC-TV called ‘In Concert,’ and we had an 11-piece band about to go on the road. Then Columbia went through some terrible changes, Davis was fired, the head of A&R resigned, and a freeze was put on all the promotion money. It was a really good record and it still is, so it was a disappointment.”
By virtue of being in the right place at the right time, Hammond has gotten to know and collaborated with many legends in the history of rock. He did a two-week stint with a young Jimi Hendrix at Cafe Wha in the Village, “and next thing I knew, Jimi came back from England and he was a big star.” In the Village’s coffee house scene in the early ’60s Hammond got to know Bob Dylan. Hammond recorded his “So Many Roads” album in 1964 with Levon and the Hawks, who later became the Band. Later in the ‘60s he worked with the late, legendary guitarist Duane Allman.
“I was really good friends at that time with Bob Dylan, and I invited Bob to a session and introduced him to Levon and the Hawks. The next thing I knew they were playing for him,” Hammond says.
Hammond recently celebrated his 4,000th live performance, at a show on the West coast with his longtime booking agent, Mike Kappus, of the Rosebud Agency, and he says he doesn’t work with a song list. Instead, he prefers to improvise, letting the songs flow through him, like drawing buckets of water from a deep well. “I don’t have a set list, except when I record, because that’s when you have to get down to business, and not waste time,” he says.
“I’ll go in to make an album with maybe 20 songs that I feel would be good to record. And I’ll select the best of them. Often, when I record, a tune will come to me that I hadn’t even thought about, and it’ll turn out even better than I had planned. When you record with other musicians, sometimes magic just happens, that’s life, and it can be spontaneous and terrific, and that’s what I look for, that spontaneity, that inspiration,” he says. “When you have an audience in front of you to work and you get back their enthusiasm that inspires you. I know so many songs, there’s such a well there, that it just comes through me, you know.”
New Jersey Jazz Festival, Thursday through Saturday, September 25 to 27, the Backstage Jazz Club at State Theater, 15 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. $30 to $45. 732-246-7469 or www.StateTheatreNJ.org.
Thursday, September 25, 8 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. Pinetop Perkins and the Legends of Blues, Hubert Sumlin, and Willie “Big Eyes” Smith.
Friday, September 26, 8 p.m. and 10:30 p.m., Ron Carter on bass, Lisa Sokolov on vocals, and Cameron Brown on bass.
Saturday, September 27, 8 p.m. and 10:30 p.m., blues harpist Rod Piazza with his stagemates, the Mighty Flyers. John Hammond on guitar, harmonica, and vocals.