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

Blues Valentine

By 1974, John Hammond had played with damned near every great bluesman who ever lived: Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Duane Allman, Charlie Musselwhite, Mike Bloomfield, John Lee Hooker, the Staples Singers. For starters. He had made records with Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm when they were still young Hawks, with Bill Wyman when the Rolling Stone was still but a pebble and Dr. John when Mac Rebennack was just out of residency. He put together a club band in 1966 that featured a kid named Jimi Hendrix on guitar and had to his credit the soundtrack to a Dustin Hoffman pic (Little Big Man, no small feat). By 1974, Hammond had appeared on some 17 records, a couple of them even best-ofs--that's how long he'd been in the blues, in the biz. He was a veteran, and he was only 32.

By 1974, Tom Waits was just in his mid-20s and still trying to find himself somewhere out on Jack Kerouac's dirt road and in Raymond Chandler's ashtray. His voice had yet to succumb to smoke and drink; he was only starting to get weird. Waits had released but two albums, Closing Time and The Heart of Saturday Night; he was still fumblin' with the blues, still chasing that grapefruit moon, still lonely. Soon enough, that would change.

One night in 1974, Hammond and Waits met up in a bar in Tempe, Arizona, and 27 years would pass before either man realized just how much that night meant for both of them. Hammond, a man who's spent more time on the road than asphalt, was touring the Southwest at the time, and he was bored out of his skull. He decided on this night to show up early to the club to catch the opening performer, some guy named Tom Waits. He'd never heard of him; no one else had either.

"When Tom went on, I did that double take: 'What? Who is that?'" Hammond recalls now, sitting beside a Holiday Inn in South Austin. Hammond squints through the pool's reflection, and beneath blinding blue skies, he looks a great deal younger than his 58 years--lean and trim beneath his black T-shirt. He puffs on an American Spirit and sounds very much like a man who was born in New York City and who still lives in New Jersey.

"This is before Tom's voice had gotten rough, and he did the most incredible songs," Hammond continues, smiling at the recollection. "I didn't want him to stop, and then when the show ended, I didn't want to go on. I wanted him to do another set. But I went on and played, and after the show he was hangin' out and told me he was a big fan of mine. I said I'd never heard anything like him before, and he moved to New York in the late '70s, so I got to see him a whole bunch and got to see his star rise, ya know what I mean?"

So, you must be wondering, is this a story about John Hammond or a piece about Tom Waits? Yes, it is.

You see, 27 years after Tempe, Waits may well be the man who helps Hammond transcend his status as the greatest white American bluesman no one outside the club or cult's ever heard of. And Waits may be the guy who proves to Hammond that it's been worth it--all those years of struggling out on the road, of bouncing from label to label, of ruining a couple of marriages along the way. Hammond makes no effort to hide his enthusiasm when talking about his new record, Wicked Grin, or the man who produced it, played on it and provided 12 of its 13 songs, Tom Waits. He can't stop smiling or using such words as "special" and "magical" and "phenomenal."

But only the cynic could begrudge him such enthusiasm. Wicked Grin is the closest Hammond will ever come to breaking through that brick wall that separates bluesmen from audiences that actually buy albums. It's the best release of Hammond's 39-year career and one that answers the question: What would Waits sound like if he could actually sing?

Wicked Grin features Waits songs familiar ("16 Shells From a Thirty-Ought Six," "Jockey Full of Bourbon," "Heartattack & Vine") and foreign ("Buzz Fledderjohn" and "2:19," import B-sides off Waits' 1999 album Mule Variations), reinterpreted by Hammond, Waits (on guitar and behind the boards) and Waits' longtime band, including bassist Larry Taylor and drummer Stephen Hodges. (Also present is Sir Douglas Quintet keyboardist-accordionist Augie Meyers.) It consists, for the most part, of songs dating from Waits' years on Island Records, but they no longer sound like echoes emanating from a junkyard. The growling rain dogs have quieted down and allowed these men to find the blues, the music, beneath the clang and clutter of Waits' own albums. The rumba of "Jockey Full of Bourbon" has given way to a waltz; the spoken-word "Shore Leave" now sings, sparkles, shines.

And to think, had it not been for Hammond's and Waits' wives, the album might not have existed at all. In 1998, Waits called Hammond and asked him to perform on Mule Variations; during a tour stop in New York the next year, Waits invited the guitarist to play with him onstage--"which was amazing itself," Hammond says, as though that would have been enough for him. But his third wife, Marla, approached Waits' old lady and frequent collaborator, Kathleen Brennan, about having Tom produce John's next record. Brennan agreed it was an excellent idea.

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 catalog 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 least until a kid named Robert Zimmerman moved to town from Minnesota.

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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