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Tangled up in blues 

John Hammond recalls his meetings at the crossroads with Clapton, Hendrix, Dylan and Waits

Were he not so talented and accomplished in his own right, it would be easy to dismiss John Hammond as the music world's version of Woody Allen's Leonard Zelig. After all, it was Hammond who introduced the Band to Bob Dylan, had Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton sit in with him — at the same time — and was frequently confused with his father, John H. Hammond, the legendary producer who signed Dylan and discovered Billie Holiday.

All of which we'll get to soon enough. But Hammond has a musical legacy of his own, one which includes a 1985 Grammy win and more than four decades of touring.

Hammond's latest Grammy nomination — the winner will be announced Jan. 31 — is for last year's Rough & Tough album, which he recorded at the landmark St. Peter's Church in New York City's Chelsea neighborhood.

"It was kind of bizarre," says the soft-spoken, affable bluesman. "It was just me and my wife alone in this cavernous church with one microphone. And it was done in one afternoon. Just straight-on, no overdubs, no anything."

Hammond says he went in to and came out of the session with no great expectations. The album had been conceived as a one-shot for Chesky Records, an independent label that mostly records jazz artists.

"At first I wasn't sure if the sound was right or whatever. And then finally we got a CD of what it was really gonna sound like, and it was good, but I wasn't sure. You know, it was a solo record and it was representative of the shows that I play, so I was happy with that. And then it was just a complete shock and surprise to hear that it was nominated."

Muddying the waters

Hammond's fellow nominees in the Grammys' Traditional Blues Album category this year include Lurrie Bell (who came to town earlier this month; see "Born under a blues sign,") and Ramblin' Jack Elliot, who's more often thought of as a folk artist.

"Yeah, that seems a little odd to me, too," says Hammond of the latter nomination. "I mean, there are folk artists who have done blues songs and there are blues artists that have done folk songs but, in terms of the genres, they are not the same."

There are crossovers, though, or at least what seem to be. I mention Folk Singer, a stripped-down 1964 album that was also recorded around a single microphone and happens to be my favorite Muddy Waters album.

"Yeah, there was a time when folk and blues were lumped together," says Hammond. "I don't know who it was that did that. I mean, perhaps blues is the American folk style — when you're playing an acoustic instrument, everyone refers to it as a folk style, right? So when Muddy played acoustic, that's what happened. And one of his idols was [country blues artist] Big Bill Broonzy."

Whom Hammond's father recorded, right?

"Well, my father knew him, but I don't think he ever recorded him, other than the 1938 Spirituals to Swing recording. But I got to hear Big Bill when I was young, and he was a major influence on me."

Robert Johnson was also a bit of an influence.

"More than a bit," says Hammond, who has been referred to as "the white Robert Johnson." "When I first heard blues, I was completely turned on to it and it became larger than life. And then it became my life."

Bands of gypsies

Hammond figures he was 17 or 18 when he got his first guitar, and artists like Johnson inspired him to invest in a makeshift slide not long after.

"The slide that I've used since I started playing slide guitar is a Sears Craftsman deep well socket, two dollars and fifty-seven cents and guaranteed for life," says Hammond with obvious affection. "Or at least that's what I paid for it. Eleven-sixteenths deep well socket."

Hammond also tours with his National Steel and an acoustic guitar he picked up in England 18 years ago. He plays mostly solo gigs that mix originals with old blues songs, but he did put a band together to promote Wicked Grin, his album of Tom Waits songs that made Amazon's Best of 2001. The record was in fact produced by Waits, after the two artists' wives came up with the idea for the collaboration.

"He's a blues fanatic himself, although he's not necessarily a blues singer," says Hammond of the iconoclastic singer-songwriter he's been friends with since the mid-'70s. "But a lot of his [original] songs are blues material, even if it's not the way he pulls it off. I kept that band together for about two years and we toured all over the world. It was very dynamic. It was not very lucrative."

Can't imagine why.

"Well," says Hammond, "it had its rewards."

As did some of the artist's earliest collaborations.

"I met Jimi Hendrix in 1966 when he was hanging out in New York without a gig and without literally anything. He was stranded in New York and I got to hang out with him, and he asked me if I could get him a gig," Hammond says, laughing. "So I put a band together with him as the lead guitar player, and we played a club called the Café Au Go Go, where he was discovered by [the Animals'] Chas Chandler and brought over to England to record. And about a year later, he returned to the U.S. with a hit recording ["Hey Joe"] in Europe. But no radio here would play the song, and he wound up on a tour with the Monkees, of all things."

That lasted three gigs and then Hendrix was back in New York, says Hammond, who at the time was playing a trio gig at the Gaslight, the Greenwich Village café where Bob Dylan premiered songs like "Masters of War" and "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall."

Hendrix asked if he could sit in, and Hammond readily agreed. "And the next day Eric Clapton was in New York to do his tour with Cream," says Hammond, who'd shared bills with Clapton when the guitarist was in John Mayall's Bluesbreakers. "He was off that week, so he came down to check me out. And there was him and Jimi, and they both wanted to sit in. And so for a week, they sat in with my little group at the Gaslight Café."

It was also in the mid-'60s that Dylan dropped by a session for Hammond's So Many Roads album that featured guitarist Mike Bloomfield and future Band members Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm. All of them would go on to record with Dylan.

Hammond still bumps into some of his old pals, although artists like Clapton tend to run in different circles these days. ("He doesn't quite breathe the same air as we all do, but he's still just a great person and a phenomenal player.") As for Waits, Hammond has yet to see his performance as the Devil in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus: "I gotta check that out. They're just both very dynamic and off-the-wall."

Waits and Satan? So Hammond's met the Devil at the crossroads, too?

"I have spent 48 years on the road all over the world," he answers. "And I've seen a little bit of everything."

bill@csindy.com

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