Jersey City’s John Hammond Brings the Blues to His Adopted Hometown
“When I was young and growing up in New York City,” legendary bluesman John Hammond recalls, “I got into the folk blues of the late ’40s — Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Josh White, Leadbelly — and so I had a taste for blues from an early age. Then came the early rock ‘n’ roll shows with Alan Freed in New York, and I used to go see people like Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley.”
Hammond, a Jersey City resident who will perform at the Landmark Loew’s Jersey Theatre this Friday, says those formative years set the stage for his musical development.
“I had a taste for that kind of music,” he says. “And by the late ’50s, I had become galvanized with the country blues of Robert Johnson and Blind Willie McTell.”
Rough and Tough, Hammond’s latest album, finds him returning to these roots. It’s just his voice, accompanied by a guitar and a harmonica — and occasionally the stomping of his foot.
Performing in a solo, country blues mode reminicent of his hero Robert Johnson, the album — released in April on Chesky Records — finds Hammond interpreting the work of writers like Chuck Berry and Tom Waits alongside blues standards by Johnson and Muddy Waters and even the big-band standard “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” sprinkled with his own originals.
While Hammond has called Jersey City home since 1995, his show at the Loew’s — where he’ll be performing in the same solo folk blues fashion — will be the first time in his storied career that he’s ever performed in the city.
Hammond’s first recordings for the Vanguard label in the early ’60s were very much influenced by that same style of his country blues heroes Johnson and McTell.
“That’s how I began my career playing, the whole country blues thing,” he says. “I’ve always done what I wanted to do — but that’s how I began.”
By the mid ’60s, Hammond moved further into electric work. Influenced by the Chess Records artists he loved such as Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf (both of whom he would later work with) Hammond began working with full band ensembles in the studio. One of the first of these records was 1964’s So Many Roads.
“My friends from Toronto, who were called at the time Levon and the Hawks … were in New York, as was my friend Mike Bloomfield and Charlie Musselwhite, and so I put this group together and we made that album,” he says. “I’ve always put bands together with friends who I admire.”
At Hammond’s behest, those friends from Toronto went on to work with Bob Dylan later in the decade. They subsequently became much-better known as The Band.
Hammond has a knack, it seems, for drawing uniquely talented people into his sphere of work. It’s a skill his father, John H. Hammond, possessed as well. Regarded as one of the greatest talent scouts of all time, Hammond the elder is credited with discovering the likes of Benny Goodman, Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Pete Seeger, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Bruce Springsteen to name just a few.
But despite the parallels that could be drawn between father and son, the younger Hammond doesn’t quite see it that way.
“My dad was from another planet; he was operating on another level,” Hammond says. “He was a producer, and perhaps the best ever, and he could put things together. As a musician, I was not seeing it that way; I just had friends who were into the same kinds of things I was.”
Those friends have included heavyweights like Jimi Hendrix, Duane Allman, Tom Waits, Eric Clapton, Bill Wyman and JJ Cale, all of whom have worked with and performed with Hammond at various points through the years — most at the very dawn of their careers. In the mid ’60s, Hammond famously put together a band which included both Hendrix and Clapton — at the same time.
Hammond also eventually worked with many of his heroes, from John Lee Hooker to Muddy Waters — on the other end of their career spectrums. He earned their respect and, in many cases, gained their friendships in the process. One of those friendships, which Hammond holds dear, was with Bo Diddley.
“I really thought he was just unbelievable, and he used to get up there with a trio and just blow your mind,” Hammond says. “And then I got to know him as a friend, and he was just an amazing guy.”
But his father, lacking a crystal ball, couldn’t see Hammond’s career arc, and he worried about the life his son was entering into.
“I didn’t grow up with my father. I got into this [music] completely on my own, and I don’t think he was too thrilled. He knew how hard it was to be a musician and he was fearful for me, I guess,” Hammond says. ” But after a few recordings and years of making a living at it, he relaxed. And I was relieved that he thought what I was doing was OK, but I never really looked to him for approval. This was what I wanted to do with my life.”
He got what he wanted, as it were, and that career has given him a front-row seat to watch the music industry change over the past half-century. Hammond isn’t thrilled with what he’s seen, decrying the increasing specialization and niche marketing of music.
“There was a time when record labels prided themselves with the kinds of artists and music they had on their labels,” he says. “[Now] there are blues labels and jazz labels, but there isn’t that kind of all-inclusiveness, and I’m sad about that.”
But he remains optimistic, saying the music itself usually has a way of finding its way to people: “As long as there is curiosity, and folks who hear something say ‘Who is that?’ and ‘What is that?’ and get into it … that’s how it all happens.”
As for his pseudo-homecoming, Hammond says he’s excited to be playing a historic landmark in his adopted hometown.
“[Jersey City] is a great place. I’m so thrilled, and a lot of the people we’ve met here through the years are going to come to the show,” he says. “There’s a butcher we use in town who is going to come.”
Hammond comes to the Loews on Friday, Jan. 15, at 8 pm. The Duke Robillard Band opens. Tickets and more information can be found here. Prior to the show, Hudson County Community College will host a meet-and-greet with Hammond to kick off its new “Sound Bites” series, which is sponsored by HCCC and the Journal Square Special Improvement District. Tickets for the “Sound Bites” event are $15 at the door; for more info click here.