When John P. Hammond III decided to go into the family business — music — his father criticized his choice. And that seems a bit surprising given that John H. Hammond II was a legendary record company executive who helped launch the careers of Benny Goodman, Billie Holiday, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and, later, Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
But when the younger Hammond decided to abandon his studies in painting and sculpting to pursue his passion in music, “I remember my father saying to me, ‘This is the biggest mistake you’ve every made.’ But I knew that’s what I wanted to do, and I didn’t let anything set me back.
“And there came a time when he actually saw that I wasn’t going to starve to death or freak out, and he said he was proud of me. That meant a lot.”
That pride was not misplaced. Since he began playing professionally some 47 years ago, Hammond — who headlines this weekend’s Anti-Freeze Blues Festival at the Magic Bag in Ferndale — has established himself as one of the preeminent purveyors of Delta and country blues of the last half-century.
And his path has also woven through the folk and rock worlds, with connections to fellow luminaries such as Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, The Band, Tom Waits and many others.
“I was very fortunate to have met some great players who went on to become great stars, not so much in blues but in the rock ’n’ roll scene,” Hammond says. “I stuck with blues because that’s what my passion was, but I got to hang out with some very interesting folks and got to collaborate in some recording projects and things like that over the years.
“There have just been a lot of opportunities, and I’m very grateful for all of them.”
The New York-born Hammond’s parents divorced when he was five years old, but, he says that he “picked up on (his father’s) enthusiasm for music in general.”
He says he never thought he’d become a musician but changed his mind when he got a guitar at age 18 and was playing professionally within a year.
“I knew maybe six months into playing the guitar that I really felt a facility for it,” says Hammond, who had become a blues fan in his early teens. “I just knew I had something going. I would play at parties and things like that. I knew I could sort of pull it off and that ...this is what I wanted to do with my life.”
Hammond became a habituate of the Greenwich Village club scene in New York and signed his first recording contract, with Vanguard Records, in 1962 and released the first of his 29 albums (so far).
Playing mostly solo, as he continues to do, Hammond worked the folk and blues festival circuit and made some notable associations.
For instance, he’s been credited with recommending the musicians who became The Band, to Bob Dylan, which led to a fruitful association.
And for five days in 1967, while he was playing at the Gaslight Cafe in Manhattan, Hammond had both Hendrix and Clapton as part of his band.
Hammond had met Clapton in 1965, when the guitarist was with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and Hammond played some shows with them in England.
He met Hendrix a year later, when he was still known as Jimmy James and was also playing in Greenwich Village. A year after that, both Clapton and Hendrix were rock superstars, and happened to be in New York while Hammond was at the Gaslight.
“Jimi had been on tour with the Monkees and quit and was just hanging around in New York and came to the Gaslight to check out me and my band,” Hammond recalls. “I called him up to sit in on a tune, and we’re having a great time. And the next night Eric was in town with Cream and came to the show, also.
“So I had both (Clapton) and Jimi there, and they both sat in with the band. We had a great time. I’m just sorry we didn’t record it at all.”
Hammond did do some recording with good pal Tom Waits, on 2001’s “Wicked Grin” — a collection of Waits songs that he himself produced and is the closest thing to a hit in Hammond’s oeuvre.
Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo helmed Hammond’s 2002 release “Ready For Love,” and Garrett “G. Love” Dutton produced his most recent album, “Push Comes to Shove,” in 2007, which features five of Hammond’s own songs, an aspect of his career he’s only started developing this decade.
Hammond also wrote the soundtrack for the 1970 Dustin Hoffman film “Little Big Man” and narrated the 1992 documentary “The Search For Robert Johnson.”
He recently recorded a solo performance at St. Peter’s Church in New York that will be released in the spring.
“I haven’t had a lot of what you would call ‘hits,’” acknowledges Hammond, “but I’ve always felt like I belong. I always felt that I wasn’t getting away with anything. It was all hard work and well-earned. To be 66 and be on the road for 47 years and be able to reflect on a lot of good stuff, I really couldn’t ask for much more.”
The 15th Annual Anti-Freeze Blues Festival takes place Friday and Saturday (Jan. 2 and 3) at the Magic Bag, 22920 Woodward Ave., Ferndale. Friday’s show features the Siegel-Schwall Band, Jeff Grand/Jim McCarty/Bobby East, Cee Cee Collins with RJ’s Rhythm Rockers, Mike May & the Messarounds and Count Bracey & The Pleasure Tones. Saturday’s program includes John Hammond, The Thornetta Davis Band, Johnnie Bassett, The Rump Shakers and John Latini. Doors open at 7 p.m. and tickets are $25 each night. Proceeds go to the Detroit Blues Society. Call (248) 544-3030 or visit www.themagicbag.com.
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