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Tim: Journeyman

The Journeyman
Plumbing the Depths with John Hammond

the writer with John Hammond
John Hammond with T.E. Mattox

he blues," according to John Hammond, "is the most honest way of looking at life. It's reality but with humor and the deepest feeling. Blues is not like sadness, blues is like...depth. Like the sky is blue, like the ocean is blue, it's forever."

A musical philosophy that John’s fans embrace every time he takes the stage. His style reflects an earthiness, a richness that's steeped in blues tradition. When he speaks of the early masters, you can hear the admiration in his voice. So it really comes as no surprise to learn Hammond, like most of his blues predecessors, honed his chops on the street.

"That's where I started playing professionally. That was 1962. I played on street corners and little coffee houses, at picnics. Anywhere I could get heard. When you're starting out, you'll play for whoever will listen.

Blind Boy Fuller, a lot of the guys, Blind Willie McTell, Blind Blake, all these guys were street players and this is a tradition that goes back as far as time."

Time, as far as the Blues are concerned, started when John turned seven.

"I remember hearing Big Bill Broonzy and Josh White, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. I grew up in New York City in the 1940's and 50's. In the 1950's there was a disc jockey named Alan Freed and he played a lot of R & B, blues influenced, what became rock and roll. Guys like Ray Charles, Little Richard, Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry. Gene Vincent, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley. Those were my earliest musical discoveries...that I latched on to."

Hammond, the son of legendary record exec and talent scout John Henry Hammond, seemed intent on becoming his own bluesman, his own way. He took a giant leap in that direction in 1963 at the Newport Folk Festival.

"In the 60's that was the biggest gathering of folk artists and about the most prestigious thing. I'd been playing for about a year and I was invited to play there. It was a tremendous honor and I happened to do very well that day. It led to a lot of good things for me."

The resulting album catapulted Hammond into the national spotlight. His music features the traditional instrumentation of harmonica, guitar and vocals, yet he seems more than comfortable exploring multiple, regional styles and varied techniques in his performances. A potpourri if you will; from Texas and Mississippi country blues, some bottleneck slide, maybe a sampling of ragtime with a bit of Eastern seaboard Piedmont, John pays homage with every set he plays. It’s little wonder why he became a ‘bridge’ between early Delta players and the then, modern-day folk performers. A bond that grows ever stronger when Hammond reflects on the originators that became mentors. There's a respect, almost a reverence, when he talks about the man known as the 'King of the Delta' players, Robert Johnson.

"Well, I would say in terms of my actually playing the guitar and playing professionally, I'd say he (Johnson) was my inspiration. I'd heard a lot of the country blues artists and I thought he was like the synthesis of all of them. He had styles of Lonnie Johnson and Blind Boy Fuller. He had obviously heard everybody and he had come up with his own style. He was just a phenomenal player."

John Hammond in concert

Over a career that now approaches five decades, Hammond has recorded and performed with some of the most talented and significant musicians of the last century. His impressive body of work (I lost count after more than two dozen albums) is truly a living aural history of America’s Blues. If you ask John about favorites he just smiles.

"I worked a lot of gigs with Sam Hopkins. He was a really dynamic player. I was very impressed with the fact that he was a solo artist and could put so much emotion and feeling into his playing. His voice was so powerful, he was just a mesmerizing artist."

Another bluesman that John considered larger-than-life was John Lee Hooker.

"When I first heard John Lee, I guess it was 1956. I imagined him to be probably seven feet tall and ate like whole chickens for dinner and stuff. It was a tremendous surprise when I met him and saw he was about five foot five and a really slender guy. But when he opened his mouth to sing, this incredible, incredible voice spanned the ages."

In the early 60's a blues contemporary, Michael Bloomfield, introduced Hammond to Muddy Waters as well as a couple of studio players who were working to make a name for themselves.

"I recorded twice with Michael. I made an album in 1964 called, 'So Many Roads' with Michael, Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson and Rick Danko. I met Michael the first time I went to Chicago in 1961. I was hanging out and saw a blues festival at the University of Chicago and I met him there. We just became friends immediately. We were both blues fanatics, but Michael knew ALL the guys. I mean Michael jammed with Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters and everybody. To meet Michael was like an introduction to the entire Chicago scene. He was a wonderful guy. He was a friendly, wonderful man and I miss him a lot."

(Gone too soon, Bloomfield was found dead in his car from a drug overdose in San Francisco, February 1981. Michael Bloomfield was just 37 years old.)

Hammond's own reputation as a bluesman was continuing to grow and it wasn't long before other musicians began to recognize his talents. John Mayall would become one such believer.

"On my first tour to England, I was fortunate enough to be on a show with him (Mayall) in South Hampton. We just, sort of, started talking. He had never heard of me and I had never heard of him. We became friends right away. He had a band at that time, that included Eric Clapton and Stevie Winwood and oh, God, just about who's who in the British rock scene. This was before they had become big stars. We sort of hung out and we did a little tour together. We got invited to do a TV show called, 'Ready, Steady, Goes Live' and they backed me up as my band. It was really phenomenal."

Hammond's musical collaborations, both then and now, have been all encompassing. Not only has he played and toured with Mayall and Clapton and recorded with Spooner Oldham and Duane Allman, but for a short period early in his career, shared the stage with a young guitarist named Jimmy.

"He called himself Jimmy James then. Unfortunately it was just about a two-week time span that I got to know him. He played with me and we put a little band together in New York at a club called Cafe A-Go-Go. It was there he was discovered and went off to England and became a big star."

It didn’t take long for the rest of the world to recognize the phenomenal talents of Jimmy James, only you and I got to know him as….Hendrix, Jimi Hendrix.

The British connection also played a significant role in Hammond's 'I Can Tell' album sessions.

"The Rolling Stones were in New York. I had met them, they had come to hear me play at the Village Gate and then I went over to England. I was very good friends with Brian Jones. Brian was wanting to play harmonica on the session, but I said, 'No, I'm playing harmonica.' And Bill (Wyman) said, 'Gee, I know you don't play bass.' So Bill played the bass on it. It was a real super session. Artie Butler on the piano, Bill on the bass, Robbie Robertson on guitar, me on guitar and Charles Otis on drums."

A Grammy Award-winner, John takes great pride in his craft but places an even higher value on his friendships. And his friends run the gamut from the late Roosevelt 'Honeydripper' Sykes to legendary harmonica ace, Charlie Musselwhite.

"Charlie played the finest harmonica, and still does to this day. He's one of my idols and a great friend of mine."

another picture of Hammond in concert

The road continues to twist and turn for John Hammond. The miles have taken him from street corners to international music festivals, from roadhouses to supper clubs. But when it comes to status, nothing holds a candle to the performances at New York's prestigious Carnegie Hall.

"It is a thrill. It's one of the most beautiful theaters that there the world. I mean you look up and there's five tiers of golden balcony. Your knees tremble, literally your knees tremble."

But Hammond, the journeyman, remains rooted. He's a realist who candidly admits to playing some of the lesser known venues.

"A lot of the clubs I played, where I wondered, 'what the hell I was doing there?' I really was fortunate that there wasn't holes in my head.

Always the essence of diplomacy, “I don't want to mention any names,” the legendary bluesman laughs, “because I may have to play there again."

Let Tim know what you think about his traveling adventure.

I was there at the Shrine to see Bob come in riding on a baby elephant. He says in the interview it was either '68 or 69: it was both – it was New Year's Eve (See "The Bear," an article on Bob Hite),

Debbie Hollier, Nevada City, CA

* * * *

Who else played with Canned Heat and Deep Purple at the Shrine in '68?

Bill, LA

I think the Shrine show on New Years in '68, where Bob Hite rode out on the elephant, also featured Poco, Lee Michaels, Black Pearl, Love Army and Sweetwater. Don't know that Deep Purple was booked on that evening.

Bill, maybe you're thinking about the International Pop Fest in San Francisco a few months earlier that featured these fine folks... Procol Harum, Iron Butterfly, Jose Feliciano, Johnny Rivers, Eric Burdon And The Animals, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Grass Roots, The Chambers Brothers, Deep Purple, Fraternity of Man & Canned Heat or possibly the following year in Jan of 1970 when Deep Purple appeared with Canned Heat and Renaissance on a triple-bill in London at the Royal Albert Hall.

One final note: The current Johnny Otis piece didn't mention it, but it was Mr. Otis that took Canned Heat into the studio the very first time to record in 1966. Small world, ain't it?


* * * *

Thank u for posting it! Bob is still boogin' around!! (See "The Bear," an article on Bob Hite),

Stefano Di Leonardo, Fisciano (Salerno, Italy)

* * * *

Great Read! (See "The Bear," an article on Bob Hite) I will post it on Bob "THE BEAR" Hite Official Facebook Page,

Dave Tohill, Brandon, UK

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Hello Tim, thank you so much for letting a huge Canned Heat fan check out this
interview with the Bear. I really enjoyed it.

Best regards,

Rick Caldwell, Fairfield, Ohio

* * * *

I knew Bob Hite in the 60's. Canned Heat played at our high school prom 1966 Rexford High. The Family Dog, Chet Helms, Skip Taylor.

Max Kalik, Los Angeles, CA

Dear Tim,

I just discovered you from an email I received from Preston Smith disclosing his next event. I wanted to tap into his website Prestonsmithmusic but it would not link from your site for some reason. I have to say Preston really is a genius and I met him in Glendale at a jazz club about three years ago, after a fatal accident. By chance, I was invited to spend time hanging out with Preston and some friends after his gig. He is everything you say and I will never forget his amazing creativity and his positive influence in my life.

Janelle, Palm Springs, CA

Love the article! (on Lowell George) Lowell was my father.

Forrest George, Warren, Vermont

This Bob Hite interview is the most interesting thing I have read concerning Canned Heat. I have Fito's book, but I always was interested in learning more about Bob Hite. You did it here my friend...great interview!!!!!

Tony Musto - Pittston, PA

Hey Tim, Great article on Preston! I really enjoyed it and you did your homework. I'll probably catch PS this weekend.


Dave - Northridge, CA

* * * *

Hello, what a great article on Preston Smith! I actually met Preston one evening after an Acoustic set of my own at the Prestigeous Carlton Hotel here in Atascadero, Ca. We were loading up and he happened to be walking down the sidewalk and stop to say hello. I must say that he is a truly interesting and talented man that NEVER forgets to let me know when he is playing around the Central Coast where I live. It was so fun to read about who he truly is...(as if you don't know him the first time you meet him)! My adventures have only just begun as I recently returned from Nashville recording my self titled debut EP. I can only hope that my adventures down the road are as enlightening as Preston's and that I have the honor of a great writer such as yourself to share them with the world. Thank you for doing just that, sharing "Preston Smith" with the world.


Amy Estrada - Atascadero, CA

Hi Tim,

My name is Bert, I'm from Italy and I'm a blues harmonica player...I read your article and it reminded me of the two trips I made in the Delta, in 2008 and 2009. I love Frank's music and I think it's a shame people don't really know his work. It's important that people like you write about him. Thank you! In the Delta I was only a "stupid" tourist, but it was a great, unique experience I consider one of the most important in my life: driving on the highways, Listening to the blues everywhere, jamming in places like Red's and ground Zero in Clarksdale or the Blues Bar in Greenville... are priceless things, something I will keep in my heart for the rest of my life. I met a beautiful, lovely woman there too (named Hope), but I behaved like a stupid kid and I lost her... Alas! I will never forget that days and the chance I had to find happiness...Well, I also wrote something about Frank on a website, but it's in Italian... I give you the link of the first part (the second will be published in the next weeks) anyway if you know some Italian or somebody who can understand it... Even if I'm thinking of making a translation


Bert - Pavia, Italy

I wanna be Tim!

Brent, Seattle, WA

* * *

Those pictures give you an idea of what the Rockin' Pneumonia actually looks like and it looks BAD! But the man can still play! Enjoyed the article - give us more TRAVELING BLUES BOY!

Steve Thomas - NA, INDIANA

* * *

Good Stuff, Tim. Having been a Johnny Winter fan since the first time I heard Rock n Roll Hoochie Koo, it was great hearing his take on some his highlight moments that defined his blues career. His affiliation with Muddy Waters was particularly interesting. Kudos for bringing that out. Thanks to your dedication to covering the blues scene, this "one of a kind" music still lives for servicemen & women around the world. Keep it Up!

Brandon Williams, Moreno Valley, CA

* * *

Impressive! What a legend and how cool that you got so much time with him, Tim.

Don, Louisville, KY

Tim - Great article, enjoyed Little Feat/Lowell George story, really brought me back in time. Did not know he was a fishin' man! Wonder what surfaces out of the abyss of your memory next?

Steve Thomas, New Albany, IN

* * * *


I really liked your travel back in time with Lowell and Little Feat. As a long time Feat fan (mostly the stuff with Lowell) it was cool to read. I learned several of their songs back in the day and they still stand up today when played live. Another singer I really liked from back then is TimBuckley. Thanks for the article.

Chet Hogoboom, Arroyo Grande, CA

Loved your last issue of TB, especially the Mayall piece. I want that guy's job!

Brent, Seattle, WA


This is a great write up. Has it been printed in any magazines? It's better than a lot of things I read in my guitar magazines, so props for that.

Caejar, Moreno Valley, CA


I can tell that you have this passion for jazz. I wonder if you yourself play any instrument. Or are you just a groupie like most of us?

I talked with a mid-aged flute jazz artist a few weeks ago and he lamented that despite his talents (and he is extremely talented) he says that the industry hasn't been kind to him. He said jobs are few and far between. He said the music industry is combating piracy and competition due to technology being readily available to private homes and that they are not as profitable as before. So they are replacing live talent for synthesized or digital instruments.

Do you see the same trend in your relationships with your music network?

Bob, Pasadena, CA

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Stay tuned.

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