￼John Hammond picked up Jimi Hendrix for his band after Curtis Knight fired Jimi in 1965. Bob Dylan introduced Hammond to the Caffe Lena, now the oldest coffee house in the country, in 1963. And Mike Bloomfield lent Hammond a band of Chicago heavyweights for gigs in Philadelphia, Boston and New York. In 52 years, 36 albums, seven Grammy nominations and one win, the Blues Hall of Fame inductee at 71 says he still feels as good about performing as he did in the beginning in 1962, and his upcoming itinerary shows it.
On Sunday, September 7th, Hammond shares the stage with G. Love for a show at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York, to help raise money for the Caffe Lena. In October, he teams up with James Cotton and Charlie Musselwhite for a “Hall of Fame” tour – all three have been inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame – starting in Canada and running into next year with bookings that “just keep expanding and expanding.” Except for G. Love who is 41, each of the blues men is in his 70s and come from an era where regionalism and race played a role in their sound and the direction of their careers.
“When I first started playing,” says Hammond who is white and emerged from the folk scene in New York City, “I would audition at coffee houses on the West Coast, and the owner would come back to me afterwards and say to me, ‘That’s not folk music.’ And I’d say, ‘Blues is probably more folk music than –’ and I would go into my spiel and still didn’t get the gig.”
Musselwhite and Cotton both are from Mississippi. Charlie is white, and James is black. As a student at Tufts University outside of Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I first heard John Hammond in 1963 at the Club 47 (currently Passim’s), a basement coffee house in an alley at ground zero of Boston’s academic community next to the Harvard Coop. The Coop is a department store which at the time had a record department that featured blues LPs from Chess, Vee Jay, Sun, and Excello – stuff I couldn’t find anywhere else in the northeast.
A block from the subway stop that connected students from hundreds of Boston area colleges, The Club 47 was the most important showcase for the burgeoning northeast folk scene. The other center was the Greenwich Village coffee houses in New York City. The Caffe Lena in Saratoga was one of many coffee houses that became the outreaches from the scene that originated at these two urban hubs.
In 1963, Hammond was performing material from artists who were on some of those then-obscure labels sold in the basement of the Harvard Coop, but he was on Vanguard Records, a New York label that boasted folk artists like Eric Anderson, Ian & Sylvia, Pete Seeger and Joan Baez. He was a hard sell to the academic community, many of whom felt blues was a subgenre of folk relegated to African American performers. As a student who loved the raw sound of blues-based rock and roll, I found John Hammond to be a refreshing diversion from the average coffee house fare which, to put it bluntly, I often found to be candy-assed. Hammond laughs when I tell him that and says simply, “I know what you mean.”
At that time, Cotton was aside in Chicago and still with Muddy Waters on harp. When he did go on his own a couple years later, he only played jazz clubs in Boston where the drinking age was 21. I couldn’t get in to see him. When I did turn 21 in 1965, I went to Paul’s Mall and the Jazz Workshop to see Cotton and to Louie’s Lounge in Roxbury to see B. B. King and Bobby Bland. I was one of the only white people within miles, woefully underdressed and scared to use the bathroom at Louie’s Lounge.
So, John Hammond was as close as I could get to partaking in my guilty pleasure of listening to real blues. Others didn’t always see him that way. “(Jazz critic) Ralph Gleason described me as a thin, thick-lipped thug,” says Hammond. “I’ve outlived a lot of the critics.”
One of the disappointments of the Cowen Brothers’ film Inside Llewyn Davis is the portrayal of Greenwich Village in 1961as a depressing downer for folk musicians like Hammond’s friend Dave Van Ronk who is portrayed as surviving by crashing on sympathetic fans’ couches in a hand-to-mouth existence. While Hammond is the son of the John Hammond who discovered everyone from Billie Holiday to Janis Joplin, he says he rented an apartment in the Village for about $40 a month in 1961. Pretty quickly, he was able to get gigs not only in the Village but at Club 47, Caffe Lena and at other clubs springing up across the United States and Canada. He first came to the Caffe Lena with Dylan to see him perform.
“It was a whole other world. It was a completely country, and it was a little town. It wasn’t New York. It wasn’t even Albany. It was – you know – out there. So I mean it was a little isolated cultural scene that she (Lena Spencer) and friends made happen.”
Before the end of the ’60s, John was releasing electric albums on Vanguard after Dylan paved the way by plugging in at the Newport Folk Festival with Mike Bloomfield on electric guitar in 1965. Hammond credits Bloomfield with enlarging his world. “He was an amazing guy, and he was a catalyst for so many people. He put things together in his own crazy way. He was a really good friend to me.
“He once sent me a band from Chicago to back me up out of nowhere: John Littlejohn, Roosevelt Broomfield and Billy Bolden came from Chicago and we played as a band for four gigs – uh, really, a week in Philadelphia, a week in New York and a week in Boston. I mean Michael was just out there. He was an incredible guy. I mean he knew everybody in Chicago. Forget about it.”
Unlike New York and Boston, Chicago wasn’t about folk musicians playing blues in coffee houses. “They got to hear the real deal,” explains Hammond. “I mean, if you didn’t like the band stuff, you could go to Maxwell Street and hear the old time guys that were there every Sunday. So I mean they had at their fingertips this incredible wealth of talent and history right there. So I will always tell an audience that Mike Bloomfield hipped me to so much music and so many artists that I had never heard before. I mean I knew of them, and there it was and Michael introduced me.”
Hammond met Charlie Musselwhite in Chicago in 1961. Musselwhite’s playing on Hammond’s So Many Roads LP in 1965 is what got him his contract with Vanguard and his first album Stand Back in 1967. By this time, folk was giving way to the psychedelic sounds of San Francisco, and the British Invasion had conditioned the mass pop market to the joy of artists like Jimi Hendrix who was American but had to go to England to get his major break. Hendrix also had played in one of John Hammond’s bands by this point.
I will never forget interviewing Hammond in the late ’70s and asking him what it was like having Hendrix in his band. At the time, he was much more interested in having rubbed shoulders with the acoustic Delta masters who were dying off with frightening regularity. Hendrix was a contemporary, and I felt like Hammond thought of him as just another guy in the band. Today, when I admit how wowed I was by Hendrix, Hammond comes back with, “Jimi Hendrix was wow, but he was eclectic.
“He was still formulating his whole thing when I met him. He was not a songwriter. He didn’t have anything. He was playing blues and rock and roll kind of stuff. The last band he had played with when I met him was Curtis Knight, and he’d been fired for upstaging Curtis Knight. Anybody he played with he upstaged. There was no way around that, but he was just the nicest cat. No kidding, and so talented, just mind boggling. So it was just a matter of time before he put it all together.”
As for G. Love, Hammond remembers the first time he met him and thought of him as the hip hop John Hammond. “My wife Marla came with me down to this gig I was playing outside of Philadelphia. This is many years ago, and there was a young couple waiting outside the club. They were too young to get in, and this guy approached Marla and said, ‘Do you think it would be alright if we came in with you as your guests or as your whatever?’
“We didn’t know who he was or anything. We found out later that that was who he was, that he went on to become a professional player after that, and we got to see him probably in the early ’90s, once in Hoboken and once in California and so we formed a relationship/friendship, and I was on a gig with him at the Bottom Line. It was called “Mentors” or some shit. We actually did a tour together in the late ’90s all through North Carolina, Virginia, and his crowd loved him and hated me, and my crowd loved me and hated him.
“I mean he just likes what I do, and I think he’s good. I enjoy his playing a lot. He’s just a really nice guy, and we’ve gotten to be friends over the years, and so this show on September 7th is going to be delightful. It’s gonna be great to see him again and catch up where he’s been at and stuff. He tours all the time. He’s an amazing guy.”
John Hammond, Dave Van Ronk, Tom Rush and a handful of others started out as blues footnotes to the folk movement that ruled the urban scenes in New York and Boston in the early ’60s. But within the decade they became the tail that wagged the dog as they connected with artists like James Cotton and Charlie Musselwhite and became the entre to Chicago and Delta blues for a generation of white kids in the northeast college community.