“John’s sound is so compelling, complete, symmetrical and soulful with just his voice, guitar and harmonica, it is … impossible to imagine improving it.”—Tom Waits
Legendary bluesman John Hammond has spent the better part of the last 50 years on the road. In 2008 his booking firm, The Rosebud Agency, announced his 4,000th show since joining them in 1977. How many gigs has he played overall? “Oh, I really don’t know,” Hammond says. “Hard to say, but it’s in the thousands.” Probably 6,000 if you do the math—all over the world—sometimes with a band, sometimes alone with a guitar and harmonica. After logging all those miles, after seeing all those places, where did Hammond and his wife, Marla, decide to call home? Jersey City.
John Paul Hammond’s story is well known, especially among blues enthusiasts. He grew up in Greenwich Village, the son of John Hammond Jr., a record producer and talent scout who influenced the likes of Benny Goodman, Billie Holiday, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, and Bruce Springsteen, among many others. His parents split when he was very young, and Hammond was raised by his mother, actress Jemison McBride. Growing up, he saw his father only a few times a year, but during one of those visits, at the age of 7, his father took him to see Big Bill Broonzy. “Clearly, he made a big impression on me” says Hammond. Through his teens, he was a fan of blues-based rock artists like Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, and Jackie Wilson. Then he discovered classic country blues artists like Robert Johnson, Leroy Carr, and Blind Willie McTell, “...and I became a fanatic,” he says.
Hammond bought his first guitar at 18 and was on the road at 19, playing mostly in coffeehouses in Los Angeles. Returning to New York City in 1962, “I landed my first gig at Gerde’s Folk City, which was the club to book back then,” he says. Hammond found himself at the epicenter of the blues renaissance. “I was in the right place at the right time,” he says. He forged friendships with like-minded artists, including Richie Havens (also a Jersey City resident); Bob Dylan; and Jose Feliciano. “I felt like I’d found my place,” he says. Around this time he also met Neil Young, who opened a show for Hammond at the Cellar Door in D.C. in 1969. Over the years, Hammond has opened for Young multiple times, and their friendship endures.
Time and again, Hammond put together friends to form a band and tour, or record. He famously had Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton in the same band, albeit for only five days. Longer-lasting collaborations were with Muddy Waters, JJ Cale, Tom Waits, The Band, and John Lee Hooker. He’s recorded 34 albums and counting.
What would a Hammond dream band look like?
“Oh God, that’s too hard,” he says. “I’ve worked with so many phenomenal players, from Dr. John to Mike Bloomfield, Robbie Robertson, Duane Allman ... it’d be way too many people.”
Hammond and Marla moved to Jersey City in 1995. “It didn’t look anything like it does now,” he says. But they were attracted to the community and for a traveling man, transportation options were excellent. “We’re 12 minutes to Newark Airport, which is delightful when we’re going overseas or across the country,” he says. “Everything is very convenient here.” And he’s performed locally as well, most notably at the Landmark Loews Jersey Theatre in 2010. “I was on the bill with Duke Robillard,” he says. “It’s a beautiful theater and they did a great job of restoring it. We also love Hoboken and do a lot of shopping there.” They’ve been known to visit Maxwell’s, keeping up with newer artists. “We saw another friend, G. Love, there some time ago,” Hammond says. “He’s got a lot of style and brings a hip-hop take to the blues.”
Hammond travels with two primary guitars, an acoustic that was custom made for him in England, and a 1935 steel-bodied National Duolian, a gift from Marla on his 48th birthday. “This was what street players had, back in the day before electric guitars,” he says. “It was the loudest you could possibly get.” He often visits the Guitar Bar in Hoboken for supplies.
Hammond has been nominated for Grammies numerous times and won in 1985 for his album, “Blues Explosion.” In 2011 he was inducted into the Blues Hall Of Fame in Memphis along with Alberta Hunter and Robert Cray. “Fifty years on the road, I guess I’ve outlived my critics,” he jokes. “To be included with Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, my idols, is just such an honor.” Last year, he was inducted into the New York City Blues Hall of Fame.
Ten years ago, he was awarded the Key to the City of Jersey City. “They gave me a plaque,” he says. “I’m very proud of that.” Hammond is a JC Mag fan. “We love Jersey City Magazine,” he says. “We look forward to it every time it comes out, because it’s so nice to see an acknowledgement of this area that has so much history. Seeing this scene becoming so vibrant, it’s just terrific. We’re very happy here.”
Our hometown bluesman stays upbeat about his work as well. “I’m a very fortunate person to do what I love and make a living at it,” he says. “I make my living playing the shows, and that’s the real deal.”—JCM