"The blues has always been the traditional underpinning of all American pop," says John Hammond via telephone from his Phoenix hotel room. Hammond has been playing traditional folk-blues for more than 40 years. He's now reaching even deeper, teaming with Tom Waits, whose oddball-troubadour Americana underpins the blues.
Hammond's latest album, the Waits-produced Wicked Smile (Virgin), is a salacious collection of 12 Waits idiosyncrasies like "Heartattack And Vine," "Big Black Mariah," and "Shore Leave."
Waits was slated to produce the album, but Wicked Smile was not originally intended to have virtually all Waits-penned material.
"One song just led to another, then another, then another," he says. "We recorded 20 songs in five days. It just flowed." Some knuckleheads have called this venture daring. But it makes perfect sense. Hammond and Waits are both living the culture they long to perpetuate.
"Because of my connection with Tom, my friendship and admiration for him, it was an inspiring time," he says. "It opened me up in a whole lot of ways to other material than what I'd done previously."
Coming from music biz royalty (his father, John Hammond, Sr, was responsible for discovering Bennie Goodman, Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Robert Johnson, Bessie Smith, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, etc...), Hammond is known primarily for acoustic, foot-stompin', harp-honkin', one-man blues. He has championed the sound and its icons since 1962, with the release of his first self-titled Vanguard recording at age 22.
"I was a blues fan from my early teens," he says. "At 18 I bought my first guitar and by 19 was playing professionally. It was a wave surging inside me and it finally came out."
Hammond's elbow rubbing at this time was like seeing the face of God. "I was on shows with everybody," he says. "Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Willie Dixon, Son House." Jimi Hendrix was discovered while playing in Hammond's band at the Café Au Go Go in Greenwich Village.
Hammond is trekking the globe with a "stripped to the basics" trio, playing acoustically and electrically, and has begun working regularly with a five-piece group. Though flying solo seems to be his forte, he enjoys a few more cooks in the kitchen every now and then.
"It's always an adventure with a trio," he says.
John Hammond plays Saturday, November 9, at Milestones, 170 East Avenue, at 9 p.m. Tix: $15.50-$20. 325-6490.