John Hammond Jr.’s bag of tricks

May 29, 2002 at 12:00 am

The blues will always be the blues. Always. No matter what. But the quality and potency of the blues has doubtlessly been enhanced by the presence of John Hammond Jr. — he has added vital flavor to the sound. And like the music itself, Hammond (who hits 60 this year) has always had the ability to stay relevant and alive during both the best and worst of times. He has maintained a remarkable performing and recording career that has spanned more than four decades, one that has seen him average almost a record a year.

With an expressive blues voice and lyrical wit all his own, Hammond is unmatched among his peers. Having said that, it’s almost funny that his latest record, Wicked Grin, is, by his own definition, probably the best record he has ever done. Funny, because the record contains only one song that wasn’t written by Tom Waits (the traditional “I Know I’ve Been Changed”).

Hammond says he whipped up this collection of Waits tunes by collaborating in the recording studio. From the Spanish-shaded “Jockey Full of Bourbon” to the comely “I Know I’ve Been Changed,” the record shimmers with Waits-meets-Hammond beauty. A longtime admirer of Hammond, Waits also produced the disc.

“It was spontaneous and fantastic,” says Hammond in a recent early morning phone conversation. “And it has sold more than any of my other CDs.”

The idea of collaborating on a record with Waits began to form in 1999 when Hammond appeared on Waits’ Grammy Award-winning Mule Variations. The two men started shooting ideas back and forth. When Hammond began to tackle one of Waits’ tunes in the studio, the concept of Wicked Grin as a Hammond-does-Waits type of thing began to evolve.

Within five days the entire project was done. Just like that.

“To me I’ve always felt it’s important not to waste time in the studio. It usually doesn’t take me more than a week to do a recording because I always come in prepared, knowing what I want to do.”

On Wicked Grin, Hammond admits it may have been the first time that he had ever entered a studio without a clear idea of exactly what was about to happen. He was setting foot in virgin territory. Yet, for someone who’s stayed in the business for more than 40 years, this wasn’t so much a frightening experience as it was a challenge — and fun.

Coming back to the Detroit area also promises to be fun for Hammond, who recalls when he used to perform at the Soup Kitchen Saloon.

“The blues is alive and well in Detroit,” he says. “I’ve always felt at home there.”

He also has somewhat of a spiritual connection to the city since two of his greatest blues inspirations are from the city: John Lee Hooker and Baby Boy Warren.

When Hammond appears tonight at George and Harry’s Blues Café in Dearborn, he will be doing a solo act, which is exactly how he began his career. Still, thanks to the great success of the new CD, Hammond can now afford a road band. But no matter how good things get or how many musicians Hammond is able to pay, he’s made it clear that he will always keep his solo act in good working order.

“I’ve got a whole bag of tricks,” he says when asked what tunes he’ll rattle off at George and Harry’s.

A whole bag of tricks? To say the least.

John Hammond will perform at George and Harry’s Blues Café (22048 Michigan Ave., Dearborn) Wednesday, May 29. For information call 313-359-2799.

Keith A Owens is a Detroit-area freelance writer and musician. E-mail [email protected]