Since his appearance on Big City Blues in 1964, John Hammond has recorded dozens of discs. And while he may have flirted with rock 'n' roll from time to time, Hammond's roots have remained true blue.
Two recent Hammond releases are a case in point. His latest for Virgin/Pointblank, Wicked Grin, has Hammond covering a set of songs by Tom Waits, along with a traditional tune, "I Know I've Been Changed." Waits, whose tunes range from the comical to dark-night-of-the-soul dirges, may be an acquired taste, but Hammond's vocal interpretations make the appreciation easier. More rustic is The Best of the Vanguard Years, a retrospective which covers Hammond's formative years in the mid-'60s; as well as his return to the label in the late 1970s.
Hammond has always had three things going for him: impeccable taste, expert guitar work, and the ability to throw his voice around in a chilling blues wail as if to testify that, yes, indeed, he's had more than a few hellhounds on his trail. The Vanguard Years catches him working through a classic blues repertoire: "Statesborough Blues," "Seventh Son," "Drop Down Mama," "I'm a Man," and more. Most are solo Hammond: vocals, guitar and harmonica, but his own heartfelt interpretations of these standards never fails to bring these classics alive. The tracks from So Many Roads--recorded in a single day in 1965--include support from The Band's Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm and Garth Hudson, as well as Michael Bloomfield and Charlie Musselwhite. And Jimmy Thackery, no slouch himself when it comes to blues guitar, appears on the Hot Tracks cuts from 1979.
As the son of legendary Columbia Records producer John Hammond, the younger Hammond certainly gained an appreciation for music at an early age. As Wayne Robins recalls in his detailed liner notes for this reissue, the elder Hammond once took neophyte John to a Big Bill Broonzy concert. That early exposure to the blues sowed a seed that's still bearing fruit. John Hammond, the kid from New York City, hit the back roads and brought us all along for one hell of a ride.