John Hammond walked out to the middle of the stage at the One World Theater Thursday. He sits atop a wooden stool, places a rusted 1935 National Reso-Phonic guitar in his hands, an end of a socket wrench over his finger, a harmonica rack around his neck and lowers his head as the first notes pierce out over the audience.
Hammond evokes the sounds of Rural America, bringing black-and-white-dusty images into your mind. He plays the guitar like he’s busking outside of the pearly gates. He blows into his harmonica like its the last chance he’ll ever get to hear it scream. He squints his eyes and stretches out his neck as if he was just stung by a hornet, its poison burning through his veins.
Hammond doesn’t just play the blues, he lives the blues.
Hammond has recorded 35 albums and performed for over 50 years. He began his career in 1962 at just 20 years old, having played the guitar for only one year.
“It didn’t take long because I already knew all the songs, I was a blues fanatic,” Hammond said Thursday. “It was only a matter of time… because I knew all the words to all the songs I wanted to do to (learn) enough guitar playing to back up what I did.”
Hammond first heard the blues in 1949 when his father John Henry Hammond II took him to see Big Bill Broonzy.
“He was one of those iconic country blues guys,” Hammond Said. “I was so impressed, I mean it affected me. To this day I can remember how I felt, so I sort of gravitated towards that kind of music ever since.”
Hammond’s father was the legendary Columbia Records producer in the 1950’s responsible for discovering Aretha Franklin and Bob Dylan.
Growing up in New York City, Hammond was able to hear many of the famous country blues and folk artists.
“Artists like Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee, Josh White, and Leadbelly would travel to New York and play shows,” Hammond said.
Hammond was also heavily influenced by rock and roll.
“In the mid 50s, when I was in my teens, I went to see the Alan Freed rock and roll shows, and I really dug Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry… I was just amazed,” He said.
Hammond discovered many of his influences through purchasing albums from the Chess label.
“I bought a Bo Diddley record, and on the back it advertised some other Chess records including Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, and Sonny Boy Williamson,” Hammond said. “All these names who were very intriguing, and so I got these records and all of a sudden I was like… whoa.”
It was also at this time when Hammond purchased the landmark album “The Country Blues,” a compilation of rare-78rpm-rural-blues recordings compiled by Sam Charters for the Folkways label in 1957.
“It was a compilation I guess out of his own collection,” Hammond said. “Artists like Blind Boy Fuller, Willie McTell, Blind Willie Johnson, Robert Johnson, Leroy Carr… it was phenomenal, and it was solo acoustic stuff.”
Hammond began his performance with the Johnson classic “Come On in my Kitchen” Thursday, as well as selections from his latest album “Timeless,” released in January for the Palmetto label.
Hammond paused between songs, telling stories from his lengthy career.
“I opened for (Jimmy Reed) in 1964 in Oakland… Eddie Taylor was playing with him at the time,” Hammond said. “It was one of those amazing shows where I got home to New York and told my friends ‘I opened for Jimmy Reed’ and they said ‘ahh right sure,’ and you know they wouldn’t believe me at all.”
“Ten years ago Martin Scorsese put on “The Year of the Blues” celebration at Radio City Music Hall… and John Fogerty walks up to me and says ‘man I saw you open for Jimmy Reed in Oakland,’ it kind of flipped me out, someone acknowledged me after all those years.” Hammond said.
Hammond switches between a handmade acoustic guitar he purchased in England, and the National Reso-Phonic throughout the evening, although not the original he bought from Eddie Bell’s Guitar Headquarters in New York early on in his career.
“That was stolen years ago,” Hammond said. “I’ve had some hardships over the years. In Detroit someone stole everything I had, including my clothes… and the rent-a-car with everything, so I’ve had to rebuild a few times.”
The audience remained silent, hanging on every haunting note as he sang Skip James’ classic Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues.
Hammond was prevalent in the coffee-shop-folk scene in Greenwich Village in the early 1960’s, playing an important role in Jimi Hendrix’ discovery.
“Jimi was just one of those incredible guys I met not knowing who he was or anything,” Hammond said. “I just heard him play and said God man this guy’s phenomenal.”
Hendrix was actually stranded in New York at the time, and asked Hammond to help find him a gig. Hammond set up a nightly, week-long gig performing with Hendrix on lead guitar at The Gaslight Cafe.
“I guess every musician that was in New York that week came to the shows,” Hammond said. “And at the end of the week Chaz Chandler offered (Hendrix) a plane ticket to England to record him over there, and the rest is history.”
Hammond, 72, did not let up during his 90 minute performance at the One World Theater Thursday.
“The music is part of me,” Hammond said. “Everybody says how can you do the same stuff? (After touring for over half a century). And you know it’s just I love to play, and the music is so vital. I just think it’s really important.”