“Producing someone’s record is kind of like spotting someone who is on the trapeze,” says Tom Waits, old friend of blues legend John Hammond, producer of John’s new Pointblank/Virgin CD, Wicked Grin, and author of 12 of its 13 tunes.
“When John asked me, I said yes and then I gulped, having never done it except with my wife on my own records, ” he adds. “John’s sound is so compelling, complete, symmetrical and soulful with just his voice, guitar and harmonica, it is at first impossible to imagine improving on it.”
The gulp turned into a grin once these two friends got into the studio and began playing music. What Waits did was to bring Hammond’s unique sound into the realm of his own singular musical vision. The result is a rich and dynamic synthesis of the warm, rootsy style Hammond has honed for nearly 40 years and Waits’ eclectic and fascinating portraits of American outsiders.
“It’s the most evocative, imagistic, incredible material I’ve ever recorded,” Hammond declares with unbridled enthusiasm.
“I’ve been a fan of John’s since his first record and was proud to be a part of this,” says Waits. “He’s a great force of nature. John sounds like a big train coming. He chops them all down.”
The two members of this mutual admiration society met over 25 years ago, when Tom opened a gig for John in Arizona. They had an instant rapport and became fast friends, continuing to cross paths for the last three decades.
“Since I first heard Tom play, on a show with him in 1974, I have been in awe of his talent,” Hammond recalls. “His ability to put across his songs so effectively and dynamically is overwhelming.”
Waits penned a classic tune – “No One Can Forgive Me But My Baby” – for Hammond’s first Pointblank release, Got Love If You Want It. More recently, John appeared on Waits’ 1999 Grammy Award-winning release, Mule Variations. It was during those recording sessions that the idea of Tom producing John first arose. The two tossed around thoughts for the next few months and met again while Tom was touring behind his album and invited John to sit in with his band at a Beacon Theater gig in New York City.
The notion of Hammond performing Waits’ material evolved organically in the studio, while the two sifted through volumes of music to determine the content of the record. John’s ease with one of Tom’s tunes was the first clue that the marriage would be a happy one. Waits liked the way Hammond put his own brand on the songs, bringing a well-steeped blues sensibility that added a certain hue and tone. So much so that it inspired some additional writing. “Kathleen Brennan and I wrote one fresh song for John – ‘Fannin Street’ – which he does like Hank Williams.”
Before long the album grew into a selection of Waits’ songs, performed by Hammond, produced by Waits. The concept of an artist producing an album of his own compositions performed by another artist is certainly a rare event, if not unprecedented. Yet the results feel as natural as day and night.
Once the band arrived, the sessions took on a comfortable, steady rhythm, the musicians recording 20 tunes from Waits’ broad palette, with colors ranging from poignant, dark, and haunting to joyfully boisterous and outrageous. On tune after tune, Hammond inhabits Wait’s wonderfully peculiar landscape with his own art and attitude. The greatest challenge was the choice of which tracks would make the final cut.
“We brought in Larry Taylor (Canned Heat, Jerry Lee Lewis, Percy Mayfield, Big Joe Turner) on upright bass, Augie Meyers (Sir Douglas Quintet, Bob Dylan’s Time Out Of Mind, Texas Tornadoes, Flaco Jimenez) on keyboards, Stephen Hodges (Fabulous Thunderbirds, James Harmon, Smashing Pumpkins) on drums and percussion, and (fellow blues great) Charlie Musselwhite on harmonica, ” says Waits, who joined in on guitar and added a guest vocal on the album’s final track.
“Sometimes ‘producing’ is just drinking coffee, waving your arms around and nodding ‘yes’ or saying nothing at exactly the right time, ” Waits adds. For Hammond’s part, there was far more to it than that.
“As the project came together, with the arrival of the musicians, a new shape took form,” Hammond remarks. “There was magic involved. And with Tom on hand and in the band, the songs just came together. I was inspired. Another side of me emerged.”
Now in his fifth decade of performing and recording, John Hammond has covered a great deal of ground and a seemingly endless amount of music, garnering a well-earned reputation as one of America’s most authentic and enduring musicians. Hammond has played the gamut–from coffeehouses and nightclubs to concert halls and major international festivals–entertaining blues, folk and rock fans around the world. With his acoustic and National steel guitars, harmonicas and a massive repertoire of tunes, Hammond has followed the path of such singing poets as Woody Guthrie, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Sonny Boy Williamson, taking musical stories of life and love from one corner of the globe to another. Early on, Hammond made records with legendary writer/producers Leiber and Stoller, featured a young and as yet undiscovered Jimi Hendrix in his Greenwich Village band, and used The Band as backing musicians, eventually introducing them to Bob Dylan. Over the course of his stellar career, Hammond has worked with such other luminaries as Eric Clapton, Duane Allman, Bill Wyman, John Mayall, J.J. Cale, John Mayall, Michael Bloomfield, Dr. John, Koko Taylor, Charlie Musselwhite and John Lee Hooker.
“John’s particular dialect in music is that of Charley Patton’s shoe size and Skip James’ watch chain,” observes Waits. “He has a blacksmith’s rhythm and the kind of soul and precision it takes to cut diamonds or to handle snakes.”
With Wicked Grin, Hammond pushes the envelope of both musical boundaries and expectations, joining forces with another American original and conjuring an album of great music, resonant with deep roots and rich imagery. An album that, like John Hammond, has the soul and substance to last a good, long while.
“I feel as good as I have ever felt about this recording session,” Hammond says with conviction. “The musicians involved were all inspirational players. We worked as though we had been playing together for years. It was an unforgettable experience for me.”
The final cut on the record, an old traditional gospel number entitled “I Know I’ve Been Changed,” a song of testimony and renewal, bears ample witness to the fact.