John Hammond Interview

 

January 24, 1992

Variety Playhouse

Atlanta, Georgia


by Bill Ector

 

            When Hittin' the Note was first conceived, my mind immediately began to think of topics which would be of interest to me and which might be shared in some way with my fellow fans of the Allman Brothers Band (sometimes referred to as Allmaniacs!).  So many ideas came to me in that first rush of thought, that deciding on one topic became quite a diffi­cult problem.  As fate would have it, I was leafing through a copy of Creative Loafing, Atlanta's alternative (and free!) news and entertainment publication, when I noticed that John Hammond was scheduled for a one-nighter on January 24, 1992, at the Variety Playhouse.  A group of us had seen him at this same venue back in April, 1991, and though I had gotten him to sign my copy of Southern Fried, I did not have the opportunity to ask him about his friendship and musical alliance with Duane Allman and the Allman Brothers Band.  Suddenly I realized that if I could make the necessary arrangements, an interview with John would be a great way to begin my new career as an amateur journal­ist.  Now that my mission statement had been formulated, I began to move toward my goal.


            In a short time I had contacted John's booking agency in San Francisco to discuss the possibility of setting up a meeting.  It took only a couple of days to find out that he would welcome the chance to talk "on the record" about Duane and the band after his gig in Atlanta.  Now that the wheels had been set into motion, I began re-reading some old inter­views with or about John to come up with a list of questions for the impending inter­view.  Hopefully there will be some new perspective on what was a very strong, but tragi­cally short, two-year friendship between John Hammond and Duane Allman.


            Transcribed here is my interview with John Hammond on Friday, January 24, 1992, in his cramped dressing room backstage at the Variety Playhouse, a converted movie thea­ter in the rather Bohemian Little Five Points district of Atlanta.

 

            HTN:  We are talking with John Hammond backstage at the Variety Playhouse where he has just finished performing, and we want to do a lit­tle talking about his experience playing with Duane Allman.  This is for the soon-to-arrive, unofficial, unauthorized fan letter of the Allman Brothers Band called Hittin' the Note.  You may have heard that term bandied about at some point.

            JH:  Yeah!

            HTN:  You and Duane first recorded together in Muscle Shoals around November, 1969 – is that right? – during the Southern Fried sessions.

            JH:  That's when I met Duane.  I had been on a quest to record for Atlantic, my third LP.  Jerry Wexler had sent me to Memphis first to record there and it didn't work out.  So I came back to New York and he said, "Well, we'll send you down to where Aretha records and all these folks."  So I went down to Muscle Shoals, and there are the guys who recorded behind [Wilson] Pickett and everybody, and I assumed that they were all black.  And they were told that there was a blues artist who was going to fly in and record, so they assumed that I was going to be black.  So we looked at each other and these guys just gave me this cold look.  You know, it was Roger Hawkins, Barry Beckett, Jimmy Johnson, David Hood, Eddie Hinton; and for three days I tried to get them into what I was playing, and they just seemed to play a little bit awkwardly.  On the third day, this old milk truck drives up and Duane and Berry Oakley were in it.  I had never met Duane, but Duane kept saying, "I got to meet this John Hammond guy.  I hear he's here recording."  I looked up at this guy and he had like long red hair, eyebrows that crossed, big sideburns that crossed into a mustache, and a T-shirt on that said "City Slickers" on it, and he was like just a piece of work.  1969 in Alabama, it was like . . . .

            HTN:  A real freak, for sure, huh?

            JH:  Yeah, but he had balls.  So everybody just fell all over themselves for Duane, you know.  He was their idol.  Duane finally got introduced to me and I said, "Hi."  I had never heard his stuff.  He had recorded with Aretha and with all these other artists – I didn't know.  Then he started to play and asked if he could be on a cut, and everybody said, "Oh, John, let him play.  He's really great."  All of a sudden these guys knew exactly what I wanted them to do.  From having not understood a thing before, everybody under­stood what the deal was.  Duane was the catalyst completely for that.  I stayed really close with Duane ever since then.  I was on many gigs with them, and I got with their agency [The Paragon Agency] and I eventually recorded for Capricorn, Can't Beat The Kid.

            HTN:  That is a great record – one side acoustic and the other side electric.

            JH:  Duane was just something else.  He was a really great guy, one of those charismatic guys that makes everybody stand up and pay attention.

            HTN:  You were quoted in an earlier interview in Guitar Player magazine that Duane could influence anybody.  How did he influence you?

            JH:  Just seeing him being able to play so many different things so well was . . .  To play with him was like feeling almost invincible, because he played everything right.  He was just terrific.  It was more inspirational than actu­ally learning notes and stuff.  He was a good friend.

            HTN:  What were his contributions to the Southern Fried album in terms of arranging?

            JH:  He was just on four of the cuts.  He was only able to be there that day and the next day.  He kinda let the guys know what they were supposed to do.  It's not that they didn't know how to play, it's just that when they saw Duane was into it, they got right into it.  He was just that kind of guy.

            HTN:  Did you do any stuff that was unreleased from those sessions?  You have said before that there was some extended stuff that got cut out.

            JH:  There was "Shake For Me."  He played a whole other guitar break that they had to cut out because it was too long, I guess.

            HTN:  Kind of like the "Loan Me A Dime" with Boz Scaggs or "Goin' Down Slow"?

            JH:  Yeah.

            HTN:  Duane and Delaney Bramlett would get together and jam at Jerry Wexler's, and Wexler has said "I wish I had recorded all that."  Obviously, you guys got a chance to do some of that.

            JH:  We were on a lot of gigs together because we toured.  Hotel room jam sessions at 3:00 A.M. were almost routine.  Those guys were together so long and they knew everybody's inside/outside, which I didn't know every­body's all that well.  I got to know them and they were kinda in the fast lane as it were.  At times it was hard for me to relate to everything that they were into and stuff, but I liked everybody and they were all real nice to me.  I felt like I was a friend of the whole band, but Duane was the guy who I knew, who I met first, and . . . .

            HTN:  You stayed partners?

            JH:  Yeah, the whole time.

            HTN:  Did you get a chance to record any of those types of things?

            JH:  No, it was never thought about.  I mean, who knew he would be gone?  My God, the guy was so alive!  I never expected it – it was so shocking.  He and I had talked about making an acoustic album together that would have been happening the year he died.  It was in our minds.

            HTN:  You were together a couple of days before he passed away.

            JH:  Duane had been in upstate New York and had some time off and stopped by in N.Y.C.  We spent about two days just sorta hanging out, playing together, talking about recording.  I had a gig in Newfoundland and he had to go down to Macon.  I got a phone call in the middle of the next night -- it was terrible.

            JH:  You felt pretty disconnected at that point, being so far away from every­body?

            JH:  Yeah, it was unbelievable.  I couldn't believe it.

            HTN:  When were you together?  He passed away on a Friday.  Were you together on Wednesday and Thursday?

            JH:  Thursday, because I left early Friday morning for Newfoundland and he left for Macon.  I think it happened the day he got home.

            HTN:  It's been twenty years, and sometimes it seems like yesterday.  Do you ever think about what his music might be about were he still around?

            JH:  Hard to say, but it would be right up front somewhere, I know.

            HTN:  Duane never gets or got a lot of the recognition that he deserved.

            JH:  He didn't get a chance to do as much as he would have had he been alive, but what he did do was really sensational.

            HTN:  What do you think his greatest musical gift was?

            JH:  His ability to just be inventive all the time.  All his solos were special – so much energy.  He was really creative.

            HTN:  Are there any players around today that you think have that same type of approach and fire that Duane had?

            JH:  Yes, but not the same thing.  He was uniquely himself and had his own magic.  But, you can hear guys who have heard his stuff and been inspired by him.

            HTN:  Duane was a great slide player, which he was most famous for, yet you have stated that he would pick your brain about the way you played slide.

            JH:  Yeah, he wanted to see how I played the Robert Johnson stuff espe­cially.  He loved that stuff.

            HTN:  Is that the kind of music you guys would play – the Robert Johnson?

            JH:  He wanted to play with me, that's where it exactly was at.  But I jammed up there with the band, maybe played a little harmonica – it was fun.

            HTN:  Are there any comments you would like to make to the fans of the Allman Brothers Band?

            JH:  Those guys have been around for a long time, they have really paid their dues and learned everything the hard way.  I'm so glad they're still happening and have that energy still.  And Gregg is just doing better and better in spite of all the ups and downs he's been through.  He's a great singer.  We saw Gregg in California in September.  He had just been in a movie and was all full of himself!

            HTN:  Tell us about yourself.  You have a pretty busy year planned appar­ently.

            JH:  Marla [John's beautiful and gracious companion] and I are going all over the world again.  We had a thing we did for the BBC on Robert Johnson [which is available on Sony video and entitled In Search of Robert Johnson].  I made a new album for the Point Blank label that will be re­leased in April.  It was produced by J.J. Cale.  John Lee Hooker is on it, Little Charlie and The Nightcats, J.J. Cale and his band play on the album, I do some stuff solo, and Tom Waits wrote a song for the session.  It was really a wild time!  I'm real happy with it.

            HTN:  You played on John Lee Hooker's latest record.

            JH:  Yeah, I was on two cuts of that – Mr. Lucky.

            HTN:  John, I really appreciate you taking the time for this.

            JH:  You are really welcome.


            Sitting across from John and watching him talk about Duane Allman was a most gratifying experience for me.  It is readily apparent that the friendship which John and Duane had was deep and fertile, and that each had the utmost respect for the other as musicians and as human beings.  Gregg Allman has been quoted as saying that Duane and John were best friends, and it only took about two seconds of conversation to see that this was true.  John Hammond has continued to play and sing the blues.  His performance on this crisp January night was stunning – even the three or four broken strings couldn't take away from the brilliance and soulfulness that is the essence of his style.  Beautiful acous­tic blues accompanied by a Martin guitar, 1936 National steel body, harmonica, and a voice which has been drenched in the blues, and you have all the ingredients necessary for a real blues primer.  In addition to his continued world-wide touring, John has been hard at work on some other projects which he briefly mentioned during the interview.  His video, In Search of Robert Johnson, is basically a travelogue through the regions of the South where the true "father of the blues" played, lived, and died.  John interviews family members, friends, and fellow musicians to tell the story of the man who gave mod­ern blues and rock players their mighty inspiration.  John has a new album on the Point Blank/Charisma label entitled Got Love If You Want It, which is due for a May 5 release, and he will be on the road to Hong Kong, Europe, and back in the US. during 1992.


            There are some special thank you's which must be given to make this item complete.  First, to Alix Woznick with the Rosebud Agency in San Francisco, who was as gracious and helpful as she could possibly be in setting up the interview with John.  Second, to a group of John's personal friends who broke away from their after-show gathering to grant the time for me to spend with John and Marla.  Third, to Marla for holding up through the miles of travel and lack of sleep to be so kind and attentive while the interview was taking place.  Finally, my deepest personal appreciation goes to John Hammond.  Here is a man who gave so much of himself to this endeavor with a total stranger and who has a great spirit and a warm heart.  It will always be a highlight of my life to remember my conver­sation with John and his special remembrances of Brother Duane.


            I look forward to the next time that we Allmaniacs get a chance to get together on the pages of Hittin' the Note.  If there are any subjects you want to see covered, please write and let me know.  I plan to concentrate primarily on the musical aspect of the Allman Brothers Band, which hopefully will include reviews of old and new performances, song evolutions, and some in-depth interviews with and about the individual members of the band, their instruments, their styles, influences, and goals for themselves and the band down the road.  This is your fan letter, so let us know what you, the fans, want to read about.  Play all night!

 

by Bill Ector

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