VINE VOICEon 10 September 2006
John Hammond Sr., the Columbia Records executive, gave his estranged 19-year-old son a test-pressing of the forthcoming Robert Johnson LP in 1961, and it was to have a marked influence on his life. Three years later he recorded his first album for Vanguard, featuring some Robert Johnson and other Mississippi blues numbers, as well as Lightnin' Hopkins' 'Going Back To Florida', included here. His second album the following year continued the solo trend, with more reworkings of songs by Johnson, Blind Willie McTell, and John Estes making up the content, as well as the more citified Chicago sound of Willie Mabon, all to be heard on the first four tracks of this CD.
As one of the few pioneering white bluesmen of the early 1960s, Hammond demonstrates a commendable command of the style, with his guitar work particularly impressive. The voice is a different matter - the liner-notes describe it as 'callow' - and when Hammond dropped his solo guitar role in favour of a bigger, electric band, the overall quality of his performances seems diminished. Listening again to these larger group sides, after many years, I'm struck by how similar Hammond's vocal phrasing was to that of Mick Jagger's. But perhaps I shouldn't be so surprised; The Stones were a major success at the time, and a role-model for many white boys on how to sing and play the blues. Whatever, it's probably no coincidence that Hammond chose to be backed by Bill Wyman's bass on a 1967 album for Atlantic.
Of particular interest is the inclusion here of six tracks from Hammond's 'So Many Roads' LP, cut in 1965 with a group comprising Robbie Robertson, guitar, Garth Hudson, organ, Levon Helm, drums, Charlie Musselwhite, harmonica, and Michael Bloomfield, piano. The first three musicians had been members of Ronnie Hawkins' backing group, The Hawks, responsible for laying down, in 1963, some memorable tracks, including a definitive version of Bo Diddley's 'Who Do You Love'. This track is tackled here by Hammond and the boys, but the comparison is odious. In fact, there's really no comparison at all, although it's always good to hear Robertson's guitar wailing out. Another visitor to the studio during that particular session was Bob Dylan. Although he didn't contribute, he was evidently sufficiently impressed by the ex-Hawks to begin performing with them later that year, renaming them The Band.
The final two tracks represent a return to solo work by Hammond, from a 1976 album, and find him in a more mature and acceptable form, with 'Guitar King' especially pleasing. A couple of previously unreleased tracks are also included, one of them, 'Hellhound Blues', being a fine cover of the Robert Johnson classic. So, a varied compilation of Hammond's output, with more enjoyment to be obtained from his solo work.