Bluesmen John Hammond, Billy Branch perform
John Hammond didn't often see his father, the legendary record producer of the same name, when he was growing up. But in 1949 the elder Hammond took his son to see blues legend Big Bill Broonzy, a show that changed his son's life at the tender age of seven.
"It inspired me, hearing these virtuoso players who were solo that could do it all," Hammond says. "It just turned me on. It made me feel like I wanted to aspire to that somehow."
Hammond says he became a "fanatic" for blues records and taught himself to play by ear when he bought his first guitar at age 18. A year later he began playing country blues professionally; now 72, he's never stopped. The singer-songwriter will play the Big Gig!, the final event of the Monroe County Library System's 28th annual Black History Month Blues Series, Saturday at the Meyer Theater. Also appearing is Chicago singer and harmonica player Billy Branch with his band, the Sons of Blues.
Like Hammond, Branch's passion for the blues form goes way back. Branch vividly recalls attending a 1969 Chicago blues concert produced by blues titan Willie Dixon, featuring legendary names like Muddy Waters, B.B. King and Bo Diddley. Branch, who was 17 at the time, says he was immediately fascinated with the music he heard.
"I just look back and view it as destiny, or fate," he says. "To show you how hard the blues bug bit me, after hearing the blues live for the first time, seven years later I was in Willie Dixon's band."
Branch says he scored that plum job, "the best learning experience I could have ever dreamed of," by "bugging" an acquaintance who did secretarial work for Dixon. It's just one notable collaboration among many for Branch, who has played on nearly 200 different records by artists including Johnny Winter, Lou Rawls and Taj Mahal in addition to 12 albums of his own.
Hammond, too, can rattle off an astounding list of brushes with musical royalty. He's close friends with Tom Waits, who produced "Wicked Grin," Hammond's 2001 album of Waits covers. He's toured with Neil Young, Van Morrison and Muddy Waters, and introduced members of the Band to Bob Dylan. And in 1967, Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton both sat in with Hammond's band for the same week.
"They were just guys who I admired, who I was friends with and who went on to become even stars, a lot of them," Hammond says. "I guess I was just in the right place at the right time a bunch of times. I'm a very fortunate guy."
Having carried the Delta blues tradition of the '20s into a new century, Hammond says he feels confident that the blues "just won't go away." Branch concurs, describing it as "the most accessible music that there is."
"It's the one music you can say that you have," Branch says. "You can't say 'I got the rock 'n' roll,' or 'I got the hip-hop.' 'I got the blues.' Everybody gets the blues. Everybody has challenges and trials and tribulations, so you're able to put it in a song and effect that release."
Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer.
The Big Gig!
with Billy Branch and the Sons
of Blues, John Hammond
and Rev. Robert B. Jones
7 p.m. Saturday
1555 S. Raisinville, Monroe
Free; seating limited