LEWISBURG - Grammy-winning blues legend John P. Hammond has been touring for more than 50 years and has a library of blues songs at his fingertips (more than 400, by his count), but he hasn't decided what he will play at his free concert July 6 at the Campus Theatre.
"I always play whatever I feel like," Hammond said in a phone interview with the Sun-Gazette. "I feel what the audiences like and play it by ear and the songs come to me."
Hammond has performed with almost any famous blues musician one can name, including Mississippi Fred McDowell, Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker, and in 2011, Hammond's influence and longevity were acknowledged when he was honored by being inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.
"It was a big deal," he said. "After so many years on the road, getting acknowledged by your peers ... it meant a lot. I was inducted by my friend Robert Cray and with Bobby Bland and Buddy Guy sitting there while I performed, it felt exciting. I had a good time."
In the same year, Hammond's buddy Tom Waits was inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame. Hammond and Waits collaborated in 2002 for the album "Wicked Grin," which featured Hammond performing Waits songs.
"That was a real exciting experience for me," Hammond said. "Tom's an old friend and I never thought I'd get a chance to record with him. Tom's wife and my wife got together and scoped it out and dropped it in our lap ... it's not like we didn't want to do it. It was just that somebody had to do some ass-kicking to get the ball rolling."
Waits isn't the only surprising collaborator Hammond has worked with. He also worked with G. Love, aka Garrett Dutton, on his 2007 album, "Push Comes to Shove."
In an interview with NPR about the album, Hammond said, "Garrett is talented. He's got something special. He's a big blues fan and he has his own take on performing. He's very much at the forefront of what he's doing."
Hammond's last album, 2010's "Rough and Tough," won the musician his seventh Grammy nomination. His other nominated albums include "In Your Arms" (2006), "Long As I Have You (1999), "Found True Love" (1998) and "Trouble No More" (1994). In 1985, Hammond won a Grammy for his performance on "Blues Explosion," a compilation album featuring Stevie Ray Vaughan, according to his website.
"Rough and Tough" was recorded in St. Peter's Episcopal Church in New York City, Hammond's hometown. The musician didn't choose a church because he's religious - he says he's not at all - his reasons for recording there were more practical.
"It's where Chesky Records [the company that released the album] has a studio," he said. "And it's unique. It has vaulted ceilings and an amazing sound. They didn't have a lot of recording equipment. They only used one mic. But it was the bare essentials of the sound of the room that was most important."
Unlike his live performances, which don't take shape until he's onstage, Hammond never goes into the studio without a plan.
"You depend on inspiration in the studio, but you have to have your plan together," Hammond said.
Hammond is usually in-and-out in a week, or less.
"The most time I've taken to record is nine days," he said. "Normally, it's a week. I don't have big budgets, so everything's done very efficiently. We did it ["Rough and Tough"] in one afternoon."
Most of the songs Hammond records are interpretations of blues classics like "Evil (Is Going On)" by Howlin' Wolf and "Statesboro Blues" by Blind Willie McTell, just to name a few.
"All the songs that I choose to do are ones I feel I can make my own," he said.
Hammond has written a few originals, including "Come to Find Out" and "Slick Crown Vic," which were included on "Rough and Tough," but he doesn't consider himself a songsmith.
"Actually, I'm not really known as a songwriter," Hammond said. "I have a few songs I've come up with. but I don't spend my time writing songs - I'm on the road performing and doing that aspect of it. That's what I love to do, I love to perform."
Hammond's dedication to blues is distilled in the film, "Search for Robert Johnson," a documentary he narrated, which was released in 1991. When asked whether he had watched the film recently, Hammond said, "I haven't seen it in five years. That was another dynamic experience. To spend that much time down in Mississippi and Arkansas and Texas, it was great. It was all off the cuff - there was no script - and I learned more about Robert Johnson than I ever knew." The entire film is available on Youtube if you search for "Search for Robert Johnson."
Like Eric Clapton and Keith Richards, who are featured in interviews in the film, Hammond is quick to express his admiration for Johnson.
"He was one of the greatest that ever was," Hammond said. "He wrote and performed and recorded these songs that are truly classic."
Johnson supposedly died not too long after being told that he was getting the chance to play Carnegie Hall in 1938 for the historic "From Spirituals to Swing" concert, which was organized by Hammond's father, John H. Hammond. John H. Hammond was one of the most important American record producers of the 20th century. He's credited with introducing great musicians like Billie Holiday, Big Joe Turner and Aretha Franklin to a wider audience.
Hammond, sometimes referred to as "John Hammond Jr." to be distinguished from his father, also has some major credits to his rock 'n' roll resume: Jimi Hendrix performed in a band with Hammond before the rocker became famous. The story goes that Hendrix wandered into New York City as an unknown in 1966 looking for a job when Hammond invited Hendrix to be a part of his band and "encouraged him to pursue stardom in England."
These days, after so many decades of performing, Hammond said that he is in the position to "cherry pick" shows and that the upcoming free concert in Lewisburg is one that he's excited about. Hammond has a history of performing in the state.
"I have played here many times over the years," he said. "It began in Philly but moved to Pittsburgh and other areas. I performed at the Poconos Blues Festival a few years ago. That was dynamic and fun."
When asked whether he would come to the area again for another blues festival, he said, "I'd love to."
So, maybe, a future Billtown Blues Festival? Here's to hoping.
Hammond's free concert will begin at 7 p.m. For more information, contact Lisa Leighton, marketing and outreach coordinator at Bucknell University, by phone at 577-3727 or by email at email@example.com.