Album Review

John Hammond & The Hawks pave the way for Dylan's new sound

John Hammond

So Many Roads

Vanguard

Release Date: June 14th, 1965

Words by: Peter Stone Brown
July 21st, 1965

10.0

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In the spring of 1965, Vanguard Records released the album So Many Roads by blues singer John Hammond. It was the third album for Hammond, (son of legendary Columbia Records producer, John Hammond), and his second album to feature an electric band playing Chicago blues. For this album, Hammond chose to record again with the bass player from his previous album, Jimmy Lewis. Lewis was originally a string bass player who had worked with Count Basie and Duke Ellington before switching to electric for Sam Cooke and King Curtis. Hammond also chose three members of a band he’d been jamming with in Toronto and two up-and-coming musicians from the Chicago blues scene.

On the original album cover for the LP (not the CD) it says: John Hammond accompanying himself on guitar with C.D. Musselwhite, harmonica; Jaime R. Robertson, guitar; Mark Levon Helm, drums; Michael Bloomfield, piano; Jimmy Lewis, bass; Eric Hudson, organ.

For those interested in finding the roots of Bob Dylan's onstage sound while performing with The Hawks in 1965 and 1966, So Many Roads is the key.

The band from Toronto that Hammond had been jamming with was, of course, Levon & The Hawks. C.D. Musselwhite would eventually be known as Charlie Musselwhite and, not long after this album hit the stores, Michael Bloomfield - who, at the time, was already appearing on small label Chicago blues albums with various artists - would record "Like A Rolling Stone" and the entire Highway 61 Revisited album with Bob Dylan.

So Many Roads was one of the records that led many people, including this writer, to dig deeper into Chicago blues and discover Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Otis Rush, Buddy Guy, Little Walter and Junior Wells, among many others.

John Hammond & The Hawks pave the way for Dylan's new sound Peter Yarrow, Bob Dylan & John Hammond

The music on So Many Roads is tough, loud and uncompromising. The reviews at the time thought Hammond went way overboard on the vocals and, probably, quite a few people still think that. However, I like to think he was just totally immersed in the experience, having a great time playing with a great band. Robbie Robertson’s guitar dominates the proceedings; but Helm, a Chicago blues drummer if ever there was one, is right there with him, while Hudson’s not-always-audible organ snakes around the songs in an almost spooky way. Unlike Bloomfield, who would play in speedy runs, Robertson played in short explosive bursts, going for sound and feel more than anything. Garth Hudson, meanwhile, is best heard on "Gambler’s Blues" and "Baby Please Don’t Go".

According to some reports, as well as interviews, Bloomfield already knew about Levon & The Hawks and Robbie Robertson, and had offered to switch to piano when he showed up for the recording session. While Hammond is a fine harmonica player, Musselwhite instead provides harp to compliment Hammond's vocals, in the same way that Little Walter, Junior Wells and James Cotton did for Muddy Waters.

A few months after So Many Roads was released, I attended Bob Dylan’s legendary concert at Forest Hills Stadium in New York City. This was his first full concert with a band backing him for the second set. The night was chaotic to say the least, with half the crowd booing. I didn’t even find out who the backing musicians were until the reviews appeared in the press a couple of days later, because the musicians were never introduced. When I found out that Robbie Robertson was on guitar and Levon Helm was on drums, along with Al Kooper on keyboards and Harvey Brooks on bass, my initial reaction was "Oh, the guys from the Hammond album." Dylan and Hammond were friends - take a look at the back of Bringing It All Back Home - and in the past 15 years, photos have surfaced of Hammond attending the recording sessions for Dylan’s album.

It's interesting that, only three years later, when The Band released Music From Big Pink, Vanguard did not capitalize on this connection and rush the albums out with stickers saying 'featuring The Band', in the way Roulette Records did with old Ronnie Hawkins albums.

For those interested in finding the roots of Bob Dylan's onstage sound while performing with The Hawks in 1965 and 1966, So Many Roads is the key.

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