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John Hammond: The Time Tom Waits Wrote Me A Song On The Spot

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Coming up through the Greenwich Village folk scene, John Hammond collected the work of some of the greatest blues artists of all time. On his latest album, that music is presented as bare-bones and honestly as possible: just him, his guitar, his harmonica and a deeply appreciative audience.

Now 71, Hammond is celebrating more than 50 years of recording with a new live album called Timeless. It's a smattering of modern compositions and a healthy dose of classic blues from the likes of Elmore James, Howlin' Wolf and Sleepy John Estes.

The album leads off with "No One Can Forgive Me But My Baby," a song that could be mistaken for a Bo Diddley classic, but was in fact written especially for Hammond by Tom Waits.

"He came to a recording date I was doing in San Francisco in 1992," Hammond says. "John Lee Hooker had sat in to do a duet with me, and Tom Waits appeared out of nowhere and said, 'I have a song for you, man.' It was about 20 minutes long, with everybody in the Bible coming down to the river. I said, 'Gee, you know, it's a great song, but I don't think I could do anything like that.' He said, 'Oh, you don't like that one?' So he goes into the control room."

Scarcely 10 minutes later, Hammond says, Waits emerged — with a brand-new song at the ready. Hammond listened, and liked what he heard.

"So I did it," he says. "He had left by the time we completed it, and so I sent him a cassette of it. And I hadn't heard from him for a while, so I called — and he had it on his answering machine. I guess he liked it."

John Hammond spoke with NPR's Arun Rath; hear more of their conversation at the audio link.

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