“Tom who? Tom Hambridge you say? Never heard of him.” That was the sum of my knowledge about the drummer/vocalist/songwriter/producer a few years ago. These days, I would update my summation to: “Yeah, we have HEARD music with his fingerprints all over it, we just didn’t know it was him.” Now thanks to an expansive feature about him by Don Wilcock in BluesBlast Magazine (September 13, 2018 Issue 12-37), I know more than a little about one of the most prolific musical chameleons in the business. Wilcock authored Buddy Guy’s story in the highly acclaimed Damn Right I’ve Got The Blues (1991), sparking a revival in Guy’s career that has continued right through the 82 year old’s newest album, The Blues is Alive and Well (2018). Maybe Wilcock’s writings will have the same effect on Hambridge’s career even though, as a rather well kept secret, he seems to be doing just fine.
To give you and idea of exactly how prolific Hambridge is in the music game, let me quote Wilcock’s brief summary: “Hambridge writes 60 songs for every 12 that appear on any one record. One reviewer documented that in the two years between 2014 and 2016 alone, Hambridge produced 17 records, received 27 award nominations, six of which he won, played drums and/or sang on 19 other artist’s albums, made numerous TV appearances, toured extensively, and released his seventh solo album, The NOLA Sessions.” I downloaded his CV of recordings from 1995 to 2018 and it stretched across more than ten pages.
Readers can forgive me for being hooked on his career as soon as ‘singing drummer’ was mentioned. I first consciously noticed his name when I picked up guitar prodigy Quinn Sullivan’s first album (Cyclone 2011) and saw Tom Hambridge named as the album’s producer and the writer/co-writer of all the tracks. Once his name was connected with producing records, I began to notice it all over the place including his work with guitarist Mike Zito (Make Blues Not War), Susan Tedeschi (Just Won’t Burn), ZZ Top, Marcia Ball, Felix Cavaliere, Roy Buchanan, Johnny Winter, and (especially) Buddy Guy (who calls Hambridge ‘The White Willie Dixon’).
Born in Buffalo, NY in 1960, Hambridge played his first professional gig (a bar mitsva) as a third grader. He learned his craft via the usual woodshedding as a drummer in high school band, orchestra, and various garage bands. He attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston on a scholarship, and unlike many musicians who have gone to Berklee, Tom actually graduated. Many Berklee students end up with band gigs and leave school to pursue music sans a degree. Hambridge was able to leverage his touring with the legendary guitarists Roy Buchanan (Professor: “You are touring with Roy Buchanan? Are you kidding me? Sure, go ahead, I won’t fail you”) and Chuck Berry into a career and still graduated in 1983 with a degree in Professional Music. When he got the call to audition for Buchanan’s tour, it was a good test of how quickly he could adapt to a new situation.
Hambridge’s first call was to his brother so he could borrow some of his Roy Buchanan albums and get up to speed. The day of the audition got pushed back a few times and when it finally happened, it was with his band leader, not Buchanan. After playing an hour for Buchanan’s musical director, he was told, “You’re in.” The next logical question was, “When will the band rehearse with Buchanan for the tour?” Like the audition, the rehearsals got pushed back to the week before, then a couple of days before, and finally, to the afternoon of the first show. As Hambridge recalled for BluesBlast, “I met Roy backstage five minutes before we were going on for the first show, and Roy walked up and said, ‘Hey, Tom, I guess you’re our new drummer. Looking forward to playing with ya.’ And I said, ‘Me, too. Do you know what we’re gonna play?’ and he said, ‘Wha’dya know?’ I said, ‘I know Hot Job, Peter Gunn.’ He says, ‘Let’s start with Peter Gunn’ and I walked on stage and that’s how I started.” The second night of the tour, they made a live recording that was released as Live at the Lone Star. Hambridge continues, “[And] that was the show that [in the last two or three years] was on an album that came out of unknown classic recordings by Roy Buchanan, and on that record was the song Amazing Grace, and they said that was the only time they’ve discovered Roy Buchanan ever played Amazing Grace live, and it was the second night of the tour. I remember he just started playing, I got brushes and just started playing it. It’s on the album, and it sounds spectacular. I just figured he did this every night. . . You get great musicians in a room with somebody like Roy Buchanan or a Buddy Guy, or whoever we’re talking about, and you can make magic, and that’s what I love about music.”
“Workaholic” is a good description of Tom Hambridge and that applies to every step he takes. Whether he is performing, writing, producing, mixing, overdubbing tracks, or reviewing liner notes, Hambridge works almost around the clock. While he enters most recording projects with a focused and professional air, he decided to record his latest solo release (The NOLA Sessions 2018), “Doing everything backwards.” Instead of having the whole script written, he booked four studio days in New Orleans and simply showed up and let the record happen. Hambridge says, “I just thought I want to meet the engineer for the first time. I don’t want to see the studio before I book it. I’m gonna play drums they have there. I don’t even need to see it. I’m not bringing any equipment, and then I just call these musicians that I’ve never met and see who comes out, and that’s what we did. Fortunately, the record company trusted me.” It didn’t hurt that the guys who showed up to play included NOLA luminaries like Sonny Landreth, Ivan Neville, and Allen Toussaint, but the album was crafted with a different group each day (we have previously aired The NOLA Sessions and plan to get it on the air more when this FTV is published).
To say that Hambridge has a little pull in the music community would be a vast understatement. In 2013, he produced James Cotton’s last album. During the pre-recording discussions, Cotton said, “I can’t sing. How are we gonna make a record when I can’t sing?” (Hambridge described Cotton’s voice at this point as ‘sounding like a 1965 VW stripping gears’). Hambridge told him, “I am gonna call some friends of mine and when I tell ‘em what I’m doing, and it’s for you, I think they’re all gonna come out (Cotton said that he didn’t think anybody would come). The first guy I called was Greg Allman. . . I sent him a song I wrote called Midnight Train. He called me back personally and said ‘You tell me when and where and I’ll do it.’ I called Warren Haynes, Delbert McClinton, Keb Mo. Everybody I called said, ‘I’m there.’”
Cotton’s release on Alligator Records was nominated for a Grammy as album of the year. It contained a song called Bonnie Blue, a song that was about the slave plantation Cotton grew up on. Hambridge, remembering Bonnie Blue, says “(When Cotton told him the story about Bonnie Blue) I said ‘ That’s a slave plantation?’ And that is one of the things I get a chill just thinking about it.” Pulling stories from musicians and personalizing albums for the artists he works with is one of Hambridge’s strengths. The story about how the song about Bonnie Blue came about isn’t surprising or unique, it is just one more thing that makes Hambridge a busy man.
When Hambridge is asked to produce a record, he always asks, “What do you want to record?” If they list a bunch of classic songs like Sweet Home Chicago or Stormy Monday, he will tell them, “You know what? Why don’t we write a couple of our own, and hopefully 30 years from now they’ll be Stormy Monday. It’ll be our own.” He says many people are intimidated by the idea of creating their own classics, but he reminds them, “Elmore James was able to create that (Stormy Monday) just because he wasn’t trying to do that. You know, people had to write those individual songs.” Call it ‘producing’ or ‘performing magic’, but this is Hambridge’s secret weapon – pull a story out of the air and get it down on tape and then do it again.
Hambridge wrote a song for Susan Tedeschi’s 1997 Just Won’t Burn CD called Rock Me Right.
The suits at the record label wanted no part of the song: “I remember the record company being all up in arms that ‘you’re gonna offend all the blues people’ and I said ‘Why am I gonna offend all the blues people? It’s called Rock Me Right, and it is rockin.’ I think this record could sell a million copies’ and they said, “Well, we just want to sell about 5000.’” Hambridge pressed on noting that a rockin’ blues record would expose more people to the blues, bring out more people to the blues clubs and sell more records. “And the other thing,” he told them, “if you want to be a stickler about it, Rock Me, Baby by B.B.King had the word ‘rock’ in it.” Just Won’t Burn earned platinum level sales, was nominated for a Grammy, and Hambridge’s songs Rock Me Right and It Hurt So Bad from that album have been recorded by more than 60 blues bands. As Hambridge reminded those same reluctant suits, “They’re probably two of the most recorded blues songs. Probably 50 or 60 new albums come out a year that are licensed with one of those songs on them.” In other words, these new blues artists will bring in new blues fans and if the word ‘Rockin’ is all that it takes, then they would be fools to worry about offending anyone.
Hambridge’s other skill in making albums that fit the artist is keeping the back door open to anything else that might work for them: “If I’m producing a George Thorogood record or a James Cotton record or whoever I’m working with, Gregg Allman, I am so in tune with them and what their sound is and their history, where they’re from, where they grew up, what they’re already doing, what they haven’t done yet. So, there’s a million things I’m thinking about sonically, how to change it, but don’t lose the magic they have. I’m constantly in touch with that artist and their music, and I will write songs with them or search for songs that pertain to where they’re from and are in their situation. So, they’re not gonna sing about something that is completely foreign, you know, in a different language.”
How did Hambridge manage to become such a hot commodity? He told a story to SOUNDLINK INTERNATIONAL about his first meeting with Chip Young of MCA records soon after Hambridge had relocated to Nashville. Young listened to Hambridge’s first CD and loved it. He started tossing out big numbers for the publishing rights to his music, upping the amount when he couldn’t get Hambridge to bite. Young finally said, “You’re not negotiating, are you?” Hambridge said, “No, I just got here. I don’t know what I am doing.” Over dinner, Young suggested that Hambridge keep his own publishing rights and following such sage advice has allowed him to chart his own path and earn a decent living. Hambridge didn’t fall into his multidimensional music career fully formed. He has worked hard and learned from the best to become a major player in today’s music scene, even if most music fans couldn’t point him out in a police lineup.
How much cred does Hambridge carry in the music world? When Mick Jagger appeared at the White House in 2012 for “Red, White, and Blues – A Black History Month Celebration Concert” (featuring BB King, Buddy Guy, Keb Mo, Derek Trucks, and Susan Tedeschi as well as Jagger), you can guess who Mick asked to play the drums for his part of the performance.
Top Piece Video: Proof that Hambridge has set off his own musical earthquake by producing music that many bands put on record – here are The Sister Wives with their version of Rock Me Right from 2010.