by James Rea
It may seem like a lofty claim but, I think I can safely say that producer, drummer, artist, songwriter extraordinaire, Tom Hambridge is single-handedly responsible for the entire presence of ‘THE BLUES’, in MusicCity.
Tom was the recipient of the 2011 Grammy for Buddy Guy’s Album LIVING PROOF, which also took home Best Contemporary Blues Album, Song of The Year and Album of The Year from the 2011 Blues Music Awards and Song of The Year from the Blues Blast Music Awards. The album was written & produced by Tom and it features Buddy’s first time duet with B.B. King and is Buddy’s highest charting record ever.
He currently has a 2014 Grammy nomination (#4) for the Best Blues Album of the Year with James Cotton’s COTTON MOUTH MAN album, which features Hambridge-produced guest performances by Gregg Allman, Keb Mo, Warren Haynes, Ruthie Foster and Delbert McClinton and … Tom has his imprint on an unprecedented 12 Award Nominations at the 2014 Blues Music Awards including Best Album and Best Song of The Year but, Tom says the one that makes him the most proud is his nomination for Drummer of the Year.
James Cotton: “Tom Hambridge is the best producer I’ve ever worked with. He has a great deal of integrity and I’m proud to call him my friend. And man … what a drummer he is, he can play anything.”
It’s hard to know where to begin when conveying Tom’s body of work. Hambridge’s songwriting credits exceed 350 cuts. In 2009 he received a Grammy Nomination for Best Traditional Blues Album: Buddy Guy – SKIN DEEP and was the 2009 Blues Music Awards Winner for Best Contemporary Blues Album, for the same project. In 2007 Tom was the recipient of an ASCAP Country Music Award for ‘Every Time I Hear Your Name’, in 2004 he received another Grammy Nomination for Best Contemporary Blues Album: Johnny Winter – I’M A BLUESMAN and between 1988 and 1999 Hambridge received 6 Boston Music Awards. Tom was also inducted into the Buffalo Music Hall of Fame.
Tom’s global presence includes touring, producing, songwriting and recording with Chuck Berry, Buddy Guy, ZZ Top, Johnny Winter, Susan Tedeschi, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Hank Williams Jr., Delbert McClinton, Bo Diddley, BB King, Meat Loaf, NRBQ, George Thorogood, Keith Anderson, Billy Ray Cyrus, Boston, Shemekia Copeland, Gretchen Wilson, Rodney Atkins, Van Zant, Montgomery Gentry, Rascal Flatts and many more!
In the past year alone, on top of COTTON MOUTH MAN, Hambridge produced both of Joe Lewis Walker’s albums HELLFIRE and HORNETS NEST, Kevin Crutchfield (Doctor C) – SPECIAL LOVE, 14 yr old blues sensation Quinn Sullivan’s GETTING THERE, George Thorogood’s ICON, Too Slim & The Taildraggers BLUE HEART, Jack Mack & The Heart Attack Horns LOOKIN’ UP and … he produced, wrote, played drums and sang background vocals on Buddy Guy’s 77th Birthday ‘double-disc’ album RHYTHM & BLUES, which was given a perfect 4-Star review from USA Today. After debuting at number one and currently holding strong at the number two spot, Rhythm & Blues features special guests including: Keith Urban, Kid Rock, Gary Clark, Jr. Steven Tyler and Joe Perry from Aerosmith.
The irrepressible Buddy Guy said: “I’ve had a lot of producers …. But, forget the rest, Tom is the best. Tom brought the songs, the team and the vision to the party that lit up Rhythm & Blues. Tom is such a creative writer and musician. Someone like that only comes along once in a lifetime. I call him the white Willie Dixon.”
It’s interesting to note that, of every top 100 Blues records in the world, in the past few years, the number 1 and number 2 records have always been records that Tom Hambridge has produced. Hambridge has been referred to as the Svengali of Blues.
Tom’s current album BOOM is his 6th solo album and he has been featured as guest vocalist on the Disney soundtracks “Cars” and “Ratatouille”.
Tom is one of the founding partners of Superstar Records, whose artist roster includes himself, Jack Mack & The Heart Attack Horns, Quinn Sullivan, The Justin Kalk Orchestra and Andrew Morstein.
Tom and his wife Chris, who have been together since high school moved to Nashville from Buffalo in 1998 and their two daughters Rachel (13) and Sarah (16) are both budding songwriters.
“When I was doing SKIN DEEP, with Buddy Guy, over at Blackbird Studios, my kids showed up. Both of them are very musically inclined and they write songs. My daughter Rachel had just won a songwriting contest and Fender had given her a Stratocaster and an amp. The judges included Robby Robertson and I remember telling her, when she entered it; “Nobody ever wins these things, it’s such a long shot, don’t get your hopes up.” So at the session Buddy says; ‘Do you guys play guitar?’ and they said yeh and he said to Rachel, have you got a guitar and she said I have a Stratocaster and he said to Sarah, do you have a guitar and she said no but dad’s going to get me one if I learn my chords better. A couple of weeks later, after the record was done, a package showed up at my house … a Telecaster for Sarah, signed by Buddy guy on the headstock.”
How did Superstar Records emerge?
It really started from a friendship with John Heithaus who started the Rock Fantasy Camp. He wanted to have a label and I met him when I played at the camp. He was very interested in what I was doing because, there are a lot of artists who want to make a record, who don’t have a label and we thought, maybe there’s a way to connect everybody. John introduced me to Steve Mack, who specializes in internet commerce, with a number of start-up, early stage and Fortune 20 companies including Yahoo! & IBM and Michael Holstein, who has negotiated hundreds of talent agreements with artists including Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder, Morgan Freeman, Tina Fey, Dave Grohl and broadcaster James Brown. We started the label about two years ago.
Does Superstar offer Artist Management, as well?
Most of the artists we have right now, we try to get them professional management.
Where was your first publishing deal?
EMI … I got offered quite a few publishing deals, Universal and Warner Chappell, etc … and I didn’t take any, for a good chunk of time (4-5 yrs) until I realized it was time. Then I did a co-venture with EMI. I wanted to make sure my stock was going up a little, before I jumped into it. That deal was great and now, I’m back to owning my own publishing company; Tom Hambridge Tunes.
How do you get cuts on other artist’s albums that you’re not producing or playing on?
It’s pretty wacky because I don’t have anybody soliciting my music to anybody. I have my own production company, my own publishing company, I’m my own agent, I’m my own manager, I’m my own administrator, my own assistant … I make all my own decisions. In the past year, I had about 20 songs on Buddy Guy’s double album, James Cotton (10), Quinn Sullivan (12), Joe Lewis (10), Rascal Flatts, Danny Gokey, 4 on Skynyrd, 3 on ZZ Top, etc … But in answer to your question, I’m fortunate enough to have some what of a reputation that, when people are lookin’ to make a record, I get a phone call. Skynyrd will call and say, I’d like to get together with you, so I’m very, very fortunate that these guys remember me. I’m honored.
What instrument do you write on, guitar or piano?
Both, but I just play the 1, 4, 5 on the e-string, like a bass player and block chords on the piano. To me, a lot of it is the lyric. Sometimes we won’t even pick up a guitar for the first hour because we’re talking about ideas and hooks. It’s not brain surgery to me.
Do you co-write a lot with other Nashville writers today, as opposed to the artists you’re working with?
Yes, I write a lot of country songs with Jeffrey Steele, Jim Collins, Bob DiPiero, George Teren, Gary Nicholson and a lot of other great writers. I’m also writing with some new country artists. I’ll get calls from their managers saying; can you write with so-in-so and I really love that.
Who signed you to your first record deal?
Artemis Records, Danny Goldberg, the legendary record guy who ran Led Leplin’s label, Swan Song Records, was president of Warner Bros, Atlantic and Mercury Records. He managed Nirvana and after Curt Cobain died, he decided to start a new label. He signed Steve Earle, Ricky Lee Jones, Warren Zevon, The Pretenders, Todd Rundgren and me.
How much radio airplay are blues artists receiving these days?
Obviously not as much as country, rock and pop and it’s a drag that they’re not as open to blues artists anymore but with the advent of Sirius Satellite Radio, I get in my car and I hear one of my songs every time I drive, be it Buddy Guy, James Cotton, George Thorogood or Lynyrd Skynyrd or Tom Hambridge so, it’s comforting to know that people all over the world are tuning in and hearing it.
It’s a little bit of a different beast. For instance, in the short time that I’ve been working with Quinn Sullivan, we’ve done a video, we’ve done Crossroads in New York with Eric Clapton, we’ve done countless tours with Buddy Guy, we’ve done festivals like Lollapalooza, Austin City Limits, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel and the tonight show with Jay Leno. I’m not sure that radio wants to play a 14 yr old right now, so we’re getting him out there, groundswell.
I understand that you do a couple of cruises every year.
I’ve been doing this cruise that, I do every January with Delbert McClinton and The Mavericks and a bunch of really great bands. I’ve been doing it for 10 years. It’s wonderful, I bring the kids. And then my band The Rattlesnakes and I do the Lynyrd Skynyrd cruise in October.
What circumstances led to Quinn Sullivan signing with SuperStar Records?
Buddy guy discovered Quinn when he was 7 or 8 before Superstar was put together. Buddy asked me if I’d watch a DVD of Quinn playing with Buddy and asked me if I would consider playing on a song with Quinn. So I wrote a song called Whose Gonna Fill Their Shoes about people like Buddy Guy and BB King and Ray Charles. Buddy, whose generous to a fault said listen, would you produce a record on this kid, so I produced an album called Cyclone in 2011. I wrote all the songs for it and Buddy Guy put it out.
It was an interesting task because I had to write for a 12 yr old kid who plays the blues. So I couldn’t write about girls or dating. I kinda looked at it like early Beatles where, if we touched on a relationships, it was just fun, like I Wanna Hold Your Hand and Please Please Me and it really worked. It charted on Billboard’s Blues charts and it sold a lot of records. Quinn is 14 now.
Has the blues world musically expanded outside the blues-box as we know it, traditionally?
Yes, I think on my records it has. I am a purist and I love traditional blues and traditional country but I also love pushing the envelope in any genre that I’m writing or producing. I say knock the box down to something where you’re really out on a limb, where the mix is over-the-top or your subject matter is completely in your face or the guitar solos are tearing your head off. It’s important to make blues records credible. Sweet Home Chicago is a great song and it’s been recorded by so many people. I want to write a new Sweet Home Chicago.
When I wrote Rock Me Right for Susan Tedeschi, I remember distinctly that the label said; ‘You can’t use this on the record because it has the word ‘rock’ in it. And I said; I don’t care, I want the blues fans to buy it but I also want the rest of the world to buy the record. Needless to say it went to number 1, sold a million copies and the song has been recorded by over two hundred artists. It’s a new standard.
Do you get much of a chance to play around Nashville?
I did a round at The Bluebird last Saturday with Jim Collins and George Teran and the first thing Jim Collins says is; So, I’m watching TV the other night and Mick Jagger is playing at the Whitehouse and Tom Hambridge was playing drums.
How did you wind up playing with Mick?
The White House called me and asked me to put together and outline of who I thought, artist-wise, would be a great show at the White House for Black history month, for a Blues show called Red, White and Blues. So, as crazy as it sounds, I put my list together and on the list was Mick Jagger because British artists where the ones who turned America back onto the Blues artists. They idolized these guys. When they came to America, the first thing they wanted to see was Buddy Guy and Muddy Waters. So I thought, how beautiful, to have Mick Jagger as part of that, along with Keb Mo, Shemekia Copeland, Susan Tedeschi, Warren Haynes, Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger, Jeff Beck, Buddy Guy, BB King, James Cotton and Jonny Lang but, they couldn’t pick everybody.
Did you put together a house band for them?
They had the production company that does the Grammys come in and they got Booker T and a band from LA but what was cool was, a couple of the artists said; We want Tom to play drums and Mick was one of them. And then just this past Christmas I did the Kennedy Center Honors with Buddy Guy and we honored Carlos Santana.
Is it true that, the Keith Urban/Buddy Guy duet ONE DAY AWAY on RHYTHM & BLUES nearly didn’t make the album?
At first listen, Buddy said to me; I don’t want to record that song and I said; You don’t want to record it, we won’t record it. So Buddy went back to the hotel that night and I recorded it with the band, without him there and I put a vocal on it, because I just had a feeling that this song was going to resonate with him, even though when he heard the work tape he didn’t get it. But I am his producer and I am trying to do things that I think are the best for him. So I sent him the album to listen to and at the end of it, I put a long pause and then there’s my version of the song. So he calls me about 4 days later and says; Man I love this record but I got to tell you, there’s a song called ONE DAY AWAY and it’s killing me, how wonderful it is, but I don’t remember recording that song. And I said; Buddy, that is the song that you said you did not want to record, so I didn’t want to waste your time with it when you were there… but I thought that you should hear it in the context that I was hoping you would and he said; Man, I’m melting, I gotta do it. And I said; My idea was to have you duet on this song with Keith Urban and he said; Well, I’m all for it, I love it, as a matter of fact, people who have been hearing my CD want me to play that one again. So I said; Well, at this point, Keith is in the middle of doing American Idol and I’m doing another record and you’re in Chicago, so I said I’m going to fly to Chicago and record you on this song, so he did and Keith came back to Nashville and went into Sound Stage. Keith said; I can’t believe I’m singing with Buddy Guy. He was so into it and so gracious and he did an amazing vocal and they traded guitar solos.
Who is your engineer in Nashville?
Michael Saint Leon engineered Boom and James Cotton
Who are you’re A-Team of Blues musicians in Nashville?
Bass – Michael Rhodes, Tommy McDonald and Glenn Worf
Guitar – Rob McNelly, Pat Buchanan, JT Corenflos and David Grissom
Keyboards – Reese Wynans and Kevin McKendree
Nashville’s not just a town that they record country in. I recorded Buddy Guy’s last 4 albums at Blackbird, I did James Cotton’s Grammy nominated COTTON MOUTH MAN at Sound Stage Studios. Jack White, The Black Keys, Sheryl Crowe and Delbert McClinton, all record in MusicCity … This Town Rocks
As Tim “Too Slim” Langford said in a recent interview in Blues Blast; “Probably the hottest name in the blues business is Tom Hambridge.”
For more about Tom Hambridge, visit www.hambridgetunes.com
2014 Grammy and Multi-Blues Music Awards Nominee Tom Hambridge makes his second appearance on The Producer’s Chair on Thursday, March 20 at Douglas Corner @ 6 PM. Details @ www.theproducerschair.com
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