CTI Records

Johnny Hammond: Wild Horses Rock Steady

Born John Robert Smith on December 16, 1933 (in Louisville, KY), formerly known as Johnny Hammond Smith, and later as Johnnny Hammond, one of the all-time best jazz organists passed away on June 4, 1997, in Chicago, Illinois. For some of his early fans, some of the best albums he recorded were done for Prestige in the Sixties. A younger generation, who grew up listening to the hip-hop influenced jazz sounds of the Nineties, prefers Johnnyís over-produced sessions for Milestone in the mid-Seventies, like the now cult Gears album.

But, most of his fans agree that Johnny Hammondís best albums ever were recorded in the early Seventies, under the aegis of Creed Taylor. Four albums released on the Kudu label (Breakout, Wild Horses Rock Steady, The Prophet, Higher Ground, all taped at Van Gelderís studio in New Jersey), and one more cut in California and issued on another CTI subsidiary label, Salvation (Gamblerís Life, on which Johnny played only the Fender Rhodes electric piano and vintage synthesizers, under the guidance of funk producer Larry Mizell).

Curiously, during his CTI/Kudu years, Hammond has not recorded as a sideman on albums led by other members of Creed Taylorís supercast. But he often performed, from 1971 to 74, in several CTI All Stars concerts all over the world. Two of these gigs were fortunately documented on records: California Concert (at the Hollywood Palladium in 1971) and CTI Summer Jazz at the Hollywood Bowl (in 1972).

Johnny Hammondís Breakout, a typical unpretentious soul-jazz session recorded on June 1971, made history as the first album released by the Kudu label, as well as the session which introduced Grover Washington, Jr. to Creed Taylor. Four months later, on October 1971, Grover once again was recruited as one of the main soloists for Hammondís second album for Kudu, Wild Horses Rock Steady, a more ambitious project. Creed wanted it to be a crossover album, with strings and horns sections, and full of jazz stars acting as sidemen.

Its smart title (for sure chosen by Creed) mixes the names of two important tracks, then pop hits. Wild Horses, a Mick Jagger/Keith Richards tune, appeared on Rolling Stonesí Sticky Fingers, released on April 71. Rock Steady, composed by Aretha Franklin, was on her Young, Gifted & Black album, also from 71, on which Eric Gale and Bernard Purdie, two of Hammondís sidemen, also took part.

The opening tune, Rock Steady, feature solos by Hammond, Eric Gale (using the wah-wah pedal) and Grover, with Ron Carter on electric bass and Bernard Purdie doing those incredible funky drum breaks.

Actually, the album repertoire is irreprehensible. Another highlight, Who is Sylvia?, is a Galt MacDermot song for a stage play, The Two Gentleman of Verona. Hammond plays the lyrical melody and the first solo on the electric piano. During Groverís burning tenor solo, he quotes Eleanor Rigby near the end, and then Johnny starts an explosive second solo, this time on the organ. Bob James supplies a subtle string arrangement, with a very soft bossa beat provided by Billy Cobham on drums and Ron Carter on acoustic bass. On both Rock Steady and Who is Sylvia?, Airto uses a typical Brazilian instrument called caxixi (thereís also a reco-reco on Who is Sylvia?) while Omar Clay plays tambourine.

George Benson is the acid guitar soloist on a funky version of I Donít Know How To Love Him, one of the main themes written by Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice for the rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar. Both Bob Mann and Melvin Sparks play the rhythm guitar parts. Bob James adds strings (actually, only eight violins Ė no violas or cellos!) and horns (with muted trumpets and trombones near the end of the track) in a lush orchestration, with Airto playing congas and bells.

Cat Stevensí Peace Train (originally from Stevensí album, Teaser & The Firecat) gets a jazzy treatment, with Ron sublime in a walking bass line. Bob once again uses the brass section, opening the solo spot to the underrated late tenorist Harold Vick, recently honored by Sonny Rollins in a tune (Did you see Harold Vick?) from his latest album, This Is What I Do.

Probably the most surprising song on the album, Itís Impossible was originally written by Mexican composer Armando Manzanero as a romantic bolero (another Manaznero bolero Esta Tarde Vi Llover, became a Bill Evans ballad-favorite under the title Yesterday I Heard The Rain). It is really almost impossible to believe how superbly Johnny Hammond recreates this song, transforming it in a highly-energized jazz vehicle played in a very fast tempo, including some of the best solos ever recorded by both Hammond and Grover, stimulated by an intoxicating beat that Cobham provides. Not even Bob Jamesí mellow strings diminish the tremendous impact of such a fantastic performance.

Billy Cobhamís martial groove in the snare introduces Wild Horses, with Ron Carter back on electric bass. Melvin Sparks uses a very distorted guitar sound, while Bob Mann plays with a country-blues inflections. 

Among the four albums that Johnny Hammond recorded for Kudu, Wild Horses Rock Steady, now for the first time reissued on CD, stands out as a masterpiece.

Arnaldo DeSouteiro
May 11, 2001

Mr. DeSouteiro is Brazilís top jazz producer and historian.