When Albert Hammond entered the music industry in the 1960s, the business was a far simpler place. Budding songwriters would pitch their music to labels in the hope that someone saw potential and team them with artists in the studio. If the tracks were successful after release, word would spread and so would demand for their services. In our digital age, the advent of social media, multiple distribution channels and the importance that’s placed on numbers is enough to deter any musician’s creativity. How has Hammond maintained his focus during a 50-year career amidst all the changes in the business?
“What never changes is your love for music, the fans and going to a concert for two or three hours, forgetting your troubles and the troubles in the world,” he tells us. “I had a woman come up to me at the end of a concert when I was signing autographs last year with tears in her eyes. She told me that her son was killed three months ago in Las Vegas, aged 30, and that the only time she forgot the pain was at my concert that night. That’s what music is.”
That heartfelt passion has been behind 30 chart-topping hits that span timeless classics performed by Diana Ross, Whitney Houston, Leo Sayer, The Hollies and Starship. Including his own solo work, Hammond’s back catalogue has over 360 million combined sales. He was awarded an OBE in 2000, inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2008 and honoured with the Ivor Novello Award for Outstanding Song Collection in 2015. And, after recently turning 73, he’s showing no signs of slowing down. Hammond will release a new solo album on June 16th titled In Symphony—a collection of songs from his career reimagined with the help of Grammy nominated composer, Rob Mathes. A European tour will see him on the road until the end of this year.
Speaking of the inspiration behind In Symphony, Hammond explains: “I’ve always dreamed what the classic composers would have done with my melodies. So I told Rob to imagine what Beethoven would have done with When I Need You or Tchaikovsky with I’m a Train, and just go crazy!” The two spent a month in New York choosing the songs and creating arrangements, before recording the final cut in London at Abbey Road Studios, backed by a symphony orchestra.
Hammond’s love of music started with singing and he was head choirboy by the age of eight in Gibraltar where he grew up. He soon had designs on being the next Buddy Holly and, after buying a replica of Holly’s trademark glasses (spec-less of course), the young musician decided he better learn some chords if he was going to realise his dream. “I thought if I could play three chords, I could play a lot of Buddy Holly songs. So I made a deal with my father’s barber, who was a flamenco guitar player, where I offered to sweep the floor every day if he taught me three chords.”
His first song was written aged 15 about a young girl he met on a cruise ship that had docked in to Gibraltar for the day. The ocean liner was full of children from Scotland on a school trip and Hammond caught the eye of his female admirer while entertaining the class with his band The Diamond Boys. Afterwards, the young lovebirds strolled around the ship holding hands. Hammond was broken hearted when it set sail and went home to pen Blue Boy.
Music turned into a profession when The Diamond Boys won a battle of the bands competition in Madrid. The prize was a record contract with RCA and the group made their first record and performed whenever they could. After becoming bored with a lack of growth, Hammond then decided to move to England and, alongside his guitarist, used his RCA contacts to secure a deal with Decca. Despite writing songs for an album that featured well-known artists like Kathy Kirby, The Hollies and Gerry and the Pacemakers, the record didn’t bring the recognition Hammond needed to break into the industry. After a brief stint back in Spain, he decided to try again and returned to England as a waiter at the Grosvenor House Hotel in London by day, and a singer in its ballroom band by night. It was then he met longtime collaborator and fellow songwriter Mike Hazlewood, who died from a heart attack in 2001.
“I went to see somebody at Radio Luxembourg and that’s where I met Mike,” Hammond remembers. “We looked at each other and just felt that we could work together. Because I was a waiter at the Grosvenor House, I got free food so he could come and eat for free too. After eating we would strum the guitar and try to write some songs. I will miss him forever. I was able to write a tune and have a title with a story that I could tell him, and we would write that as though I’d written it on my own. It was such a great feeling to do that with somebody, he felt like a soulmate, like we were one.”
The duo’s first hit was Little Arrows for Leapy Lee in 1968, then came chart success with Make Me An Island for Joe Dolan, Freedom Come, Freedom Go for The Fortunes and novelty track Gimme Dat Ding for The Pipkins. They then took off for Los Angeles in 1970 to write the music for a Broadway show that didn’t make it on stage. So Hammond spent his days walking the wide streets of sunny California, guitar in hand, pitching up at various record label offices looking for a songwriting deal. He eventually found good faith in legendary producer Clive Davis, who was President of Columbia Records at the time.
Over the next few decades, Hammond went on to write for Whitney Houston (One Moment in Time), Tina Turner (I Don’t Wanna Lose You and Don’t Turn Around), Leo Sayer (When I Need You), Diana Ross (When You Tell Me That You Love Me) and The Hollies (The Air That I Breathe). In more recent years, he co-wrote and produced Duffy’s second album, Endlessly. Alongside Hazlewood, his co-writers include Roy Orbison, John Bettis, Graham Lyle, Diane Warren and Hal David. His back catalogue spans pop, country, R&B and Latin, while his work as a recording artist includes albums in Spanish and English. He credits his upbringing as the catalyst for the diversity in his work. “I think my biggest influence was probably growing up in Gibraltar where I heard music from different cultures: Arabic, Spanish, and the Anglo music which was pop, rock, rhythm, blues and jazz. I realised that music was music, and that I shouldn’t just concentrate on one kind of style, that I should write what made me feel good at the time. And that is what I did.”
Aside from Buddy Holly, Hammond’s other idols were artists he later ended up writing with like Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and Diana Ross. Did they live up to his expectations in real life? “Oh, more than that! In a way, meeting these people helped me stay grounded,” he says. “When I met them they had already been to the castle in the sky and back down again so they taught me to stay with my feet on the ground. There’s this impression of ‘The Star’ but the stars are in the sky, really.”
While there was nothing mystical about his collaborators, Hammond’s own songwriting process does have an air of mystery. He explains: “I don’t have a formula, I feel things coming. I hear melodies in my head and know that something is going to happen. I could fall in love many times in my life with music and when I get that feeling I know I’m going to fall in love again so I just let it happen. It’s a strange feeling, it’s almost like I don’t write them and that it comes from somewhere else.” Working with others is what makes the inspiration take shape.
“When I sit down with someone and we talk about an idea, it inspires me even more and I’m spontaneous. I don’t think what could it be like, I just know what it’s like and go and do it. We sit at a piano, with a guitar or do it a cappella. Maybe we write some lyrics, sing to what’s there and play the chords at the same time. It depends who you are working with. It’s a wonderful feeling to have somebody who’s a bouncing board, like a mirror. Obviously you need to have a chemistry, you have to really like the person and know that you are going to open up to them otherwise it’s not going to work. I’ve been very lucky, I’ve written with a lot of people and had success with almost all of them.”
As well as his In Symphony project and accompanying tour dates, writing the music for the Matterhorn Musical in St. Gallen is keeping Hammond busy for now. His future ambitions involve writing his “best song”—a dream that could see him making music for years to come. “It keeps me going because every time I write a song I go, ‘Maybe this is it’. It’s a great feeling!” Does he have any parting words of advice for his predecessors? “If you’re doing it for fame and money, go home. Do it for the love. I have three children and I’ve always told them I don’t care what you do in life, as long as you love it. You might have to do other things because you have to survive and make a living, but if your dream is strong enough, don’t ever give up.”
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