Music Review: Hammond explores divine affection
Just when you think Hammond has fully mined his expressions of love for God, he comes out with another album full of treasures.
On "Love Unstoppable," Hammond's high-ringing tenor, circuitous phrasing and jazzy chord changes are applied to joyous, uptempo praise tunes and the intimate, slow-burning worship songs that his listeners have come to appreciate in his nearly 30 years in the industry.
Thematically, the album could be a "Vol. 2" to "Somethin' 'Bout Love" released in 2004. "Awesome God" is a funky send up that sets the tone, and the gentle refrains of "You're Good" show Hammond cozily in worship leader mode.
CHECK THIS TRACK OUT: On "Lost in You Again," Hammond again welcomes us into the intimacy of his private prayers. The song's slightly off-kilter rhythms make it sound like a serenade.
I would cover all the tunes they would normally do and remix them for the urban setting."
Born in Detroit around 1961, Hammond grew up in a neighborhood where two of the dominant forces were music and religion. Raised in a churchgoing family, Hammond also studied the bass guitar; by the age of 17, he had started to pursue a career in music by playing and singing in his family's church on a regular basis. Hammond's adolescent years, however, were troubled as he struggled to find some direction in his life. "I would steal from the store down the street, then go to church," he admitted to American Visions."But my mother kept us connected to the church, and that gave us a sense of God." He added, "I was another young African American walking around with no clue." After leaving high school, Hammond joined the Army, but the experience did not turn into a career for the budding musician.
After his stint in the Army, Hammond was inspired by the efforts of his friends in the Winan family to start recording and releasing their own music under the group name the Testimonials in the late 1970s. "We all lived together in the neighborhood, we all did music, we all did home recordings with cheesy albums that had covers drawn by our cousins," Hammond later told American Visions. "But the Testimonials had taken it to a whole new level." Impressed by the Winans' professional approach to making Christian music, Hammond toured with the group as its bass player and backup singer. Barely out of his teens, he had already established a career as a professional musician.
With a forceful personality and a drive to succeed, Hammond formed his own group, Commissioned, around 1982. The group released a series of albums in the 1980s with a sound and style that differed little from the contemporary sounds of urban-oriented music, aside from its Christian-themed lyrics. As he discussed his musical influences in an Ebony interview, "I'm from the old school. I've got a bit of [Edwin] Hawkins and the Winans and [James] Cleveland in me, but there is also Earth, Wind & Fire and Stevie Wonder and Gladys Knight. That's my musical heritage. That's what I grew up with. Put that together in one pot, and mix it with high praise and urban flair. My music is cultural."
Although he spent over a decade with Commissioned, the experience was fraught with tension. As he told Tamara Hundley in an interview posted on the Fred Hammond Online website, "I thought Commissioned was my own group because I started it.... But, whenever you have more than one vision, there is division. God deals with one vision. A lot of people confuse vision and ownership. God does not deal in democracy where ministries and groups are concerned. You do not vote on the plan of God." Still, Hammond took pride in Commissioned's achievements. As he boasted in an interview with Melanie Clark of the Gospelflava website, "The sound was cutting edge and if you pull out some of those earlier Commissioned projects, you will find that production-wise, Commissioned was light-years ahead of the pack." Hammond added, "We changed the world."
Despite Commissioned's success--which included a Gospel Music Association Dove Award for Contemporary Gospel Album of the Year in 1990--Hammond decided to focus on a solo career beginning with the 1991 release I Am Persuaded. As he told Billboard, "The agonizing part was that I didn't want to go. Commissioned had been my comfort zone, but I just felt like we had peaked, and vision-wise we were growing apart. It was like six people driving a car with only one steering wheel." He also used his creative vision to branch out as a producer with the opening of his own Face to Face production studios in the Detroit suburb of Southfield, Michigan, in 1992. In less than a decade after the studios opened, Hammond had served as producer or coproducer on approximately 80 albums, including works by the Winans, who were now gospel music superstars.
At home, Hammond and his wife, Kimberly, whom he married in 1986, were also busy raising their daughter, BreeAnn, born two years later. In 1998, the couple adopted a son, Darius Sean Hammond. Hammond hoped his actions would inspire others to serve the children of their own communities. As he told Ebony, "I wanted to be a role model, to help out. We need organizations like the Big Brothers and Big Sisters, but I wanted to go one step further. I wanted to be a father, where my son can see me every day and be right here with me."
In the 1990s Hammond released a string of successful albums with his backing choir, Radical for Christ. The 12-to-15-member group also accompanied him on numerous tours, including the 1997 "Tour of Life" series, which played to over a half-million fans in about 70 cities. Typically, Hammond and Radical for Christ spent about 30 weeks of each year touring throughout the decade. Their fans also saw them on such Christian shows as the 700 Club, Praise the Lord, and the Pat Boone Show, where they made regular appearances. Although the chubby, middle-aged entertainer was an unlikely leading man, he also hoped to get a movie career off the ground. As he told Hundley in characteristically expansive fashion about one such project, "This will be a movie that will get the whole world involved."
Despite his activities as a producer, concert performer, and actor, however, Hammond continued to be best known for his music. His sophomore solo effort, Deliverance, arrived in 1993 and his releases with Radical for Christ, 1995's Inner Court and 1996's The Spirit of David, sold about 350,000 combined copies. The 1998 release Pages of Life: Chapters 1 and 2, however, was Hammond's greatest success to date. In addition to hitting number one on the Billboard gospel album chart, the release eventually earned platinum sales certification. The 2000 release, Purpose by Design, was another number one album on the gospel charts. The album also earned a Dove Award for Best Contemporary Gospel Album of the Year.
After more than 20 years as a professional musician, Hammond took a great deal of satisfaction that his work reached a large cross section of the audience for Christian music. "We have a youth-oriented sound, but now our audience includes people from as early as eight years of age to 60 years old," he told Hundley. "Everybody is targeting the youth now, and although I understand that, I'm trying to give the general body something." Although he was an avid promoter of Contemporary Christian music to a broad audience, Hammond remained focused on his primary reason for making music. "It feels now that people are starting to get into praise and worship. It's like I'm teaching them what to expect. It's like, 'Lord, I appreciate you for hooking me up! I'll teach the people with diligence," he told Clark, adding, "Still a large part of the urban community is not into the praise and worship scene. They like my music, but they don't know why they enjoy what I do."
by Timothy Borden