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Music Etc.: Albert Hammond

Jacques Sonyieux talks with songwriter Albert Hammond (“It Never Rains in Southern California,” “The Air That I Breathe”) about staying true to yourself, working with the Wrecking Crew, and releasing a new symphonic album.

You may not necessarily know the name Albert Hammond, but you know the music he’s written. Songs like “It Never Rains in Southern California,” “The Air That I Breathe,” “I’m a Train” and many others—performed by artists such as The Hollies, Tina Turner, Celine Dion, Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash—have left an indelible mark on our collective musical consciousness. Hammond, who turns 75 this May, just finished a collaboration with his friend Leo Sayer, and he’s still going strong. Pro Sound News caught up with the artist to talk about collaborations, songwriting and In Symphony, a new symphonic collection of his best-known tunes, recorded at Abbey Road.

On “Hey St. Patrick”

I was writing with my friend Leo Sayer last year. He mentioned that it was going to be St. Patrick’s Day soon, so I went onto the internet and checked out the story of St. Patrick and became inspired to write a song. We wrote about immigrants, because that’s what the story is really about. We made a little demo on a cassette where I was singing lead and Leo was doing the harmony, with a single microphone in the middle of a room. We tried to re-create it in the studio, but the vibe just wasn’t there, so we used the original cassette recording and overdubbed a tin whistle, a violin, an accordion and some Irish folk instruments. Some time later I went to play the song in Ireland and I got the audience to sing along with the chorus, so we added that to the song—about 1,500 voices. With today’s technologies, it was easy to bring this into the recording and it ended up working just great.

On staying true to yourself

I don’t do this to be a number-one artist or anything like that. I do it because I love it and it makes me a living. I’ve written songs for Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Whitney Houston, Tina Turner, Diana Ross, Julio Iglesias and others. Some of these artists have found me, and other people have taken me to the right place at the right time. It’s never been forced, and I never felt like I’ve needed another hit. One of my fans wrote me a letter and said, “You’re one of the greatest songwriters that nobody knows.” I keep doing it because I don’t think I’ve written my best song yet, and it might come tomorrow. As long as you keep thinking that way, you’re going to keep writing.

Related: Mikaela Davis, ‘Delivery,’ by Jacques Sonyieux, Aug. 30, 2018

On “It Never Rains in Southern California”

That song was written back in 1969 on a rainy day in London, and I’d never been to California. I went to see my friend, Mike Hazlewood, who was my writing partner, and I was telling him about how hard it was for me when I first started out. I was 16 and I had tried to make it in Spain and nothing happened. While my friend was in the kitchen making me a cup of tea, I saw this book on the wall called The Railway to Southern California and started to sing “On the Railway to Southern California.” Mike said, “Did you say, “It never rains in Southern California?” I said, “No, but what a great idea!” So I just wrote the song, which is about growing up and trying to make it; it is about my life and many other people’s lives. People would say, “What do you mean it never rains in Southern California? It’s raining right now.” I’d say, “You’ve got to listen to the lyrics!”

On working with the Wrecking Crew

Hal Blaine was an incredible drummer and human being. The Wrecking Crew was unbelievable—I would go in the studio with Hal Blaine, Joe Osborn, Larry Carlton and the others. I would play them the song and never have to tell them what to play; they would get into the groove very quickly. I remember how inventive they were: Hal would say things like, “Let’s put three tape boxes on top of each other and bang on it to see what sound it makes.” They were not just great players; they were also very creative.

On In Symphony

I was given the chance to record all my best songs at Abbey Road with an orchestra. Once I got the okay to proceed, I thought of my friend Rob Mathes, who I met when I was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2008. Rob is a conductor and arranger, and I knew he had done George Michael’s Symphonica and several records with Sting. So I called him up and he agreed to do the project. I said, “Let’s just think of what Beethoven would have done with ‘When I Need You’ or what Tchaikovsky would have done with ‘I’m a Train.’” We tried to think of the greats and imagine what these people would have done with these songs. Rob came up with some brilliant arrangements and also helped produce the record. He pulled musicians together from four different symphonic orchestras in London, and they were all smiling during the performances.

On staying focused

I think I’ve known what I wanted to do since I was 8 years old. I sang solos in my church choir in Gibraltar where I grew up, and after the service was over, people would come up to my parents and say, “Your son sang so beautifully today.” I could see the smiles on their faces. I thought, “If I could do this, it would be fantastic.” That was where it all started for me, and I always said, “I’m never going to give this up, no matter what it takes.”