Meet Albert Hammond - the greatest songwriter you’ve never heard of

Albert Hammond has enjoyed record sales of 360m, possibly making him the greatest songwriter you’ve never heard of. He tells Joe Dermody about creating hits for everyone from Joe Dolan to The Carpenters

Meet Albert Hammond - the greatest songwriter you’ve never heard of

THE hits just keep on coming for Albert Hammond, arguably the world’s most successful living songwriter, who graces Ireland with two shows this month.

Music sales are hard to quantify, especially in the digital era. In 2014, Rolling Stone magazine declared Garth Brooks the best-selling solo artist of all-time, having racked up 135m ‘certified units’ in the USA, pushing Elvis Presley’s 134.5m US units into second spot.

Hammond has writing credits on more than 360m record sales. While that’s not comparing like with like, you’d have some job explaining to a Martian why Brooks can sell five shows in Croke Park, some 400,000 tickets, whereas Hammond’s Irish tour consists of two intimate shows in Dublin and in Cork, just 1,000 or so seats in all.

Hammond’s tour, largely built around his 2013 live album, Songbook, will feature global hits, including: ‘One Moment In Time’, ‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now’, ‘When I Need You’, ‘Don’t Turn Around’, ‘The Air That I Breathe’ and ‘It Never Rains In Southern California’.

Hammond has written global hits with Mike Hazelwood, Hal David, Diane Warren and John Betis. He co-wrote Welsh singer-songwriter Duffy’s second album, Endlessly, in 2010, and remains one of the world’s most sought-after songwriters.

LOVE OF MUSIC

His song, ‘To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before’, was a hit for both Willie Nelson and Julio Iglesias, but it was also recorded by the likes of Alanis Morissette and even money-printing machine Brooks. Surely, Hammond must be phenomenally wealthy?

“I was never into money,” says Hammond. “I never started doing this because of money. I fell in love with the music of Buddy Holly, and I wrote some simple songs. If I had fallen in love with Led Zeppelin, I might have been a great guitar player, but I am not.

“I don’t know how much money I have. I never ask. I have about 15 songs that have now become standards, songs that are played every minute or so somewhere in the world. That has helped keep me going for the last 40 or 50 years in the business.

“Now, at 70, I am as excited about coming to Ireland as I have been about anything since I started out. My mother’s maiden name was Aida McCarthy. Even though she was born in Gibraltar, she may have origins in Cork. You have a lot of McCarthys in Cork, don’t you?”

We certainly do, I reply.

“And I’ve had a few hits in Ireland, too. After ‘It Never Rains In Southern California’, my next two hits in the 1960s were ‘Make Me An Island’ and ‘You’re Such A Good Looking Woman’, recorded by Joe Dolan.”

Dolan is the subject of a successful musical in Ireland, and he still has near god-like status among his devoted followers, I tell Hammond.

“And so, too, he should have,” says Hammond. “He was a very special man, a very kind and generous person. I was reading somewhere that when Mike Hazelwood and I moved to the States, that Joe Dolan was depressed for two years, because he couldn’t find anyone to write songs that suited him as well as ours.

“Joe felt like we were the perfect writing partners for him. I loved Joe Dolan, and I would have written more songs for him, if I’d known he wanted them. It is one of my great disappointments in life that nobody told me how he felt.”

TALENTED OFFSPRING

Hammond is equally frank about his decision to return to touring now, after a near 30-year gap. He says he realised he could have been a better father to his first two children, so he stopped the touring and the high life, to devote more time to being a father to his son, Albert Hammond Jnr, himself an accomplished songwriter and guitarist with The Strokes.

“When Albert Jnr was around eight years old, I took him to see the Buddy Holly Story, the Broadway musical. He fell in love with the whole thing. When we got home, he asked me to teach him three chords, so I taught him A, D and E, which allows you to do most songs. So, he stayed up all night, and could play a few songs by the next day.

“I am a very proud father. He has a really great band now, and he’s also great as a solo artist. He has a solo record coming out in the summer. I always encouraged him to follow his love of music. Why should I discourage him? It’s a great job.”

Hugely successful in the English-speaking world, bilingual Hammond has had at least as much success with songs he wrote in Spanish, including ‘Cantare Cantaras’ (recorded by 60 different Latin artists). Of course, some songs were hits in both languages, such as ‘Las Flechas Del Amor’ (Little Arrows) and ‘Nunca Llueve Al Sur De California’ (It Never Rains In Southern California).

Hammond was born on May 18, 1944, in London, his parents having evacuated from Gibraltar to the relative safety of England during World War II. The Hammonds returned to Gibraltar shortly after his birth, and it is there he grew up.

His early musical experiences included the Gibraltarian band, The Diamond Boys, and, later, the British vocal group, The Family Dogg, which had a UK Top 10 hit with ‘A Way of Life’. While many of his hits feature a strong rhythmic dance beat, it’s hard to tie Hammond’s songs to any one genre.

That may be due to the importance of his lyrics. Some of his most enduring hits feature deeply heart-felt lyrics, written in a matter of minutes. During one 15-month world tour, Hammond phoned home to his wife and children. When he came off the phone, he was in tears.

He picked up the guitar and wrote the words and tune of ‘When I Need You’, which spent three weeks at No1 in the UK charts in 1977; it also reached No1 in two US charts; Billboard ranked it the No 24 song of 1977.

“I recorded that song before anybody else,” Hammond says. “My version of ‘When I Need You’ isn’t that different to Leo’s [Sayers], but I’m just so glad now that he made such a great hit out of it. It was on an album’s worth of material that I’d taken to a record company, but they said they didn’t hear any hits on it.”

MODEST MAN

Hammond is deeply and genuinely modest, as if his phenomenal success belongs to someone else. At 70, he’s not selling a persona; he’s just a really likeable person. When I challenge his view of himself as a hard worker, rather than someone lucky to have been bestowed endless creativity from the gods, he just laughs it off.

“My life has been uphill all the way. Luckily, I have strong legs,” says Hammond. “I had to go out and find artists to record my songs. When The Hollies recorded ‘The Air That I Breathe’, the promoters asked me to come with them to all these cities, because the band wouldn’t play the song. I had to convince them to play it. Then, they played it, and promoted it, and they had a huge hit.

“I’ve never had anything come easy. I think every songwriter needs to persevere. Of course, you can persevere and still not get anywhere; but it definitely won’t come to you if you don’t persevere. I never gave up.I still think I have yet to write my best song. If I didn’t think like that, I’d stop.”

  • Albert Hammond plays the Pavilion, in Dun Laoghaire, on April 17; and Triskel Christchurch, Cork, on April 18

ALBERT HAMMOND'S GREATEST HITS

1. One Moment In Time (Whitney Houston)

2. You’re Such A Good Looking Woman (Joe Dolan)

3. Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now (Starship)

4. When I Need You (Leo Sayer)

5. Don’t Turn Around (Ace of Base, Neil Diamond and Aswad)

6. The Air That I Breathe (The Hollies)

7. I Need To Be In Love (The Carpenters)

8. To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before (Julio Iglesias, Willie Nelson)

9. I Don’t Wanna Live Without Your Love (Chicago)

10. It Never Rains In Southern California (Albert Hammond)

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