This Kentucky-born organ grinder released a slew of soul-jazz LPs under the moniker Johnny “Hammond” Smith between 1958 and 1970 but in 1971 when he joined producer Creed Taylor’s CTI label, he elected to drop his surname and become Johnny Hammond. His association with CTI was a highly productive one, yielding five albums; four for the label’s famous Kudu imprint – where Taylor mainly assigned his black artists – and one on CTI’s rarely used gospel label, Salvation. That was Gambler’s Life, which was first reissued on CD by London’s Soul Brother label in 2001 and is now revived by them on vinyl.
Though sadly, Gambler’s Life, which was released in 1974, marked the end of Hammond’s relationship with CTI it also signified a new beginning; the first of two albums he cut with producers/writers Larry and Fonce Mizell, who had helped the Blue Note label’s Donald Byrd and Bobbi Humphrey reach a new, younger audience by providing them with slick jazz-funk grooves. The pair brought the same recipe to Gambler’s Life, which was recorded at the Sound Factory in LA using a crack team of studio musicians, which included noted guitarist Wah Wah Watson, pianist Jerry Peters, bassist Henry Franklin, and drummer Harvey Mason.
What’s notable about Gambler’s Life compared with Hammond’s previous oeuvre is the fact that he doesn’t play his customary Hammond organ but is heard instead on electric piano and synthesiser. It’s a transformation that’s subtle rather than startling but nevertheless gives the album a different feel from his other CTI records; as does the Mizell brothers’ slick west coast production gloss with its blend of funk, soul, and jazz elements. The album also has a darker feel than Hammond’s early 70s output, epitomized by the taut and edgy title track – sampled by Gang Starr and Erykah Badu – and the hard-charging ‘Rhodesian Thoroughfare.’ Other highlights include the urgent ‘Back To The Projects’ and the breezy ‘Star Borne’ while the lush ‘Virgo Lady’ is the jazziest track, distinguished by Hammond’s dextrous electric piano and Carl Randall’s searing saxophone.
Hammond would leave CTI to join Milestone in 1975 to record what is arguably his best-known album, Gears, his second and final collaboration with the Mizell brothers. Though overshadowed by Gears, Gambler’s Life is artistically at a similarly high level and thus is well worth adding to your record collection. So take a punt – you won’t be disappointed.