Around 1964, Jack and I started writing songs together in the basement we shared. Jack played a tune for me, a dreamy bossa nova type melody that I loved. “I wrote that for you,” he said. “It has all the notes and chords that always make you feel good. Why don’t you write some words for it.”
He was, like, twelve. I was twenty, just out of the Army…
He played the song again, and the melody snaked
its way into my bank of words…
—Thomas E. Kennedy, from his essay, “Jack and Me”
Hammer: Band Members
Jack O’Brien (1952-88), Lead Guitar
Jack O’Brien was born on November 9th, 1952 in Astoria, Queens. Christened John Anthony O’Brien, he was first nicknamed Jackie, later Jack. From the age of three, he lived in Elmhurst, Queens, with his mother’s family. From a very young age, he showed a natural musical talent, no doubt inherited from his grandfather, “Happy” O’Brien, who was an orchestra conductor in the 1940s. Family members recall Jack, at the age of four or five, picking out tunes on a tiny toy piano.
When he was about eight, Jack began to teach himself to play guitar which very quickly became his prime interest. With a schoolfriend, Richie McBride, who played bass, he was involved with a number of amateur groups. At fourteen, he played in a “happening” in the East Village known as “The Rock Flow” and also jammed in Steve Paul’s Scene and elsewhere with musicians like B.B. King, Jeff Beck, and Jimi Hendrix.
Together with Norman Landsberg, keyboard player from a group known as Mountain, O’Brien formed the group Hammer, managed by Shelly Finkel (who would later manage Mike Tyson); and with Richie McBride on bass, John DeRoberts as vocalist, and John Guerin as sessions drummer, they recorded their first and only album, HAMMER (San Francisco records, a division of Atlantic, 1970), produced by Dave Rubinson and engineered by Fred Catero.
Despite critical praise and an energetic and successful coast-to-coast tour, including Fillmore East and West, Hammer did not achieve commercial success, and the group disbanded. O’Brien later played in other groups in the early to mid-70s, including Wormwood Scrubs, a group that he and Richie Fontana formed, with Richie on drums, Danny Sicardi (aka Danny McGary) on bass, and Michael Harrington as lead singer. (Unfortunately, Harrington passed away from heart problems on January 31, 1984 — he was only 29.)
As Wormwood Scrubs, the four wrote a lot of material, and came very close to a record deal at the time (1973-74). Although they did not make a record, Wormwood Scrubs is remembered as an excellent band by many who heard them play live, with shared influences from British Blues and Pop, the Beatles, Jeff Beck, and others, which were reflected in their sound.
Richie Fontana says, “I feel that working with Jack elevated my musical ability to another level. He was so great and we had a great relationship. I’m so thankful for that.”
After his work with Wormwood Scrubs (1972-74), O’Brien then focused on sketching, at which he also showed strong natural talent, and wrote poems, several of which were published. His health began to fail in the mid-1980s, and he died in his sleep in 1988, not yet 36 years old.
Aside from the one album, HAMMER, and several sessions recordings, all that remain of his music are a few garage tapes recorded in the mid-60s. Some cuts from the album were reissued on sampler and compilation albums. O’Brien collaborated with his uncle, Tom Kennedy as lyricist, on several dozen songs.
(Read more about Jack and Hammer in Kennedy’s essay, “Jack and Me.”)
Kennedy says that this photo of Jack O’Brien focusing fiercely on his music truly catches something of his spark — his intensity, intelligence, engagement.
(Photo by David Straub)
John DeRoberts, Vocals
The following paragraph is an excerpt from The Power of Conscious Singing:
“In the late ‘60s John met friend and manager Shelly Finkle who convinced John that a hard rock group he was managing might be a good way to get out in the music world and become a little more well known. Being a white soul singer all his life it was difficult getting a record deal. John joined Hammer in 1969, and recorded on Bill Graham’s new record label, San Francisco Records, along with Tower of Power and Cold Blood. Hammer had plenty of radio play and did well touring the country with Steve Winwood and Traffic. They also performed with Cat Stevens, Grand Funk Railroad, Miles Davis, Jethro Tull, and many more of the top groups of the 60s.”
John Guerin (1939-2004), Drums
A prominent and prolific session drummer, John Guerin co-founded the group, LA Express, in 1973. During his long career, he played with numerous artists, including the Byrds, Quincy Jones, Joni Mitchell (Court and Spark), and Frank Zappa (Hot Rats).
For a complete discography, photos, and bio, see www.johnguerin.com.
Norman Landsberg, Keyboards
Norman Landsberg, though trained as a classical pianist, was able to draw upon the cultural diversity of his native New York City to develop a familiarity with a wide range of musical tastes and styles. His professional career started as one of the founding members of the rock group Mountain. This led to his forming the group Hammer in 1969, featured on Bill Graham’s then newly established label, San Francisco Records.
(Image at right is adapted from a photo taken by David Straub in the early Seventies.)
After moving to the San Francisco bay area, Landsberg gained recognition as vocal arranger and musical director for the Pointer Sisters, touring extensively and making numerous television appearances with them. He went on to work with a variety of artists such as pop singer Lenny Williams (known for his work with Tower of Power).
Landsberg’s arranging skills and studio savvy have helped to establish him as a much sought-after independent producer in the San Francisco bay area. He and his wife, keyboardist Socorro de Castro-Landsberg, run Landsberg Music Productions, a full-service music production company providing music direction and arrangements from custom “minus-ones” to full album production, live performance, as well as scoring for commercials and films such as Ramona S. Diaz’ award-winning documentary, Spirits Rising.
When he’s not working on studio projects, Landsberg is part of the pop piano-duo team of Landsberg and Yount, frequently performing with their quartet and as guest soloists at symphony pops concerts with both major and regional orchestras around the U.S. They had the distinction of being one of the first artists asked to participate in the prestigious YAMAHA Concert and Artist program, exclusively performing on Yamaha concert grands at all their engagements.
Richie McBride, Bass Guitar
Richie McBride grew up in Queens, New York, and began playing music at the age of ten. His first instrument was the accordion, but he later switched to guitar, bass guitar, and the upright bass. During his teenage years, he played in many bands with his best friend and school classmate, the late Jack O’Brien, a phenomenal guitarist.
McBride and O’Brien were original members of Hammer, a jazz/rock band whose first and only album was recorded in 1970 on the San Francisco/ Atlantic label under the aegis of the legendary Fillmore East and West creator, Bill Graham.
(Image at left is adapted from a photo taken by David Straub in the Seventies.)
Hammer toured in the U.S. and Canada in 1970 with legendary rock and jazz artists, including Eric Clapton, Miles Davis, Fleetwood Mac, Procol Harum, Leon Russell, Cat Stevens, and Traffic with Steve Winwood. After Hammer disbanded in the following years, McBride continued to be active in the music business, and recorded and toured as bass player with many different artists, traveling throughout the U.S., South America, and the Caribbean. Today, he lives in Tampa, Florida with his wife Frann where he is a middle-school orchestra teacher.
McBride holds a Master’s Degree in Music Education and, in addition to his teaching, he performs in the Tampa Bay area as a bass player with various artists. He is currently working on material for the upcoming Hammer reunion album.
Andy Newmark, Drums
Andy Newmark was born on July 14, 1950 in Port Chester, New York, and grew up in the neighboring town of Mamaroneck in Westchester County, New York. At the age of 10, he took up the snare drum and went on to play in the marching band at Rye Neck High School. Inspired by the Beatles’ TV appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964, he acquired a small drum set like Ringo’s and quickly “moved over” to rock and roll.
Andy played with various bands in high school and then left school after the 11th grade, in 1967, to go on the road with a 10-piece soul band, The New Found Sound, playing songs by Wilson Pickett, Sam and Dave, Otis Redding, and James Brown. Legendary guitarist, arranger, and producer David Spinozza, also a native of Mamoroneck, was the founder and band leader. Andy’s work on the road led him to band after band, playing up and down the East Coast in bars six nights a week, four sets a night.
In 1970, Andy was introduced to Hammer through John DiRobertis, the group’s singer. John and Andy met through mutual friends in the Bronx, New York, where John lived. Andy did his first “big league” rock and roll tour around America playing with Hammer. They opened for Cat Stevens, Traffic, Derek and The Dominoes, and Grand Funk Railroad. Andy was filling in for John Guerin, who played drums on the Hammer album but elected not go on the road with the group.
Andy recalls his Hammer days in 1970: “When I heard the Hammer Album, before meeting them in person, I was very impressed by all the band members’ playing ability. They sounded very, very advanced as players, considering their age and experience at that time. When I went to audition with them, I was totally blown away by Jack O’Brien who happened to be the youngest member of the band. He was only 17, I think. He had amazing chops on the guitar and seemed like he could play anything he wanted to at will. He blew my mind, show after show, just playing his ass off. I reckoned Jack would be very successful. He really was such a monster talent. It is very sad that he passed away so young.” (Hammer disbanded in early 1971.)
In May 1971, Andy met singer-songwriter Carly Simon and joined her touring band. A few months later he went to London with Carly and did all the drumming on her second album, Anticipation. This was his first recording session with an established artist.
While touring with Carly in 1972, Andy got an audition in Los Angeles at Sly Stone’s house, in-between the early show and the late show at The Troubadour Club, where he was performing with Carly. He drove up to Sly’s house for 20 minutes, met Sly, and played for all of two minutes on a practice pad drum set all by himself in front of Sly. He was offered the gig on the spot, drumming for Sly and The Family Stone. Andy barely made it back to the Troubadour Club in time for Carly’s second show that night.
In 1973, Andy recorded the now classic album with Sly and The Family Stone, Fresh. After touring with the band for most of 1973, he left the group at Christmas after a paycheck was returned by the bank. Fortunately, he had met Ronnie Wood of The Faces and struck up a friendship with him while touring with Sly and The Family Stone in Europe during the summer of 1973. The Faces headlined several shows with Sly on the bill. Ronnie brought Andy and Willie Weeks to England in April 1974 for three months, where they recorded Ronnie’s first solo album, I’ve Got My Own Album To Do, with Keith Richards and Ian Mcglagan.
From 1974 onwards, Andy recorded and toured with many artists as a freelance drummer. He moved to England in 1994, where he continues to freelance. From 1999 to 2004, he held the drum chair in The Lion King Musical in London. In 2007, he played drums on Bryan Ferry’s new CD, Dylanesque, and toured with Ferry for the remainder of the year.
Read more about Andy Newmark at Drummerworld, including details of his audition with Sly Stone and a list of artists he has recorded and performed with.