The genius of Jim Hamill
Any discussion of the Kingsmen in their heyday inevitably must involve Jim Hamill at some point, and I think that time has come. A reader writes:
Every reviewer of music worth his or her salt always looks for and notes those moments in a performance, whether recorded or live, whether created by a musician or a vocalist, that particularly impacts the listener with that “something extra” that moves them. The conscious intention of the Kingsmen was to make this happen as often as possible mainly in a “live” setting. Eldridge Fox chose the songs and got them recorded, gave Hamill complete authority over the stage, and Hamill rearranged the songs nightly to fit the mood of the audience as he determined it. As I said this was conscious. Hamill wanted to be able to practically re-write on the fly. At any given time they would have about 400 “active” songs in their repertoire. Hamill would “call” the next song to the piano player near the end of the one currently being performed. It was the piano player’s responsibility to remember the song, remember the correct key, and remember the correct kickoff line. It was the responsibility of every other musician and singer to pick up from there. Not only this but Hamill wanted people who could change mood, change inversions, etc., on his command. And, at times, he had people who could do this. This approach to performing I would call “a conversation with the audience.” Hamill absorbed the audience, sometimes beginning an hour or two before the concert, just hanging around in the auditorium. He would watch, listen, try something, then try to augment or change, depending on how he read the response. He was gifted at this. His singular goal was always to move the audience to a higher emotional level, and at times, when he had good personnel, he did it well. Yes it was an appeal to the charismatic, but the charismatic in all people. He would do this as well at a state fair following a country star or in a church or “gospel” concert.
The most interesting thing to me about this approach is that it recognizes that no two audiences are ever alike and the attempt is to meet them where they are. Of course others attempted this (and still do to a degree), but improvisation today is minimal in comparison. The attempt today is figure out the best “one size fits all” performance of a song and give that to the recording and to every audience every night.
What I like about this, among many other things, is that it usefully complicates my unintentionally oversimple distinction between charismatic piety and its more reserved varieties most commonly represented by mainline Southern Baptists. The Kingsmen appealed to people in part, as I tried to suggest earlier, at a particular moment because they advanced a style of music that served as a corrective to the manicured approach of much of mainstream gospel (not to mention the comparative bloodlessness of CCM). But it’s also important to note, as the reader above does, that the KM sustained their initial appeal and capitalized on it by tapping and affirming a certain psychospiritual exuberance that lurks within all of us.
Viewed this way, the Kingsmen’s success of yore suggests that the “one-size-fits-all” approach of today relies so heavily on tracks and stacks not least of all as a way to distract from this music’s inability to respond organically to the emotional and artistic reality of a given venue. “Let’s do that song again [and the sound guy hits REPLAY on the music server]” is about as spontaneous as most groups can be these days. Of course the relative corollary to this statement is that when many of us complain about digitally preprogrammed music, at some level we’re lamenting that contemporary audiences don’t value the strategic shrewdness and emotional sophistication of Hamill’s approach more, that audiences don’t seem to care about all that’s lost in the PLEASE PRESS ONE FOR MORE MUSIC style that’s regnant in our time.Email this Post