Maybe you'd expect a guy who has perfected the art of musical seduction to look a little less ordinary.
In appearance, veteran Jamaican singer Beres Hammond seems completely average. He's a slim man with a neat beard and rectangular wire-rimmed glasses that only recently replaced the owlish ones he has worn for years. His ever-present baseball caps and other hatwear suggest he could be balding. His teeth are a little crooked, and his ears stick out, ever so slightly.
But Hammond, 50, hasn't built his career on good looks. The singer-songwriter specializes in romantic songs, and he sings them exceptionally well. Dancehall-style chanting has dominated reggae since the late '80s, but when it comes to actual singers, Hammond is by far the most popular in all the West Indies. His fan base isn't limited to the Caribbean, though: He frequently tours North America, Europe and Japan. Here in New York, he regularly sells out the Theater at Madison Square Garden. Tomorrow afternoon, he'll play a different sort of venue: the Show Place Arena in Upper Marlboro, headlining an event that celebrates the 35th anniversary of Langley Park's West Indian Record Mart.
Dissect Hammond's considerable appeal, and this is what you'll find: a honeyed baritone that's sometimes smooth, sometimes gravelly and always effortlessly sensual. Songs with indelible melodies and captivating stories of romance. Another aspect of his charm can be described by borrowing a somewhat overused phrase from the hip-hop lexicon: keeping it real.
"Lots of love songs are lots of fictitious, but not what Beres does," says Hammond, who often refers to himself in the third person. "Lots of love songs are, 'I will climb the highest mountain.' I won't do those things. I'm not going to swim the deepest sea for nothing because we shouldn't have been out so far in the deep. . . . And I'm not going to jump off the mountain just because you say I should. To me, dem things are fiction. Keep it real, and say it with conviction if you're going to say it, because if I say it I'm gonna say it from my heart."
But Hammond's truth-telling only goes so far. Like any Casanova worth his long-stemmed roses, he excels at telling women exactly what they want to hear. His advice to the brothers: "Even when they're in their worst mood, angry with you, just still say a little something, and it makes a difference. Maybe you don't mean it at the moment, but it helps to mellow things. . . . Even if you tell women lies, as long as you tell the lies in a certain kind of way to make them feel respected and make them feel needed, they love that," he says.
"All of them love to be told nice things. Even if they're not royalty and princess and all dem things, they still want to feel that way. Regardless what your social strata status, you still wanna feel special."
Hammond is holed up in a small hotel on Manhattan's Upper West Side, a world away from the Times Square sensory overload that attracts most visitors. As he talks about his career, he smokes a series of Jamaican Craven A cigarettes, a habit he's kept since he was 14. "I would love to quit it," he says. "Smoking is a hell of a trip. I don't know what it is inside of it, but it gives me a little comfort when all the music world come falling down on your head, because that can be a stress."
Surely all those years of smoke have hoarsened his voice, which critics often characterize as "whiskey-grained." Hammond finds that description amusing -- "whiskey is for cowboys," he says with an easy laugh -- and insists he's not sure what it means. "I think I have an idea, though. It's because it's kind of a rusty kind of voice, but I can smooth out whenever I want."
In Jamaica, his admirers often invoke religion when they talk about him. "I personally believe he is given to us by God," says Marcia Griffiths, who has recorded several duets with Hammond in the years since she sang backup for Bob Marley & the Wailers. "He's blessed. He's not just a talented singer with a God-given talent. He's also a great songwriter. He relates to people in general, especially the women, because he sings about your life and love, and love is what we need in today's world."
Maxi Priest, who has also recorded with Hammond, calls him "a blessed child of God."
Asked about his vocal abilities, Hammond responds graciously. "I appreciate everybody saying beautiful things about me, but I've heard some beautiful voices and beautiful songs," he says. "Lots of other singers are singing my kind of songs and are very good, too."
He was born Hugh Beresford Hammond, the ninth of 10 children, and grew up in the little seaport town of Annotto Bay, where his father represented unionized workers in the local banana and sugar cane industries.
His father owned an extensive record collection, and whenever the record player was on, Hammond would sing along -- with Sam Cooke, Nat King Cole, Jim Reeves, Otis Redding, as well as Jamaican ska acts like the Skatalites and Jackie Opel. "It was just a normal everyday thing for me. I'd be sitting down in the middle of having dinner, and if something come to me, then I just sing it . . . which was bad table manners," he says.
Hammond also sang in the church choir, and that's where he learned about soul. Singers who had soul, he says, are the ones who sang with their eyes closed. "They were giving the best that they had, so you could feel every word."
As a teenager, he started performing at talent shows. It wasn't long before he was hired to sing at beauty pageants and other events, including functions at Jamaica House, home of the island's prime minister. He briefly joined up with a reggae group known as Zap Pow but quit to focus on his solo career. His first No. 1 hit in Jamaica, 1976's "One Step Ahead," stayed on the charts for nearly two years. "But I still didn't realize what I had. It never dawned on me," he says. "The only difference I could actually recognize was, lots of girls were tuning in."
For the next decade, he continued to record hit singles and albums that sold respectable numbers. But his celebrity carried risks that he now believes he underestimated. In 1987, Hammond was attacked by robbers in his own home, and the brutality of the assault left him shaken.
"At the time, I couldn't tell myself that actually happened to me," he says. "Because I thought, Beres and everybody's cool, Beres and everybody's friends. Everybody seemed so beautiful, and then suddenly the same lovely people . . . held me and my family hostage. [They] literally tied us up, roll us over in sheets . . . and was threatening our lives, guns pointed to your head."
More than 15 years later, it's still hard to talk about; he gets up from his seat and pours himself a few fingers of Hennessy in a plastic cup.
After the robbery, Hammond left Jamaica for a while. "That made me take a little time from Jamaica, just to re-evaluate . . . to look at my achievements if I had achieved anything, yunno." He went to New York, where he stayed in Brooklyn, recording an album, "Have a Nice Week End." He traveled back and forth for three years, and then he decided to return permanently to Jamaica, "where my natural vibes flow."
Once he got settled back home, he hooked up with producer Donovan Germain, and they came up with "Tempted to Touch," a romantic confection set to a dancehall rhythm track. Hammond's biggest hit so far, it was followed by a string of chart-topping songs that gave him superstar status within the Caribbean and established his name elsewhere. In most of those songs, Hammond portrays either a lovelorn loser or the unassuming guy who somehow steals the other guy's girl. "It's soap, baby. It's soap," he says. "It's supposed to be like a soap opera, so when you hear the first verse, you need to hear the other one," he continues. "People love that . . . who is in love with who, and what kind of situation they're into, and who is cheating on who . . . " He laughs again.
(For the record, Hammond is not legally married. "I'm not married that way, but I have a certain amount of royal commitments," he says obliquely.)
Hammond continued to sing over dancehall rhythm tracks -- something that set him apart from other traditional reggae singers. And unlike many of those singers, he also collaborated with dancehall's growling DJs, most frequently recording with Buju Banton. "It's not anything out of the way, or out of my routine, to sing with them, because they have their story, I have my story . . . same thing that we're saying, actually; it's just that they have a different interpretation of it."
Not long after he returned to Jamaica, Hammond recorded "Putting Up Resistance," a hugely popular anthem of struggle. If all the romantic songs made Hammond Jamaica's version of Luther Vandross, "Putting Up Resistance" turned him into the island's Bruce Springsteen.
Hammond's extraordinary popularity has not gone unnoticed by American record labels. In 1994, he released an album on Elektra, but the experience proved disappointing. It was released the same week Elektra merged with East-West Records, and he thinks the project got lost in the shuffle.
He is much happier where he is now, calling all the shots for his own Harmony House label, which is marketed and distributed by independent reggae powerhouse VP Records. Hammond is one of VP's top sellers.
Late last year, VP released "Can't Stop a Man," a two-CD retrospective that spans more than 25 years of his career. For Hammond, listening to the older material has been instructive, helping him understand how far he's come.
"I hear a slow transition, from a learning process to a higher learning process, because I'm still learning," he says. "Listening back to all dem tracks, you can see where you had very good intentions. The songs were as beautiful as now -- not as technologically, but beautiful songs just the same."
Is he a better singer now?
He thinks for a moment. "No. I think I've understood life a little bit more," he replies. "So with your daily experience as a grown person, the songs come out a little bit different."