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Book Reviews

The Hammond Organ: Beauty In The B

By Published: November 15, 2006
It's common knowledge that many jazz, rhythm and blues, and rock 'n' roll organists first acquired their chops playing at church on Sunday morning. When these players started gigging in bars and roadhouses on Friday and Saturday night as well, they simply took the Hammond—which they'd grown to know and love—with them. Thus began the early genealogy of the jazz organ, which can be traced from Fats Waller through Wild Bill Davis to Jimmy Smith. Noted Hammond enthusiast Dave Amels points to the irony of the fact that Hammond ignored the very professionals who made his organ famous and provided free advertising. "It wasn't until the explosion of jazz and rock 'n' roll that it caught on," notes Amels. "Hammond [Company] was always at odds with the people who were making them the most amount of money." Alan Young, an engineer who worked at the company for 30 years, quietly recounts that not until after Hammond's death in 1973 did the marketing staff feel at liberty to actively promote popular performers.

Doubtless Hammond would be spinning in his grave like one of those Leslie speakers he so despised were he to read what prog-rock pioneer Keith Emerson says about his beloved inventions, much less were he to see what Emerson does to them! With classic British understatement, Emerson acknowledges that he "found various methods of using it onstage, which the Hammond Organ Company didn't like very much." Known to set his L-100 on fire as well as stab it with knives and samurai swords, Emerson adds insult to injury when he praises the Hammond as being "like a good hooker. You can abuse it, and it will abuse you, too. But you'll both come up smiling." Most assuredly not the sort of endorsement that would be pleasing to Mr. Hammond, who envisioned his organ being played by choirmasters and respectable suburban housewives.

Vail enlivens his book with droll asides from several very quotable Hammond enthusiasts. Amels, an aficionado of the vintage line (who nonetheless also helped develop the popular Voce V3 digital simulator) discusses the extreme animosity some players harbor for combo organs like those made by Farfisa and Vox. "It was probably because they couldn't afford a B-3," suggests Amels, "and they were trying to get that sound from a combo organ, which mentally scarred them in some way."

One particularly notable anecdote, titled "B-3 as Protector and Weapon," is contributed by Denham, who recounts how a Hammond may have saved his life twice in the space of two months. On one occasion, an Indianapolis club at which he was playing was disrupted by three armed robbers, and a shootout ensued between them and two off-duty policemen on the premises. Like any sensible person, Denham ducked behind his trusty B-3 and later found a bullet lodged in the cabinet, one which might well have embedded itself in him instead.

Scant weeks later, his life was again threatened, this time by a drunken redneck who didn't appreciate his song selections, a scenario not unfamiliar to many jazz musicians who've played in country-and-western bars. However, in this instance, things went beyond the beer bottle-throwing stage; the disgruntled patron jumped on stage wielding a broken beer bottle. As he lunged for Denham, the quick-thinking organist jumped back while simultaneously flipping the organ over on his would-be assailant, breaking both his legs and pinning him until the police arrived.

Illustrated with more than 200 photographs, Vail's tome follows the evolution of the Hammond through its alphabet of models (A, B, C, D, E, H, L, M, R, T, X), including the BA, a player-organ—complete with paper roll—built in collaboration with Aeolian-Skinner, the Boston company known for its player-pianos. The corporate history of both Hammond and Leslie is traced, and we learn (among many other business decisions) the real reason why the tone wheel generator was discontinued in 1974. Other organs had developed a sustain (or "die-away" release) effect, and equipping the Hammond with the transistors needed to enable it on all of the instrument's harmonics would have been cost-prohibitive.

Of course, this is why die-hard purists like Des Moines' Sam Salomone disdain the new line of solid state Hammonds, while others (like Don Leslie himself) insist that the post-1988 Suzuki-built Hammonds (and Leslies) sound just as good, if not better, than the originals. Still others—like Denham, admittedly a bit too old to haul around several hundred pounds of bulky, fragile wood and circuitry, and too poor to hire someone to do it for them—sing the praises of the smaller, lighter B-3 wannabes and Leslie simulators, of which Vail presents a comprehensive overview.

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