The Hammond Organ: Beauty In The B

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The Hammond Organ: Beauty In The B
Mark Vail
Softcover; 319 pages
ISBN: 0-87930-705-6
Backbeat Books

The venerable Hammond B-3 organ has been grinding its way through jazz, as well as gospel, rhythm and blues and rock 'n' roll, since 1954. This book, a mix of biography, history and technology, tells the story of an instrument that, against all odds, simply refuses (in the words of John Donne's famous poem) to "go quietly into that good night." A longserving former member of Keyboard magazine's editorial staff, Mark Vail brings solid credentials to the project, a labor of love for more than a decade. The 2002 second edition reviewed here updated the original book published in 1997.

Vail includes enough technical information about the development of the Hammond's electrical engineering—shunting resistors, lowpass filters, inductor-capacitors, etc & etc—to satisfy even the most hard-core techno-geek, and more than enough to make the eyes of many other readers glaze over somewhat. Thankfully, most of it is dumbed-down into layperson's language. For example, readers learn (if they didn't already know) the difference between tremolo (a pulsation of loudness) and vibrato (a rapid variation in pitch). The what and the why of the "chorus" effect (or what synthesizer players now call "detune") is also explained; a blending of slightly flat and sharp tones, it was a necessary retrofit because the musical tones produced by the Hammond, designed as a cheap replacement for the pipe organ, were too "perfect."

Other distinctive features of the inimitable Hammond sound, including loudness robbing, key click, percussion and spring reverb, are also explained in accessible terminology. While this is more information than most need to know, it's vital for anyone contemplating the purchase of an instrument that's been out of production for 30 years. Much like those purchasing a vintage car sitting in someone's barn, prospective buyers/restorers need to understand just what they might be getting themselves into in terms of labor and money.

However, the book is written so that it's possible to skim over the tech specs without losing the narrative flow of what is a fascinating story. Vail gives ample explanation why, as Richard Goodsell, proprietor of Numerous Complaints Music, an Atlanta organ service shop, asserts, "The B-3 will always have a special place in the food chain of American pop icons, right there with the McDonald hamburger, the '65 Ford Mustang, and the Harley-Davidson." Nonetheless, even true-blue cultists (of whom there are many) will doubtless be amazed to learn about the personality conflicts, political battles and marketing shenanigans that shaped the Hammond organ in the early 20th Century.

Anyone who has ever attempted to file for a patent, of which Mr. Laurens Hammond eventually garnered 110, will be struck by his chutzpah in accelerating what is ordinarily an agonizingly prolonged ordeal. After hand-delivering his application, his representative stated that Hammond was ready to put several hundred people to work immediately making organs—a statement that carried great weight in 1934 during the depth of the Great Depression. Hammond's patent was granted almost immediately.

Musicians, sound engineers and a great many savvy listeners have always thought of the B-3 and its sidekick the Leslie speaker like the Lone Ranger and Tonto: a complementary and virtually inseparable tandem. So it's surprising to learn that Laurens Hammond took extreme umbrage to the notion that anyone else might have the temerity to think they could improve upon his instrument's sound. He was so averse to Don Leslie's unique rotating speakers, first produced in 1940, that he explicitly forbade Hammond dealers to sell them.

And that dictate was indeed followed, as veteran jazz organist Moe Denham illustrates with a recollection from his Quincy, Illinois boyhood. He recounts that in moments of youthful indiscretion at the local Hammond dealership when he blurted out references to the Leslie, the salesmen looked at him as if he'd uttered the F-word and told him to leave the store! Vail devotes a full chapter to the history of the Leslie speaker, long regarded as a necessity for those in pursuit of "the sound," including an illustrated guide to the best ways to mike one for large venues and recording.


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