The Hammond Organ: Beauty In The B

Victor Verney By

Sign in to view read count
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.

Like a sewing machine, the B-3 with its tone wheel generator and rotating drive shaft required lubricating oil. An ingenious system of ducts led from two small cups in the back of the organ to cotton threads wrapped around each of the many bearings. We learn that dealerships for competing organ companies went so far as to display a Hammond in their showrooms with a puddle of oil on the floor behind it to demonstrate this alleged drawback to potential customers. Hammond, a mechanical engineer who was guilty of that profession's most forgivable sin—over-engineering—had originally recommended oiling every three or four months, far too often for home use, leading to leaks on living room carpets. He eventually modified the owner's manual to call for oiling only once a year.

Before this, Hammond had to fight for legal permission just to describe his instrument as an organ. In 1936, pipe organ manufacturers felt sufficiently threatened by his new-fangled invention (and his advertising claims) to sic the Federal Trade Commission on him, asserting that his instrument was actually an "electrotone." As Vail notes, "the legal wrangle culminated in a musical showdown at the University of Chicago's chapel, where a panel of experts and students displayed a remarkable inability to distinguish the Hammond from a $75,000 Skinner pipe organ in blindfold tests." Although Hammond was forced to desist from the boastful advertising which claimed his electric instrument could produce "the entire tone coloring necessary for the rendition, without sacrifice, of the great works of classical organ literature," he did win the right to call it a bona fide organ.

Laurens Hammond is a fascinating story-within-a-story in his own right. From boyhood, he gave every indication of being a gizmo whiz-kid, starting with an automatic transmission he designed at the age of 14 but neglected to pass along to Renault like his mother had advised. The list of inventions he has to his credit include the famous two-colored 3-D glasses familiar to moviegoers, as well as several military technologies he developed during World War II, including glide bomb controls, infrared sensing for guided missiles, an aerial camera shutter and an improved gyroscope. But it was his synchronous motor that made him the magnate he went on to become. After inventing a silent spring-driven clock, which made him enough money to be able to quit his day job with a Detroit marine engine manufacturer, he first applied his motor to electric clocks before turning his attention to creating an electric organ in 1934.

Hammond, significantly, was not a musician. (His assistant treasurer, a church organist, served as his musical consultant). As well as being an inventive engineer, Hammond was also a hard-nosed businessman for whom the bottom line always came first. After examining several church organs and seeing that the top seven notes of the then-standard 32 bass pedals showed little signs of wear, he simply decided to abbreviate them to 25; he also concluded, with little concern for player ergonomics, that it would be cheaper to make them flat rather than concave. This was why the first models had square-front ("waterfall") keys and stair-stepped manuals (versus the subsequent overhanging manuals). He was not above taking advantage of legal loopholes, either. Vail tells us how Hammond cleverly exploited post-WWII price controls to substitute a very inexpensive version of the above-mentioned chorus effect (which he could not make during the war) without having to lower his price, thereby significantly increasing his profit margin.

As it turned out, Hammond was distinctly hostile to jazz musicians. While button-down types like businessmen and engineers, generally speaking, are not overly congenial to bohemian types like musicians, this attitude on his part was based on sheer calculation: he marketed his instrument to churches and families simply because there were a lot more of them than there were professional organists, a demographic fact that holds true today. Yet Vail presents a musical version of the law of unintended consequences, one that Hammond himself never foresaw. Created to be a substitute for pipe organs, the Hammond organ was purchased by many small Southern churches short on money.

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.

After the tonewheel generator, the best-known features of the Hammond are the drawbars, which along with the presets (the reverse-colored keys at the far left of the lower manual) justify Mike Eppley's assertion that "a Hammond is really the first synthesizer." While several prominent players like Emerson, Booker T. Jones ('Green Onions"), Tom Coster ("Samba Pa Ti") and Rod Argent ("Time Of The Season") are happy to share their signature drawbar registrations, others turn out to be like chefs unwilling to reveal their secret recipe. When Vail asked Jimmy McGriff for his favorite drawbar settings, all he got for an answer was a smile and "I don't tell nobody that. That's my secret." Although Paul Shaffer readily admits to having looked over the shoulders of Jimmy Smith, Booker T., Billy Preston and others to cop their settings (which he keeps taped to his B-3), he was evasive about his own: " ... a little bit of full organ ... a little bit of jazz organ. The same stops as everybody uses."

Along with his above-mentioned comic relief, Amels also contributes "25 Hammond Licks You Must Know," only one portion of the book's fully notated master classes presented by such acknowledged savants as Joey DeFrancesco, Mike Eppley, Larry Goldings and Tony Zamagni; John Medeski, Rose Mary Bailey, Coster, Shaffer and Argent give additional performance tips. A very nifty supplement to the "Licks" and "Classes" is the option of going to the publisher's Web site at www.backbeatbooks.com/b3 to download standard MIDI files and/or audio files to accompany them.

Vail does more than just give tips from technical experts on how to buy, restore, and maintain Hammonds and Leslies. All Hammonds were not created equal, we learn. Starting around 1968, the profit-monger side of the Hammond Company began to dominate the craftsman side (Hammond himself had vacated his position as president in 1955 and retired completely from the firm in 1960). Cheaper materials, including the cabinetry wood, were used, and assemblers on the production line were given fixed times to complete their tasks. As a result, there are certain vintages to be avoided, and Vail lists the "good" and "junky" serial numbers. He gives space to some of the most highly regarded professional restoration technicians in which to elaborate their respective philosophies—tube pre-amps versus solid-state, stock versus "super-stock," "chopping" and "hot-rodding," and so on.

In addition to an appendix of print and video resources, and an updated discography featuring authoritative recommendations for must-hear recordings by some of the greats of the Hammond organ, Vail closes with a comprehensive index, a very practical bit of back material all-too-often neglected in books of this sort.

Post a comment



Popular Articles

All About Jazz needs your support

All About Jazz & Jazz Near You were built to promote jazz music: both recorded albums and live events. We rely primarily on venues, festivals and musicians to promote their events through our platform. With club closures, limited reopenings and an uncertain future, we've pivoted our platform to collect, promote and broadcast livestream concerts to support our jazz musician friends. This is a significant but neccesary step that will help musicians and venues now, and in the future. You can help offset the cost of this essential undertaking by making a donation today. In return, we'll deliver an ad-free experience (which includes hiding the sticky footer ad). Thank you!

Get more of a good thing

Our weekly newsletter highlights our top stories and includes your local jazz events calendar.