Few instruments excite music fans as much as the Hammond organ. Yet everyone hears something different. The jazz fan hears a textured sound approximating that of a big band. The soul fan hears shades of gospel. And the rock fan hears a touch of funky soul. But where did this instrument come from and how did it evolve? [Pictured: Jimmy Smith]
In Part 1 of my conversation with Scott Faragher, author of the terrific new book The Hammond Organ: An Introduction to the Instrument and the Players Who Made It Famous, the author provides the instrument's accidental history and the artists who knocked our socks off with it:
JazzWax: What’s the origin of the Hammond organ?
Scott Faracher: Laurens Hammond [pictured] actually first invented the motor for electric clocks in the 1920s. He sold Hammond clocks by the thousands, but there was a conflict with a pre-existing German patent for a similar motor. So he needed another product to stay in business. Pipe and theater organs were popular then but too expensive for home use. Hammond decided to make an electric organ that would rival a pipe organ—but for a fraction of the price. His first model—the Hammond A—was rolled out in 1935.
JW: What made this organ special?
SF: It was portable and could be plugged into any wall socket. It also was versatile and loud—much more so than a piano. Its original intent wasn’t to be anything other than an electric instrument that duplicated the sound of a pipe organ. The first Hammonds were viewed as novelty instruments—much like a synthesizer was in the '80s—and were bought by George Gershwin, Lawrence Welk, Henry Ford and others. Bandleaders and jazz musicians soon began to embrace the new instrument as an efficient and cost-effective replacement for larger bands.
JW: Some musicians were actually replaced by the organ, weren't they?
SF: That’s true. It happened to pianist Bill Doggett. In 1947, Doggett was hired to be the arranger and pianist for Louis Jordan. He replaced Bill Davis [pictured], who had left to study the Hammond. When Jordan rehired Bill Davis at triple the pay that Doggett was receiving, Doggett also decided to study the organ.
JW: Bassists were in trouble, too, yes?
SF: Yes. As the pedal bass became more popular, some
organ groups didn’t hire upright bassists. There was a backlash by acoustic bass players, but their efforts weren't successful. As the jazz organ came into its own in the late 1950s, a jazz organist who did not play his or her own pedal bass line was considered to be less proficient than those who did.
JW: How do the organ's stops work?
SF: The organ has a long history of producing sounds similar to those made by other instruments. The Hammond A came with factory-installed sounds accessed through reverse-colored preset keys. The organ also was designed so that various instrument sounds could be combined. But what distinguished the Hammond organ from subsequent rivals were its famous drawbars.
JW: What do these do?
SF: The drawbars enable organists to bypass the factory presets and customize their own settings, even changing them while playing. There were literally thousands of pieces of sheet music available for the Hammond with specific stop settings for a particular tune. Later, in the world of jazz and rock musicians, specific sets were lesser considerations as time passed, and organists simply used the drawbars to achieve the sound they wanted.
JW: Other organ brands emerged though.
SF: Yes, the Hammond organ’s success created a new market. Rivals such as Seeburg, Allen, Gulbransen, Conn and Lowrey were quick to release models. But since the way in which Hammond organs produced their various sounds was protected by patents owned by Hammond, other subsequent makers of electric organs had to create tones strictly through methods other than tone wheel generation. This greatly limited their versatility. It wasn’t really until the solid-state era that there was a level playing field. Even then, Hammond dominated the market.
JW: What were some of the other popular models?
SF: The first model, the Model A [pictured], was very similar in appearance to the B-3, which followed in 1955. But there were many Hammond models, including the large concert RT series, and the C series, generally considered church organs. There also were the self-contained A-100 series home organs. What’s more, there were tube and tone-wheel spinets, and a small single manual chord organ.
JW: When did the solid-state era begin?
SF: In 1974. That’s when the original B-3, C-3 and other tube/tone-wheel organs were discontinued. The technology of the transistor permitted organs to produce more sounds as well as the inclusion of built-in drumbeats and other accompanying rhythms. The B-3 continued to be the most popular shape and cabinet style.
JW: How did the B-3 become popular with jazz artists?
SF: Fats Waller had recorded jazz on an early Hammond, and is considered the father of jazz organ.
JW: What was Wild Bill Davis’ role?
SF: It was huge. He established the Hammond as a legitimate percussive jazz instrument by bringing it into the mainstream. Bill Doggett followed his lead as did Jimmy Smith, who was undoubtedly the most influential jazz organist. Many of the 1950s jazz organists— like Wild Bill Davis, Milt Buckner and Jackie Davis—recorded on pre B-3 organs, which lacked the distinctive percussion feature of the later B-3 model.
JW: How far back does the Hammond go in rock?
SF: The Hammond’s roots in rock are not as clearly defined. While there were specific jazz organists who brought the organ into marginal and then mainstream jazz, such was not the case with rock.
JW: How so?
SF: In the early days, the organ in rock was merely a background instrument. It had greater or lesser prominence within what were often vocal recordings rather than instrumentals. For example, listen to Lou Christie’s Two Faces Have I, in which a chopping Hammond permeates the entire record. The organ also took a ride in his Runaway, another vocal record. And the organ was prominent in Barbara Lewis’ Hello Stranger and other vocal records of the period, such as Let’s Dance by Chris Montez.
JW: When does the organ first appear in hit rock records?
SF: Probably around 1960, although it could be argued that it was slightly earlier or even later. That’s because there were organ-based instrumental hits earlier, like Bill Doggett’s 1956 Honky Tonk Part I, although many people consider that single to have been more of an R&B record than a mainstream rock disc.
JW: Is there a date when the organ’s role in rock becomes more serious and less of a novelty?
SF: That would probably be 1962, when it was the driving force behind Joey Dee & the Starliters famous Peppermint Lounge album. In fact Carlton Lattimore had joined Joey Dee’s band in 1959 as an organist. And then there was Dave “Baby” Cortez, who had two instrumental organ-based hits—The Happy Organ (1959) and Rinky Dink (1962). Carl Holmes and the Commanders’ Twist Party at the Roundtable and The Kingsmen of Louie, Louie fame were both heavy on the organ.
JW: The organ also was big with the British bands, particularly those that wanted to add a touch of soul, yes?
SF: Yes. This is particularly true of Alan Price, organist with The Animals, Steve Winwood with The Spencer Davis Group on his driving Gimme Some Lovin intro in 1966. Even then however, the organ was still largely a background instrument—though one with a growing presence.
JW: What was the turning point?
SF: In 1966 with the Swinging Medallions’ Double Shot (Of My Baby’s Love) with its screaming organ, followed by Question Mark & The Mysterians' 96 Tears. The latter one really burned the organ into the teen listeners’ psyche. The organ was very much out front on both records.
JW: When did the Hammond name become a brand with listeners?
SF: Probably with Procol Harum’s Whiter Shade of Pale (1967). The U.S. version of the group’s first LP said on the back—“Matthew Fisher—Hammond Organ.” Here, the instrument was defined as a Hammond rather than a Vox or Farfisa. As the decade continued, groups like the Rascals, Vanilla Fudge, Three Dog Night, Steppenwolf, Smith, The Crazy World of Arthur Brown and others brought the Hammond Organ to the forefront.
Tomorrow: Scott Faragher's 10 favorite Hammond organ albums (there are a couple that even caught me by surprise).
JazzWax pages: If you have any interest in the Hammond organ, Scott Faragher's Hammond Organ: An Introduction to the Instrument and the Players Who Made It Famous is the bible. The 389-page paperback features color photos and everything you'd want to know about the intrument, from models and speakers to the players. You'll find it here.
JazzWax clip: Here's Wild Bill Davis in 1969 with Duke Ellington playing Satin Doll (thanks to John Cooper)...