The Big Question: Richard Williams argues for a single instrument that can reproduce the amplitude of a big band...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, May/June 2012
There is something so exultant, so heart-lifting, so human about the sound of the Hammond organ that it is difficult to believe such a noise can come from so synthetic a source. Unlike its ancestor, the church organ, it has no pipes in which air vibrates to create a note. The Hammond is an assembly of bits and pieces, of drawbars and tone-wheels, dressed up in something that looks like a piece of mahogany furniture from a Victorian drawing room—a reminder of its target market, which included wedding chapels and funeral parlours. But in the hands of an accomplished practitioner, it can make a noise that defines the term “soul”.
Produced from 1955 to 1974, a pretty fertile era for popular music, the Hammond B-3 and C-3 models were almost identical (one is slightly more robust). By giving a single player the ability to reproduce the amplitude of a big band at a time when bandleaders had become reluctant to pay the salaries of a dozen trumpeters, trombonists and saxophonists, the Hammond quickly found its niche. It could add colour and texture, or seize the spotlight and set the joint on fire.
It has a sound all of its own, ranging from a whisper to a scream. A generation of converted jazz pianists—including Jimmy Smith, Jack McDuff and Jimmy McGriff—made it a staple of clubs in Harlem, Watts and Chicago’s South Side before Booker T and the MGs took it into the charts in 1962 with “Green Onions”, which became the Mod anthem. Others followed, in legions. Listen to almost any of Aretha Franklin’s Sixties classics to hear Spooner Oldham at the Hammond, helping to create the piano-and-organ interplay that underpinned so much gospel music.
In my youth I spent many nights getting as close as possible to the stages of various clubs, aiming at proximity to the device into which many organists plugged their B-3 or C-3: the Leslie speaker, another example of the furniture-maker’s art, through which vibrato was added to the sound by horns spinning inside a ventilated cabinet. Georgie Fame had one, and so did Graham Bond, Steve Winwood and Zoot Money. The whole Hammond set-up was a roadie’s nightmare (because of the spare parts) and a listener’s dream. They have suitcase-sized digital versions now, but nothing matches the surge and wail of the real thing.
Richard Williams is chief sports writer on the Guardian and a former editor of Melody Maker and Time Out. His books include "Long Distance Call: Writings on Music"
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