By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Introducing the eclectic and multi-talented George Montalba: French-born pianist, child prodigy, master organist, and international star; teen runaway and traveling-circus organist; occultist and army veteran; father, husband, and lion tamer; oboist and 1950s big-band jazz pianist; Broadway musical director, devoted Christian, and pimp. And finally, founder of the Church of Satan. Church of Satan?
Well, maybe. Around Christmas of 2000, NYC percussionist-organist Toby Dammit (known to the IRS as Larry Mullins) had been asked to co-run a record label reissuing rare and forgotten hi-fi artifacts. An obsessive collector of organ music himself, he was particularly blown away by two LPs he found on a friend's well-stocked shelf, both by an artist named "George Montalba"this week, Dammit is putting them back into print on one CD, Georges Montalba's Pipe Organ Favorites (www.hit-thing.com). Whoever this obviously classically trained Montalba character was, he made quite an impression on Dammit with his adept and majestic Wurlitzer keyboarding, his exquisite percussion arrangements, and his complex adaptations of classics such as Saint-Saëns's Danse Macabrewhich suggests the spooky parts of Disney's Fantasia crossed with seventh-inning anthems from a haunted baseball park.
"Oh man, you can't release those records, don't you know who made those, they were really made by Anton La Vey, from the Church of Satan!" said Dammit's record-collector friend, local photographer Lary Seven. Dammit was stunned, yet extremely dubious.
Dammitprobably best known for his acid-candyland electronic music on the French label Tricatel, but equally recognized for his work with Iggy Pop, the Swans, Mark Eitzel, Angels of Light, Bertrand Burgalat, and maybe even mysterious San Francisco eyeball cult the Residentshad never heard any of La Vey's "official" organ records. But he was familiar with La Vey's reputation for making claims that were, well, often untrue. His research immediately yielded various eBay and online catalogs attributing the Montalba records to La Veysomeone has even repackaged them with the black-magician's pictures on the cover, and originals sometimes sell for hundreds of dollars.
After continued research, the final damning verification for Dammit was a detailed posting from the sordid divorce case between Anton La Vey and Church of Satan co-founder Diane La Vey. The court papers meticulously listed all of the dark one's possessions, including his "black mansion" in San Francisco, which he lost to Diane a decade before dying destitute in October 1997 (on the 29th, though forged Church of Satan documents claimed he died on Halloween). What was absent from court records was any notation of rights, titles, or royalties to any recordings by George Montalba.
So the question arose: Who exactly is George Montalba? Is he alive? Is he really a Lyons-born piano prodigy, as the old liner notes claimed? Or was he in fact Anton La Vey? Switching from the world of the satanic to the world of the seniors, Dammit started contacting various pipe-organ societies across the globe, speaking with men in their seventies and eighties who had been associated with the late-'50s Southern California music scene. Winding down a long, labyrinthine road that took seven months to map, Dammit followed the clues until they led him to one man: Robert Hunter.
So it was the Californian Robert Hunternot the fictitious Frenchman George Montalbawho was the child prodigy. By age six he was working in radio alongside Shirley Temple and Judy Garland; by 19, he was playing with the L.A. Philharmonic Orchestra. His stupendously prolific music career spanned 60 years, which took him from classical concert piano to big bands to Broadway to TV, and eventually to acclaim as a respected and sought-after chorale arranger. Most fascinating is how, after gaining notoriety as "Bob Hunter," he was given the opportunity to become George Montalba; and how he continued to live out two different musical careers for over eight yearsas two different artists. There was the humble Bob Hunter, who excelled at all facets of his career, yet always intentionally skirted the spotlight of fame, preferring to work in the background. And then there was George Montalba, who became a worldwide sensation performing to packed houses throughout the world, including Radio City Music Hall.
Howard Stanton Levey, in contrast, was an Illinois-born organ enthusiast who started his career playing in and around San Francisco at civic events, baseball games, and city parades. His actual origins differed greatly from the nefarious mythic life he created for himself as Anton Szandor La Vey, founder of the Church of Satan and author of The Satanic Biblea must-read for fledgling occultists, hardcore humanists, disenchanted Ayn Randers, forlorn Scientologists, misanthropes, black-metallers, and fashion-impaired youth across the suburbs of the U.S. of A.
Though no trained ear would hear a "master" in his playing, La Vey was a captivating and unique organist in his own right. He released two classical gothic albums: Strange Music and Satan Takes a Holiday. Some of his diabolic transmissions can be heard as well on the somewhat campy 1966 LP The Satanic Mass, which features various unholy rituals, most spectacularly the demonic baptism of his three-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Zeena.
Zeena Schreck was most likely the world's first famous Satanic toddler. Besides practicing the black arts, Schreck too is a musician; also an actress, photographer, and writer. She reigned as High Priestess and public spokesperson of the Church of Satan from 1985 until her resignation in 1990. Ever since, she's been trying to sort through the many claims made by her father, "the progenitor" (as she calls him).
According to Schreck, she's dealt with an endless list of untruthsranging from La Vey's name to his Gypsy heritage; from his secret indoctrination as a 15-year-old into a German Satanic cabal to his teen-runaway traveling-circus years; and on and on, all the way down to the Montalba records. In the late '80s, it turns out, a devil-worshiping disciple who discovered the Montalba records and noticed a similarity in style to La Vey's playing had asked Lucifer's right-hand man if these records were really him. Never one to miss an opportunity to add more sparkle to his growing legacy, La Vey claimed that he indeed had recorded the albums in Nice, France, during a brief visit in the late '50s. (The fictional bio on the back of the original Montalba albums claimed they were recorded in Nice in '57 and '58. And if this whole masquerade ball weren't confusing enough, Ben Halla famous Greenwich Village organ archivist, who was the rumored author of the liner notesalso claimed to have been the infamous George Montalba.) When Schreck tried to explain to devotees that, per her mother's verification of time lines, there was no way these records were her father's, she was met with scorn. This final straw led Schreck to excommunicate herself from the Church.
Since 1989, Schreck had been trying to find out who George Montalba really was. Then last year, Schreck mysteriously received an e-mail from someone named Toby Dammit, claiming to know the real truth about George Montalba. It was utterly baffling to Dammit how a man with such an elaborate career as Robert Hunter could all but vanish. But after countless dead ends, Dammit's search eventually narrowed down to Hunter's ex-wife, who said the aging organist was now ill and alone, in a Burbank nursing home.
As a lonely man waiting to die, who could no longer walk or play music and who had long resigned himself to total obscurity, Robert Hunter was stunned when he heard from Dammit: out of the blue, a call from a stranger who knew every aspect of his life, and who wanted to release a CD documenting his forgotten music career. Aware that Hunter had recently been diagnosed with cancer, Dammit was anxious to fly westward and give Hunter a copy of the discand finally meet the spunky and cantankerous retired master in person.
At this time, Dammit also became close to Hunter's family, who completely supported the reissue project. While awaiting manufacture of the CD for the European release shortly before he was to leave for California, Dammit received an e-mail notifying him that Robert Hunter had passed away, at age 72, on September 10, 2001. Dammit flew out to California and met Hunter's family, who took him to the wake and to a memorial concert held in Hunter's honor by the church he'd played organ in for most of his life. Besides being grateful for the opportunity to document Hunter's musical career with the Montalba re-release (after nearly 40 years out of print), Dammit promised Hunter and his family that this CD should finally put an end to all of the Montalba nonsenseand in particular, the fraudulent satanic collectibles.
So shortly before his death, a deeply religious Christian who performed for several presidents not only was granted the self-satisfaction of knowing his music would be remembered, but was faced for the first time with that music's twisted history. Weeks earlier, he'd never even heard of the Church of Satan.