The Strange History and Vibrant Players of the Hammond Organ

From 'The Shadow' radio show to Billy Preston and the Beastie Boys, the big, boxy B-3 Organ has been wowing listeners for going on a century


In 1927, when Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer packed theaters across America, Rosa Rio thought her future as an organist was curtains. Fresh out of Eastman School of Music with a degree in silent-film accompaniment, the NOLA native had thought she’d made the big time in the Big Apple, securing regular gigs playing the magnificently massive pipe organ, with its four rows of keys, at Brooklyn’s Fox Theater. “The thing I thought I was going to be doing for the rest of my life,” Rio (1902–2010) told me in a 2006 interview, “was playing the big theater organ for silent motion pictures.” By the end of the 1920s, however, the roar of the “talkies” had muted the dreams her parents had previously tried to discourage. As was true for most professionally trained women of that era, teaching had to suffice—until Rio heard about a new instrument showcasing at piano company Steinway on 57th Street. Called a Hammond organ, it uncannily bore her theater-organist husband’s last name, but neither he nor the sales reps seemed to know how to work the thing, which looked like a peculiar wooden piece of furniture. But for 25 cents an hour, you could practice at the store, getting any sound you wanted. So Rosa Rio—aided by her gift of absolute pitch—spent many weeks “just experimenting with the drawbars to get the sound I wanted on that organ.” The man who had invented these mechanical drawbars, Laurens Hammond, was all about such experimentation. Located just above the upper keys, a drawbar could be gradually pushed or pulled, each increment mimicking the stops and tabs used to change airflow (and hence, sounds) on a pipe organ. The reportedly tone-deaf inventor told Popular Mechanics he’d designed his new instrument to be “flexible enough to allow the musician to explore new possibilities in beautiful tone colors … [and] also permit him to blunder into horrid noises.”

Despite not being a “he,” with the opportunities that offered, Rio soon found her sonic mix of beauty and horror on this burgeoning keyboard, then found herself pulling those drawbars for America’s hottest medium for talk shows and entertainment: radio. On Sunday evenings, millions of tantalized listeners across the country heard her lurid accompaniment for the soon-to-be-iconic radio drama, starring 22-year-old wunderkind Orson Welles, which asked, “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?” Not only did the Shadow know, but Rio’s evolving know-how synthesizing tones and emotions proved effective. “We could get odd qualities out of the Hammond organ that you could not get out of any other,” she recalls. “You could do any kind of effect, [including] what we called in the trade ‘stings,’ to make you feel the terror of the voice of Orson Welles.” With The Shadow a smash, Rio’s radio career flourished, an in-demand auditory staple stationed behind a 400-pound “portable” keyboard, which was rolled on dollies through the corridors connecting Rockefeller Center’s NBC studios in order to bring musical fright to shows such as Inner Sanctum, Counterspy, and The Haunting Hour. Though it was startling the lives of millions, Rosa Rio believed the Hammond organ had saved hers.

On January 2, 1897, Laurens Hammond may have noticed a shadow lurking over him as it gently planted a kiss on his cheek around 2 a.m., before leaving the room where the 18-month-old and his exhausted mother, Idea, lay in their Evanston, Illinois, home. Laurens’s mother had noticed, but her toddler’s restless nights had left her too exhausted to rouse. The previous 12 nights had also been restless for her husband, William, who’d been involved in a scandal through the collapse of the National Bank of Illinois, where he’d served as second vice president and director. William was also a director in a startup company trying to exploit the burgeoning technology of electricity; specifically, electric streetcars on the south side of Chicago. The startup had received a $2.4 million loan from Hammond’s longtime employer—upon closer inspection, the books looked cooked. Although many were to blame, the father of four resolved that the only way to remedy his role in the disaster was to go for a final walk along the shore, not far from the Hammond homestead. With the New Year barely a night old, he stepped off a pier into the shadowy waters of Lake Michigan. No suicide note was found—only a scattered, rain-soaked trail of handwritten ledger notes.

Being the only Hammond son, perhaps Laurens would have drifted into finance had his father not allowed the Calumet Electric Street Railway Company to shatter his mind and short-circuit any filial advance. But a $60,000 life insurance policy (nearly $2 million today) allowed the Hammonds the financial freedom to uproot and move closer to European relatives. Idea pumped her artistic side, displaying her paintings in Paris, while the kids were schooled in French and German. Laurens loved to tinker. He demonstrated his nascent forward-thinking by designing an automatic automobile transmission that Renault engineers were entertained by, but ultimately rejected—first not believing the 12-year-old standing before them was responsible for the design, then not believing that steel could bear such a mechanical burden. Undeterred by the thumbs-down, Hammond kept messing around, patenting a $1 barometer at 16. His inventive mind returned stateside when World War I rumblings encouraged his mother to move the family back to Evanston. Upon eventually graduating from Cornell University in mechanical engineering, he set his course on becoming what he called “an independent inventor.”

And so Hammond invented, having substantial success throughout the 1920s, with numerous inventions, sales, and brushes with celebrity under his belt. But Ziegfeld Follies’ royalties for his stereoscopic Shadowgraph lasted only so long. He’d established the Hammond Clock Company in 1928, and one day he went about tearing apart a cheap piano in his Evanston work-space loft, above an old grocery store. It wasn’t payback for the piano lessons he’d hated as a child. Tickless clocks and 3-D movies (using his stereoscopic Teleview invention) had made him a master at developing small synchronous motors that could keep perfect time, regardless of the irregular starts and stops that regional electric power companies commonly provided to households. The Hammond Clock Company made over 100 different models, selling enough timekeepers to support 700 employees, but by 1932, with the Great Depression already forcing 150 other clock companies to liquidate (with Hammond Co. on the hook for $400K to banks as well), he and his team of engineers were desperately chucking ideas against the wall to see what stuck, no matter how gimmicky.

Their latest gimmick involved ripping apart that piano in order to hook up “tone wheels”—metal wheels about the size of a dollar coin, not unlike the ones turning his clocks—to switches he’d wired under the piano keys. Hammond imagined that maybe it could be an inexpensive, toyish keyboard one could plug into a common home radio’s speakers through which one could generate some—generously speaking—“music.” Yet the deeper the engineers dove into generating tones from electric current, and the more tones they measured and frequencies they produced from these consistently revolving wheels, the more they realized they were onto something worth making noise over. Hammond gobbled up the latest physics research on musical sound, treating each spinning tone wheel generator as a harmonic math problem, not unlike what Dr. Thaddeus Cahill had done in 1897 when he patented his Telharmonium—the world’s first synthesizer—the same year Hammond became fatherless. Cahill utilized similar concepts and technology, upon which Hammond would improve, particularly the theory and use behind turning tone wheels into sound generators.

Cahill’s wondrous machine—also called a Dynamophone—was essentially a power plant, as each tone required its own motor and banks of transformers to mix the tones. His first iteration, the Mark I, was “only” 14,000 pounds, while the subsequent Mark II and III versions, built of steel and brick, weighed over 200 tons, were 60 feet long, and manipulated by rows of keys. Because speaker systems didn’t exist, the $200,000 apparatus took advantage of the technology of existing telephone wires to broadcast its sounds directly into telephones, and then into rooms via phonograph-like megaphones. Unlike Cahill, however, Hammond had no interest in creating tones through a telephone line (and further irritating telephone operators confused by sudden waves of “music”) and instead planned to utilize the speaker technology of the day. He also learned that pairing a coiled magnet with each tone wheel was essential to any consistent and sustained sound creation.

The first sonic breakthrough mimicked a flute. “Instruments” were added until they had 91 tone wheels connected via switches to two manuals (keyboards) and designed drawbars. Pedals were added for bass notes and volume. Laurens Hammond called it an organ, and soon hauled it to the patent office—which Hammond described as having “marvelous acoustics”—gave a demonstration and lecture for the office’s impressed employees, and was expedited a patent on April 24, 1934. The show certainly helped, but the promise of manufacturing jobs during the Depression was key.

Word spread. Henry Ford wanted half a dozen of what Hammond called “these Model A organs,” and offered to help manufacture them (Hammond politely declined). George Gershwin wanted one. The Roosevelts. No matter the steep $1,250 Depression-era price tag. Hammond lassoed this celebrity demand for promotion, and utilized theater organists to demonstrate his creation at racetracks and roller rinks. Organist Milt Herth played one on his “Stompin’ at the Savoy” solo on the radio. Manufacturing only two organs a day at first made it hard, but eventually Hammond sold 1,400 organs in the first year; his PR department claimed each organ could generate an infinite amount of tone colors and harmonics yet was thousands of dollars cheaper than any pipe organ. That advertising translated to over half-a-million dollars in sales over the first two years, while also attracting playerhatin’ heat from pipe organ purists, who rejected said claims for Hammond’s “organ,” organizing enough ire to convince the Federal Trade Commission that the Hammond Clock Company was indeed perpetrating a fraud in even calling it an organ.

“Porter Heaps told me he wanted to refute all of these erroneous stories being put out about the Hammond organ,” recalled Rosa Rio, who in 1937 was readying for The Shadow. “And he did.” Heaps, a church pipe organist who worked for Hammond, did so as part of an ear test Hammond had ingeniously devised to prove his musical product was, indeed, an organ. Fifteen lucky students, along with nine not-as-lucky subpoenaed musicians and experts, assembled at the University of Chicago’s chapel to decide on aural legitimacy. In one corner stood the chapel’s colossal Skinner pipe organ; in the other was the opponent, at about 1/30th the cost, with its tone cabinets concealed behind the organ pipes. Screens blocked the jury’s view, so theoretically they could only hear the 300 classical music snippets performed. Score: 50% hit rate for the students; the “experts” swung between chance and 90%. Some say the fix was in, but FTC lawyers changed their tune, allowing Hammond’s claim that this wooden box was actually an organ—but with a stipulation. Hammond’s marketers would need to chill on their claim of tonal infinity. Hence, after much “research,” Hammond capped the number of tones their organs were capable of producing at a mere 253 million—almost two tones for every American.

Though they didn’t get a dollar for every tone produced, millions of greenbacks flowed into the newly minted Hammond Instrument Company. Laurens was awarded the Franklin Institute’s John Price Wetherill Medal for this scientific sonic invention, which by WWII found its way onto the Queen Mary, no less, and into over a thousand churches spread over three dozen countries. One of those countries was Brazil, where a young red-headed organist was holding court in a swanky Rio hotel. The tourists admired her high-heeled pedal work, as well as her swinging organ arrangement of a local choro called “Tico Tico no Fubá.” That Latin swagger may have belied the squareness of Ethel Smith’s name, but it was just the fresh combination Hollywood was looking for. In the 1944 film Bathing Beauty, Smith was showcased on a Hammond BV, her blue high-heeled feet spotlit, the instrument surrounded by a dozen mature “girl scouts” out of a Hugh Hefner dream, who plead for Smith to “go below the border for some South American jive.” Smith complies, putting her finger and foot virtuosity on full display. The resulting “Tico Tico” made Smith a star, and sold many a platter for Decca Records, regardless of whether Rosa Rio thought Smith’s act was jive (she did). Laurens Hammond was as thrilled as Smith’s tambourine tappin’ scouts, as it was the white girl consumer demographic of his dreams. For Smith, four more features followed in quick succession, then Disney nabbed her for 1948’s Melody Time, in which she performs “Blame It on the Samba” on a blonde Hammond emanating animated bubbles, while Donald Duck and José Carioca serenade her. It was quite an impressive run—and an exemplar of post-war cultural appropriation—and synched nicely with Hammond’s capitalist pursuit of a home invasion.

In the summer of 1949, the Chicago Tribune wanted to go big in celebrating the 20th anniversary of its Chicagoland Music Festival, hoping for 100,000 spectators to invade Soldier Field. So in addition to the usual singing contests, dance routines, and marching bands (including 1,000 accordionists!), the publication looked locally for unique entertainment. Now a $5 million company, Hammond’s latest line of Model M spinets—smaller, cheaper, geared for the home—sought to spin heaps more bottom-line gold, and Porter Heaps was tapped to lead 53 organists, aptly christened the Hammond Organ Ensemble, with four concert organists and the rest amateur. All dressed in white, they were arranged midfield facing conductor Heaps like a precursor to today’s Wi-Fi icon. Exactly how many of the quarter-million tones performed by 10 tons of Hammond organ were heard above the crowd’s “oohs” and “aahs” during the ensemble’s generation of “La Golondrina” and “The Lost Chord” is, unfortunately, lost to history.

Out on the West Coast, meanwhile, another independent inventor was making history in the Land of Make Believe in a makeshift L.A. television studio, as the star of one of America’s first all-music TV shows: Korla Pandit’s Adventures in Music. The beautiful, beturbaned, three-piece-wearing organist never said a word during his performances, his composed stare, flitting fingers, and percussive hand slaps instead doing all his communicating, as the mysterious musical elixir emanating from his Hammond C-2 guided the viewer—usually with an exotic dancer assist—to the far-flung locales of Turkey, Brazil, and India. Which was where—in his mind, manner, and myth—Pandit was from. John Roland Redd, a fair-skinned African American music savant from Missouri, who knew his opportunities as a Southern Black man were fallow, had invented in Pandit the perfect character for Hollywood, and steadfastly carried Pandit’s identity as his own until he died (even his kids thought he was a Brahmin from New Delhi). It was genius-level cultural appropriation that made Ethel Smith’s Latin-tinge maneuvers seem rookie-league. Like Smith, Pandit demonstrated that this instrument was a natural for the screen, as overhead camera angles revealed the dexterous, all-limbs demands required by such peculiar playing of peculiar sounds—what would eventually be categorized as “exotica.”

Though Pandit’s show was initially regional, bigger TV platforms helped mainstream Hammond organs over the 1950s. Long before Fonda and Simmons, exercise pioneer Jack Lalanne brought his war on flab to living rooms, as he cheerfully flexed, stretched, and summoned, all to the encouraging, improvised (and no doubt sweaty) Hammond organ accompaniment of Dave Bacal, known for his Latin Touch LP.  Soap operas were also migrating to the small screen from radio. As The World Turns featured Rosa Rio, while another soap, Front Page Farrell, featured her buddy Dick Hyman, who also had his hands in game shows, such as The Jan Murray Show and future Let’s Make a Deal host Monty Hall’s NBC debut in New York City.

Hyman, who recorded more than 100 albums throughout his long career (as well as performing with jazz giants like Bird and Dizzy), never met a keyboard he couldn’t hack—the Hammond organ was no exception. “The Hammond organ was the original synthesizer,” Hyman tells me. “It was a way of constructing tones by their overtones—by their harmonics—and, as such, it was considerably more an efficient musical instrument than, say, a Moog synthesizer.” Hyman’s use of tone wheel harmonics was not only efficient for games and soaps but also for numerous “lounge” LPs in the ’50s and ’60s, featuring punny titles such as Strictly Organic. He was the go-to keyboardist for the Ray Charles Singers, The Brass Ring, and lounge-meister Enoch Light. David Harkness, Richard Wayne, and David Helman were just a few nommes de Hammond he employed, some for Reader’s Digest box sets that are still collecting Goodwill dust at a store near you. “Some had a groove, some were more muzaky,” Hyman remembers. “My career kind of illustrates the varied uses of the organ, because I had several careers going. One as a jazz player and the other was these pop aspects. I never played organ in a roller skating rink, but I made an album which pretended I was doing exactly that.”

Dominic Cangelosi didn’t have to pretend, having started playing his Hammond in roller rinks like L.A.’s Moonlight Rollerway in 1958, as well as recording a rainbowed plethora of skating-themed organ 45s for Rinx Records. “Yellow records were waltzes, purple records were tangos, orange records are foxtrots,” Cangelosi tells me. “They were color-coded so that when a [skating] coach or teacher wanted a certain tempo, like, say, a waltz, they would pick a yellow record.” If you enjoyed exercising to an organ with Jack LaLanne, then why not try skating to one? Millions did, as Hammond organs found their way into rinks—roller and ice. “The Hammond organ responds to skating because you can get a lot of percussive sounds out of it,” says Cangelosi. “Which is what’s needed in skating, because they like to skate to a heavy beat.” Cheering fans in baseball stadiums and hockey arenas were also being egged on by the mighty dynamics of the Hammond. The company now had numerous models from which to choose, including a spiffy one called the B-3, which had a beefier vibrato and harmonic percussion, geared toward the working musician. In its quest to become America’s aural apple pie, however, Hammond PR folk knew “mom” was the secret to keeping that whitebread buttered. “Mothers seem prettier in a home that has a Hammond organ,” blurbed the company-issued Hammond Times, reading like a magical domestic cure-all, an instrument that “fills her home with harmony that leaves no room for tensions.”

Back in 1937, there was plenty of tension when Don Leslie brought his brand new Hammond organ home, set it up, and began to play. The sound he was getting lacked the richness he’d heard in the big L.A. showroom where he’d been hooked. Leslie loved theater organ, and was tantalized by the Hammond’s promise of emulating one. “He figured out it wasn’t the organ but the Hammond speaker that sounded inferior,” says Pete Fallico, a longtime Hammond historian and founder of the Jazz Organ Fellowship. “So he built one that better emulated that wonderful Doppler effect produced by a true pipe organ.” Leslie happened to be a radio engineer and inveterate tinkerer, so he invented a tone cabinet whose revolving innards—via the flick of an attached switch on the organ’s console—could essentially “throw” treble and bass around a room, better emulating the way pipe organs spread sound in space. But when he proudly took his new “3-D” wooden speaker to Hammond to demonstrate how he had just improved their product—even offering up his innovative technology in exchange for employment—his Doppler tuchus was shown the door. Perhaps a bit cocky from its FTC victory, Hammond was not interested in collaboration. Undeterred, Leslie formed his Electro Music company and began making different-sized Leslie speakers for churches, theaters, and anyone who’d take them. Demand grew so much that customers entering Hammond dealer showrooms would insist that their Hammond organ purchase come with a Leslie speaker, instead of the provided Hammond tone cabinet. Though forbidden by Hammond honchos to display Leslies, savvy sales reps stashed the speakers for their clients, a secret handshake that would ramify music for years to come.

While Hammond rejected Leslie’s invention, jazz musicians were all ears. Although Fats Waller had recorded a 78 of “Jitterbug Waltz” on a Hammond organ in 1942, and Duke and Basie had toyed with tone wheels, the overwhelmingly Black world of jazz clearly had not been Hammond’s target. Black churches, sure, but Laurens’s mind was clouded when it came to clubs. Don Leslie’s wasn’t. And how many churchgoing musicians (and clubbers) sitting in pews had nodded in and out Sunday morning after a late-night Saturday club gig, the power of the organ and the Leslie reverberating in more than a few weary heads?

By the late ’40s—with the big bands in which they’d worked now too expensive to deploy—a few enterprising pianists applied their orchestral chops to the Hammond/Leslie combo heard in these churches. “Wild” Bill Davis was one of the first to strip his act to Hammond organ, guitar, and drums, gigging throughout the Eastern seaboard and eventually landing a record deal at RCA Victor. “Bill had a different style, a wonderful big band sound,” recounts Dick Hyman, who shared a regular gig with Davis at Well’s Chicken & Waffles, in Harlem. “He used the Leslie speaker, but it was a different kind of use than that which would recall a theater organ; he used it so it sounded like a whole brass section. I learned quite a bit just sitting opposite.” Hyman wasn’t the only one getting schooled. A young self-taught pianist out of Philly caught Davis’s gigs in Atlantic City and was awed at how Wild Bill projected his organ trio sound like a big band.  With Davis’s encouragement, James Oscar Smith bought an organ on the installment plan, then woodshedded a year in a warehouse, putting a chart of the foot pedals on the wall so he wouldn’t need to look down. When Smith fluttered forth, in 1955, Blue Note Records scooped him up for a raw live recording at the Club Baby Grand. Opening with the Ellington classic “Caravan,” Smith’s speeding Hammond/Leslie convoy never looked back.  Pre #vanlife, he squeezed his gear and trio into a Cadillac hearse, traversing his “portable” rig gig to gig, spurring others to follow suit. A former tap dancer, he preached relaxed ankles, while modeling his holistic attack after horn players. “I’m going to scare a lot of people,” he told the Hammond Times, “with the incredible number of tones on the Hammond organ before I die.”

“The first time I heard Jimmy Smith I almost had a heart attack,” saxophonist Lou Donaldson recalls to me. He stood front row in the recording studio on many Smith sessions, including 1959’s now iconic The Sermon! “I didn’t know what that was—a train, a hurricane, something.” That “something” was a wall of sound incarnate, and groove greased onto everything Smith touched, no matter the genre, across many dozens of LPs, thus shaping the soul of jazz and eventually seeping into the worlds of blues, soul, funk, rock, reggae, and, later, hip-hop. Smith became notorious for his competitive mean streak; if you didn’t know he was the King he’d surely—particularly if you were a bassist—tell ya. “Jimmy would introduce himself as the world’s greatest bass player,” renowned session bassist Jerry Jemmott tells me. “That’s the pride he had in his ability to play bass lines, and he played great bass lines—no doubt about it!”

Record labels big and small scooped up organists around the country. Millions of albums sold on the backs of folks such as Jimmy McGriff, Richard “Groove” Holmes,  Mel Rhyne, Gene Ludwig, Jack McDuff, Don Patterson, Larry Young Jr., Freddie Roach, Hank Marr, “Baby Face” Willette, Lonnie Smith, Charlie Earland, Reuben Wilson, and scores of others. Many recorded their 12-inch platters over in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, on engineer Rudy Van Gelder’s Hammond C-3. Most “serious” jazz critics scoffed, associating the sound with low-brow pursuits and the number of funky pop tunes. But packed clubs became organ rooms, a Hammond organ and Leslie speaker permanently parked onstage. The organ trio sound grew so popular that organists were often being paid double union-scale for their bass-player-less gigs. Planned obsolescence wasn’t hip yet, and the overengineered technology proved durable on the road.

The C-3 heard on Van Gelder’s gilded wax was basically a B-3 in fancier furniture, which mattered only if you had wanted to show off the footwork down below that a C-3, with its top-to-bottom wood frame, would obfuscate. Women were most visible onstage in the jazz scene “manning” a Hammond organ—as compared to other instruments—and fancy footwork, as Ethel Smith had illustrated, was a must-see part of the show. Singer and pianist Sarah McLawler, who’d been leading her all-female jazz group, the Syncoettes, since 1949, was entranced by what she’d seen Wild Bill Davis achieve, switched to the Hammond, and began recording. Her trailblazing encouraged other women—notably, Shirley Scott, Trudy Pitts, Bu Pleasant, Gloria Coleman, and Rhoda Scott—to take their church-honed Hammond skills to a bigger platform. Whereas Ethel favored heels, Rhoda Scott preferred her feet bare. A minister’s daughter out of New Jersey who learned to play on the church’s B-3, Scott found inspiration at places such as Newark’s legendary Key Club, where she’d hear artists like McLawler with her husband, violinist Richard Otto. “Sarah on organ played in her stockings,” Scott remembers. “And the violin and the organ sounded so good together, I would listen with ears and eyes wide open and be thrilled.” Scott applied that thrill to all her limbs, but particularly to her feet, which danced their own pedal orchestra. Often paired with just a drummer, her unparalleled limbastic shows stretched instruments and bodies alike. After recording a few obscure LPs locally (and being often confused with the better-known Shirley Scott), she moved to Paris, recording and spreading B-3 gospel throughout Europe.

By the time Jimmy Smith was cookin’ Back at the Chicken Shack, Laurens Hammond had retired. But the company was having it both ways during the 1960s. They reaped from white and Black markets, men and women, from the home and the club, and from their tacit auricular handshake with the Leslie speaker. The circuits were laid out. One took root in Memphis, where 14-year-old Booker T. Jones snuck into a honky-tonk and had his ears and mind blown by Brother Jack McDuff’s trio. “Jack McDuff could just mesmerize people with a Hammond organ,” recalls Jones. “I was making $7 a night playing bass, but Jack McDuff didn’t have a bass player.” Inspired, Jones decided to switch to the organ, found three local OGs who became the MGs, and proceeded to make instrumental hits, their undeniable grooves thickened by Jones stacking his organ bass on Donald “Duck” Dunn’s electric bass lines. In 1962, “Green Onions” set a new R&B standard, raising the bar organist Bill Doggett had set with “Honky Tonk” six years earlier. “I don’t think there would have been a ‘Green Onions’ without ‘Honky Tonk,’” states Jones. “I was just so influenced by the feeling, the melody, the rhythm, the sound of the Hammond, the way it made people feel. It just mesmerized the whole city.”

In NYC, the mob-tied Sweet Chariot Night Club, billed as a “Nite Club with Soul,” certainly sounded like a good idea in 1963—besides actual churchgoers picketing out front, objecting to the jazzed-up gospel ’n’ liquor mix, who wouldn’t want to hear fire and brimstone in a swanky midtown Manhattan club, all the while being served by waitresses decked out in sexy angel outfits? Nineteen-year-old guitarist and regular patron Al Kooper certainly did, attracted also to the driving, mesmerizing Hammond organ playing of club organist Bobby Banks. Part of the club’s ruse was a deal it had with Columbia Records to record its concerts, hoping to give a wider secular ear a taste for the commercial sacred. Kooper’s buddy—Columbia staff producer Tom Wilson, who’d been working with upstart Bob Dylan—was tasked to lead the club’s debut session. The resulting LP, Introducing the Sweet Chariot, is a sanctified scorcher, featuring the likes of the Lorraine Ellison–led Golden Chords and The Nathaniel Lewis Singers, all backed by Bobby Banks’s fiery, foot-stompin’ organ. The club’s evanescent luck wasn’t as lasting as the album’s deep cuts, however, as within the year the church protesters won out.

Kooper’s luck proved much better. He loved Banks, Booker T., and Jimmy McGriff, but knew such organ runs were beyond him. Chutzpah wasn’t, though, so when Tom Wilson asked if Kooper wanted to attend a Dylan session Wilson was producing, Kooper jumped, hoping perhaps to sneak in a guitar lick or two. As fate would have it, he instead found himself behind a Hammond B-3, staring at his hands ’cause he couldn’t hear the notes from his fingers, as the Leslie was isolated elsewhere in the studio. He’d snuck onto the organ when Wilson was distracted, discovered fortuitously that it was already on (he lacked the startup know-how), and began riffing on some song he’d just heard Dylan working on called “Like A Rolling Stone.” When Wilson protested to Dylan after the take that Kooper was no organ player but simply a guitarist, Dylan reportedly responded, “I don’t care what he is, make the organ louder!” The Kooper “style,” based on ignorance, grit, and bliss, would be copied throughout rock ’n’ roll.

Around the time that Kooper’s fluky Dylan assist floated up the pop charts, but before the electric guitar ruled the world, you’d just as likely hear an organ solo as a soloing six-string. And as 18-year-old Billy Preston was busy proving live and via his second LP, he needed no Hammond help whatsoever. Though Jimmy Smith surely would’ve title-scoffed, Preston’s aptly named Most Exciting Organ Ever kicked off with Dylan mentor Pete Seeger’s “If I Had a Hammer,” then proceeded to show off Billy’s gospel-rooted bag of instrumental R&B and soul. An impressed Ray Charles, who’d briefly messed around with a Hammond, hitched Billy’s flamboyant singin’/dancin’/playin’ routine to his own revue for touring and TV. Preston still found time to “free funk” for his next album, Wildest Organ in Town!, a collaboration with another church-trained organist making pop inroads, Sylvester Stewart, and also had time to lend his hands to the King of Wild himself—Little Richard—joining fellow precocious wildman Jimi “Jimmy James” Hendrix for future Richard keepers like “I Don’t Know What You Got But It’s Got Me.”

As the story goes, Little Richard couldn’t handle the guitarist’s wildness, and Hendrix, tired after years of chitlin’ circuit constraints anyway, took his freak flag to the U.K. (the rest is history). Preston, always looking to stretch himself out, took his wild-ass talents to London too, where he was wrangled to augment the sound of the biggest band in the world. As exemplified in Disney’s current Beatles documentary opus, Get Back, we see Preston—though playing a Lowrey organ, not a Hammond—earn his unofficial title as the fifth Beatle. We also see the Leslie speaker being used as a tool not for organ but guitar. George Harrison had encouraged his bandmates to try using it for guitar and vocals (check “Tomorrow Never Knows”), and eventually it became a go-to tool for other singers and guitarists, such as Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood, digging the psychedelic vibe the Leslie could bring to tape.

Around the same time,  Deep Purple’s organist, Jon Lord, squeezed his B-3 onto the set of Hugh Hefner’s TV show Playboy After Dark, amongst a throng of lingerie’d ladies and “far out” dudes, who’d all soon be dancing orgiastically to the English band’s debut smash hit, “Hush.” “Hush” could also have been Lord’s ironic name for his screaming Hammond/Leslie combo, to which he added Marshall amps for even more power. A classically trained pianist, Lord’s life became organ-centric after hearing the bluesy grit of Jimmy Smith, McDuff, McGriff, and others, who transistorized inspiration for a slew of keyboard psychedeliacs: Goldy McJohn and Steppenwolf were growling road anthems; Mark Stein and Vanilla Fudge were laying out loud, sludgy soul; Steve Winwood was jamming first with the Spencer Davis Group, then Traffic, while also slipping into Electric Ladyland for Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile”; Felix Cavaliere, of the Rascals, filled most bass parts of their hits with his pedals; Robert Lamm pushed the Chicago Transit Authority, and on and on.

The Hammond/Leslie tag-team circuit had spread throughout pop music and geographical fiefdoms, and well beyond the predominantly white world of psychedelic rock. Up in Detroit, Funk Brother organist Earl Van Dyke had been fueling the Motown sound. Down in New Orleans, organist and bandleader “Poppa Funk” Art Neville led the mardi gras mambo funk party with McCartney faves the Meters. In Kingston, Skatalite founding father and rock steady pioneer Jackie Mittoo’s handiwork laid reggae’s foundation; out East, in Plainfield, New Jersey, Bernie Worrell musically organized the ineffably funky chaos of Funkadelic; down South was Greg Allman and his band of brothers; and out West, Gregg Rolie was singing and playing his gringo ass off for Latin rock maestro Santana, while Bobby Espinosa and El Chicano were living la Viva Tirado in L.A. And even Stockhausen was employing it over in Europe, for experimental works like “Mikrophonie II.”

And as arena and stadium shows, with their expected pyrotechnics, exploded in the 1970s,  organists such as Lee Michaels and Keith Emerson met the demand by juicing and stacking Leslies, while Brian Auger said the hell with it by mainlining directly into a set of Marshalls.  The world of jazz organ also demanded a heavier bottom, as ’70s record producers’ low-end theories sought electric bassists to buttress the B-3. Organ vets like McGriff, Groove Holmes, Shirley Scott, and Jimmy Smith knew they didn’t want a bass player, but hip-hop heads certainly were thankful (until the lawyers arrived) 20 years later for all that soul and funk jazz sample fodder. Prime example, the Beastie Boys even named a song after Smith’s “Root Down,” after ripping the groove, and named another “Groove Holmes,” arranged by “the fourth Beastie Boy” keyboardist Money Mark, after the group rediscovered their instrument-fiddling ways. Over the course of a half-century, the roots had indeed been put down.

So if the Hammond organ sound was so prevalent, and more than 1,000,000 organs were sold worldwide by the time Laurens Hammond died, at the age of 78 in 1973, how did his company eventually go bankrupt 12 years later, and did Don Leslie, who lived to be 93, have the last laugh?


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Update: The Hammond Co. ceased production in 1985, not in 1975, as we previously stated.





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