1934 was a landmark year that has resonated throughout eight decades: FDR laid out New Deal objectives and created the FDIC to protect consumers against Wall Street abuses, the first state liquor store opened in Pennsylvania, the notorious gangsters Bonnie & Clyde were gunned down, the National & American baseball leagues selected a uniform ball to play the game with, and Laurens Hammond invented the Hammond Electric Organ as an alternative to expensive wind-driven pipe organs.
The sound created by the Hammond in turn revolutionized the sound of music in the 1960s & 70s. It became a signature instrument for jazz, blues, rock, and gospel music with its addictive synthesis of waveforms created by mechanical tone-wheels, which created an ambient richness and full-bodied sound that - to sum it up in one word - is simply incomparable. Indeed, the Hammond B-3 became the instrument of choice for progressive rock bands such as Traffic, Yes and Blood, Sweat & Tears.
Although Hammond stopped making the B3 back in the late 1970s, it's sound has never been truly replicated - especially when paired through a rotating speaker cabinet called the Leslie, which emits sound through a rotating horn over a stationery treble driver and a rotating baffle beneath a bass woofer that creates a signature tone through the resulting pitch shifts that result from a Doppler effect created by the moving sound sources. And as Bob Seger proved in his break-out song Heavy Music, purity of sound comes at a heavy price: the weight of one B3 clocks in at 400 pounds and when married to a Leslie, you can add another 150 pounds into the mix.
While there is little doubt this added to many hip & knee replacements for roadies over the years, to hear music performed through a Hammond and a Leslie is a rich experience that is worth the sacrifice. And while the prospect of moving one-and-a-half tons of fun may be a roadies' nightmare, the prospect of hearing three Hammond organs speaking in unison on the same stage is decidedly a music-lovers dream.
So mark your calendars, because on Saturday, May 18th this dream is set to be realized in a special one-time live performance with musicians Michael Brush, Dan 'Swival' Sliwinski, and Richard Lay showcasing the Greatest Hits of the Hammond B3 Organ at the Grace A. Dow Memorial Library Auditorium. Featuring three B-3 Hammond organs on one stage, these three artisans will also be accompanied by a top-notch band consisting of Jim Fulkerson on drums, Jeff Hall on saxophone, Bryan Rombalski on guitar, Eddy Garcia on percussion, and Ryan Fitzgerald on bass.
With the genesis of the project starting from an idea that Fulkerson began incubating two years ago, schedules finally cohered to make the prospect of this harmonic convergence a reality. “I started thinking about how I knew three players that owned Hammond B3's and could play them really well,” explains Fulkerson, “so I pulled everybody together and we all decided it would be a cool thing to do.”
When asked what it is about the B3 that distinguishes it from other organs, all three musicians concur the key to the romance is with the sound of the instrument. “I started playing a small electronic Farfisa organ in the beginning,” explains Swival. This was the starting point for most young organists in live combos playing pop music. But then the bug bit. “When you have a real Hammond, it's a sound you'll never hear anywhere. I got my first one in 1971 that was a M1 - the model before the B3 - and have owned a half dozen since. I started buying them back when they were a dime a dozen and nobody waned one. You could say they were like cord wood back then but now are like poplar, because people didn't realize how good they were. Anyway, back in the late 1960s I went to see this band called Amphagas play at the Hidden Hollow and Dick Brown had a B3 and a special Leslie with double eliminator tops. It was screaming. I heard that sound and said to myself, ' I need to get one of those.'”
Brush concurs with Swival's assessment: “My first organ was a Silvertone and then I moved up to a Vox Jaguar. Then I bought a Hammond C model and carried that thing around, only it didn't have a Leslie speaker, which was kind of pointless. Back then we would carry it bodily, with no moving dollies. The one that I have now was bought 10 years ago from a family here in Midland that treated it like their 'baby'. It was custom installed in their living room and only moved once. The cables ran through the floor and when my wife and I went to check it out and inquire about purchasing it, we ended up getting interviewed for an hour as if we were adopting a baby,” laughs Brush. “This is the first time it's been out of the studio since I bought it.”
Rich Lay's first experience with the Hammond was a bit different: “My mother played a Spinet organ in church,” he explains, “and I would watch her play as a young kid and do the foot pedal thing. I was playing in bands by then and like the other guys had a cheesy Farfisa organ, which I eventually added a Leslie to. I wanted to emulate the sound of Booker T.”
“The first B3 player I ever heard was James Brown in concert,” continues Rich. “Brown wasn't a great player, but he had a lot of soul. Eventually I moved from California to Michigan and acquired my first Hammond, which was given to me. I gave this kid some lessons and he moved away to college and didn't know what to do with it, so he gave it to me. This happened 15 years ago. But the one I'll be playing in concert was purchased at an estate sale. The same scenario as Mike - this was brand new in 1957 and installed in a home. It never moved from the house and is the one I now have.”
One might assume that because of the numerous tonal drawbars involved with the B3, it would be a more difficult organ to master. But according to Swival, it's actually easier. “The keyboard fingers differently because of the way it's weighted,” he explains. “It's not like a synth or a piano. I've set up the touch on some B3s and there's a series of weights you can put on there and by adjusting the spring tension, all the keys will flow evenly. You can really fine tune the instrument.”
For their May 18th performance, the 'Three on the B3' will perform a mixture of jazz, blues, and rock oldies that everybody can recognize. “Even though we'll have three of the same organs on stage, everybody plays them differently and has a different style,” notes Swival. Brush concurs with this assessment: “During rehearsal we all commented on how that same instrument sounds so different with each guy that plays it. Everybody has their own approach to it because it's such a sensitive instrument.”
On the program, each musician will do a set and then all three with go at a rich combination of material, ranging from Cannonball Atterly and Booker T & the MG's to Jimmy Smith, Santana, and The Paul Butterfield Blues Band. “Even though the Sounds of the B3 is the focus, I'm really excited most about the band,” reflects Fulkerson. “We have some superb musicians in play and this is going to be a remarkable effort.”
But apart from the sound of the B3, is the romance behind it - the precision and meticulous craftsmanship built and hardwired into each model. “Actually, when you pull out the drawbars, which are called 'stops', and go through those tone changes, it alters the whole characteristic of the organ,” explains Swival. “You can go from a church organ to a nice bar sound in a heartbeat. While its true that digital voicings are sounding pretty good these days and you can model the sound of the B3 with computers well enough to fool 90 percent of the people with these clones, the differences are with the detailing.”
“There exists these tone wheels inside the organ that have wave shapes,” continues Swiv. “Some are saw-toothed on the higher frequencies and all of them are geared together with one motor that drives them. There is no separate tuning. All of these are synced in tune to a motor that runs at 60 cycles, unless the power goes out. Keith Emerson of Emerson, Lake & Palmer used to actually turn the organ on and off and you could hear it roar up and down because of that one mechanism, which is half the weight of the organ. It's so quiet you can hardly hear the motor running. Actually, it's like a fine-tuned clock.” (At this juncture, Rich Lay points out that Keith Emerson also used to stick knives in the cabinet of his organ, too - a point which everybody shares a hearty laugh over.)
“I play the Hammond in church and for me the beauty is its dynamic capability,” reflects Rich. “It can go from a whisper to a roar. You can take it down to a point where you can barely hear it and then when you need it you pull out the stops and hit the power and the sound is right there in a heartbeat. You can't do that with a piano. A piano has weighted action and an organ doesn't have that. You can float over the keys and do things like 'smears'. There's a lot available to you on a B3.”
“Actually, Hammond had a whole series of organs that had the same internal mechanism and the only difference between the model numbers was the cabinetry,” explains Rich. “The Hammond C series was for 'Churches'; and the B series had 4 legs. It was designed for 'Bars, whereas the 'C' series has a back on it, so if a lady was playing it in church and hitting the foot pedals and wearing a skirt she could still stay modest,' right? The A100 is the model I play. It's like a Hammond B or C on steroids. It has an amp built into it and speakers, so it doesn't really need a Leslie per se. Of course the weight of this puts my model up to 450 pounds. It has three 12-inch speakers and 2 more amps on board. And then the R3 series was designed for theatre guild people, with 32 radiating bass pedals. It feels different and has a bigger case, but the generator is exactly the same.”
I'm also curious as to who the 'defining' artists are that these three feel stood out in terms of establishing the power and sound of the B3? “For me its Keith Emerson, Greg Allman and Brian Auger,” states Swival. As for Brush, he points out that they influences are too numerous to mention. “Actually, the Hammond sound has become an iconic thing,” notes Brush. “If you look on computers and digital voicing software, the icon they use for an organ sound is the B3, which says it all.”
But for Rich Lay, the pivotal godfather was Jimmy Smith. “He was like the father of organ jazz,” explains Rich. “He woodshed for a year and figured out how to make the B3 play jazz and run a bass line. That's when bass players started hating him, because it meant more money for the other musicians. But the interesting thing is that all of Jimmy Smith's recordings on Blue Note were all done on a Hammond C3. And again, the only difference we're talking here is the cabinet design - the 'box', as it were.”
In the final estimation, though, Brush sums up the allure of the B3 in simple terms: “It's all about the live performance and the physical thing that happens in that space of air between the musician, the instrument, and the audience.”
“Nothing sounds like that because of the physics involved - the acoustical effect that fills the room. You simply can't replicate it.”
The Greatest Hits of the Hammond B-3 Organ will take place on Saturday, May 18th at the Grace A Dow Memorial Library Auditorium in Midland at 7:00 PM. Tickets are $12.00 general admission.