PWC logo1.pg
    Home     |      Rants and other Reading Matter       |    Pics     |    Music     |   Links      |     Humor in Poor Taste
Reprinted without permission from
The Wall Street Journal
New York
January 8, 2002

The Death and Rebirth of the Hammond B-3

 LOOKING THROUGH the open doorway of the rehearsal studio on W. 41st St., you can't miss it. There, encased in a beat-up, wooden, four-legged cabinet, is the two-manual keyboard and 16 foot pedals. Behind the cabinet are two wooden boxes the size of small refrigerators - speakers pouring out a wavery, watery, instantly recognizable sound. The Hammond B-3 organ.

 If you hear an organ in popular music, chances are it's a B-3. It's the trembly humming behind Eric Clapton in "The Sky Is Crying," and the noodling around Mahalia Jackson when she sings "Jesus Met the Woman at the Well." It's what Jimmy Smith uses to stomp out the beat in "Got My Mojo Workin'." It's the locus of the impossibly dense chords that hit the listener in the solar plexus when Rhoda Scott plays just about anything.

 The Hammond B-3 is a wonderfully diverse instrument. Some call it an orchestra in a box, which is probably going a bit too far, but in jazz the B-3 can supply at least two-thirds of a rhythm section (piano and bass). It can sound like a saxophone noodling or someone singing. But its value goes far beyond the sounds it can mimic.

 "It's really the most beautiful instrument in the world," says Ms. Scott. She started fooling around on the Hammond organ in her father's church when she was seven. "The first thing I did was take my shoes off and work the pedals."

 She kicked off her shoes again recently in Alice Tully Hall for an "Organ Summit," presented by Jazz at Lincoln Center, a loving tribute to an unsung instrument and a roof-raiser of a concert.  The Summit brought together outstanding saxophonists, including Houston Person and James Carter, and guitarists, including Pat Martino and Randy Johnston, and four members of the B-3 fraternity: In addition to Ms. Scott, there were elder statesman Jimmy McGriff, whose first record, "I Got a Woman," was an R&B hit in 1962; Dr. Lonnie Smith, who worked with guitarist George Benson and saxophonist Lou Donaldson; and Joey DeFrancesco, who is only 30 but is generally recognized
as the man who saved the B-3 from extinction.

 Extinction? Yep. The last electric Hammond B-3s were made in 1975. When the synthesizer swept the scene in the 1970s, its influence was so pervasive that many organists unloaded their B-3s for $100 and switched to synth or piano. Even the Hammond Organ Co. lost faith. It began building electronic and digital organs; today's "XB-3" replicates the B-3 sound down to the idiosyncratic "key click" and has a digital memory and extras like choir and strings accompaniment.

 Mr. DeFrancesco endorses the new digital Hammond organs, but he also owns "eight or nine" of the old B-3s (which now cost up to $15,000), plus 10 external Leslie speakers. Although he went through a synthesizer phase when he was 14 and "trying to be modern," and still plays them, he says, "For my main sound, it's the organ."

 He is a bear of a man, with long black hair and a beard, and he's an aggressive, muscular player. When his big feet tap the pedals to sound the bass line, it's almost a confrontation. When the thick fingers of his right hand start running up and down the upper manual, stand back. He likes to make the B-3 blare like a trumpet, which he also plays and which reminds him of Miles Davis, with whom he performed while still in high school.

 The synth craze passed Ms. Scott by, too, for other reasons. She is American but has lived in France since 1968, and Europeans never took to the synthesizer the way Americans did. Organ jazz continued to thrive in festivals and recordings and in the municipal concert series that are part and parcel of French cultural life.

 The elegant Ms. Scott has slim feet that dance quickly over the pedals, hardly seeming to make contact-she plays shoeless. But she swings hard, like Count Basie, in whose club she used to perform in Harlem.

 The gospel influence, too, is audible in the way the pulse is always pushing forward. She served as organist in her father's church even as she copied out, note for note from the record. Jimmy Smith's organ solo in "Walk on the Wild Side," and hit various Jersey night spots with her sax-drums-organ trio.

 What is it about the B-3 that is so inspiring to its players? "You're playing solos with the right hand," Mr. DeFrancesco says. "The left hand is walking the bass line. Your left foot is tapping the pedals, giving the 'thump,' like a bass player plucking the string. Your right foot is on the expression pedal, controlling the volume. You've got all four limbs
 working." Mr. DeFrancesco doesn't mention the drawbars, probably because they are second nature. They function like pipe organ stops; you push them in and pull them out to vary the timbre continuously.

 And then there's the Leslie, the speaker named after its designer, Don Leslie. Its open back reveals a cone-shaped horn and a rotating disk that looks like a black Frisbee spinning drunkenly on its edge. If you slow it down by means of the expression pedal, the result is a wide and lazy tremolo-"a gorgeous sound," says Ms. Scott.

 The Hammond organ was an immediate success when it was introduced in 1935. Its first buyers were churches, happy to find a low-cost alternative to the pipe organ. After World War II, the organ moved into the living room. Even as Sly and the Family Stone was rocking the world with "(I Want to Take You) Higher" in 1969 (with Sly Stone on organ), Hammond continued to market the instrument for home use, virtually ignoring the rockers. The organ's corny image was perpetuated, no doubt, by Earl Grant, who, on regular visits to "The Ed Sullivan Show," produced the sound of the surf by means of certain drawbar combinations and the palm of his left hand while fingering the
 melody of "Ebb Tide" with his right.

 So the instrument that started out as a moderately priced, 1,150-pound alternative to the pipe organ actually superceded it, in a way, through diversity. Ms. Scott plays pipe organs, too, and is in fact now on tour playing jazz in German churches, but complains that the church organ is not "malleable": "You can't take it and shake it. There's the organ and then there's you. With the B-3 you're all together."

Editorial note: There are a number of factual errors in this article, but I figured I'd post it just the way it was printed.  It's great to see the B-3 still getting some attention 25+ years after the last one left the factory.

    Home     |      Rants and other Reading Matter       |    Pics     |    Music     |   Links      |     Humor in Poor Taste