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An Instrument that Remade Jazz, Rock, Soul and R&B

Hammond Organ Closeup (Public Domain)

The Hammond organ is one of the most beguiling instruments ever devised. It’s the gritty, soulful underbelly of so many fabulous tunes that some entire genres can’t be imagined without it. Think “Gimme Some Lovin'” by Spencer Davis Group, “A Whiter Shade of Pale” by Procol Harum, the MG’s “Green Onions” and countless mid-century jazz trios. Masters like Booker T. Jones, Keith Emerson, Gregg Allman, Billy Preston and jazzer Jimmy Smith each brought their own voices to this remarkably versatile instrument.

Still, we seldom take a moment to think about the Hammond itself – developed only about 80 years ago to give churches a cheaper, more portable alternative to conventional pipe organs. (Anyone who has lugged a Hammond B3, and its companion speakers, the revolving Leslies, to a gig would absolutely quarrel about the whole “portable” thing.)

Fortunately, a new NPR report helps us understand not only the organ’s history – but also why and how it slid into popular music via artists from the Deep South who invented new techniques for it, adapted its expressive voices and phrasing to a wide range of styles and developed the percussive keyboarding action now so characteristic of the Hammond.

Take a listen to this short piece on the Hammond. And you’ll probably end up tapping your feet.

Steve Harty

Photo Credit: Hammond Organ closeup courtesy of Pixabay (Public Domain)

PS.  While we’re at it, you might enjoy other CultureSonar articles about great musicians: These Guys Were REALLY Behind the Music profiles some of the greatest-ever studio players; When a Beatle Wrote with Elvis should be relatively self-explanatory; as are Why Doesn’t Anyone Record Squeeze’s Songs? and That’s My Jam. If you’re looking for an awesome new band, check out our piece on Lake Street Dive.

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6 comments on “An Instrument that Remade Jazz, Rock, Soul and R&B

  1. Pingback: Clapton. Then SRV. Now Gary Clark Jr? - CultureSonar | Entertainment News Articles - Boomer Film, Music, TV

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    Mark T. Jordan

    For all the author’s credentials, this “article” was a disappointment. The blurb implies that the reader will find out about the Hammond’s origins, but other than listing the musicians who have popularized it, there is nothing about how this instrument came to be. Mr. Harty could have talked about Hammond being a clock maker before his engineers came up with the “tone wheel,” the element that forms the backbone of the organ; but no; He could have talked about Hammond’s three attempts to have the instrument patented (the first two were rejected, and it was not until he convened a group of musicologists in a church with a pipe organ where he had installed a Hammond as a comparison, and the group signed an affidavit that what they were hearing was indeed an organ, that the Patent Office relented and granted the application), but no; He could have brought up the story of David Leslie, the inventor of the Hammond tone cabinet, and how this organ-and-speaker combination became inseparable despite Hammond’s dislike of Leslie; but no. In other words, an article short on the very information it promised to reveal. Nice work if you can get it, Mr. Harty, it goes down like angel food cake – all air and no flavor.

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      That would be DON Leslie Mark. He invented the Leslie speaker NOT the Hammond tone cabinet. Original Hammond tone cabinets-created by Hammond for Hammonds (e.g., PR-40s etc.) had STATIONARY speakers.
      The Leslie Speaker had ROTARY speakers with high frequency horns in the top and a bass speaker facing downward into a spinning baffled drum in the bottom (e.g., models 122, 147, 145 etc.) This provided “mechanical animation” giving the sound of the organ as sense of movement throughout the room (Doppler effect) and could be switched between slow (chorale) and fast (tremelo) speeds. Leslie designed models for other organ makes and models as well but certainly his signature and most popular models were those made for Hammonds.
      You are absolutely right about Laurens Hammond’s dislike for Don Leslie though. That said, Leslie’s creation was probably one of the most important contributions to the continued popularity and success of Hammond tonewheel organs until they were discontinued in the 70s.

  3. Avatar

    Look inside one. I’m not sure any country today could even manufacture one, certainty not and make a profit…even if there was a demand.

    I’ve lugged these around for my brother, who has played the B3 with the likes of Billy Gibbons, Steve Miller, and Jimmie Vaughan. After moving it I often wished he had learned to play the harmonica. Finding a knowledgeable Hammond repairman is about impossible. Same with parts. Enjoy the sounds now. Won’t be around in 15-20 years.

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      Sorry but I must disagree. Hammond organs will last indefinitely. They were over engineered and built to last. They are virtually indestructible.
      There is a worldwide network of buffs, collectors, technicians and performers as well as a groundswell of new generation fans and artists who appreciate these classic American instruments. If you don’t believe me just Google Hammond organs.
      For decades attempts have been made to replicate the authentic Hammond sound first by sampling and later digital technology.
      Often imitated, never duplicated.
      The electro-mechanical sound generation of a tonewheel Hammond combined with the electro-mechanical sound animation through Leslie rotary speakers is unique and unmistakable.
      It’s 1930s technology and still works perfectly.
      I have four Hammonds in my home and have owned over a dozen in a career spanning fifty years.
      No two ever sound exactly alike. Each has it’s own distinct personality and quirks.
      To those of us who love and play them that they are living, breathing animals who will perform beautifully for anyone who respects, appreciates and is willing to tame them.
      Hammond organs will be around and working perfectly long after any of us are gone.
      Long live the King.

  4. Avatar

    Sorry but I must disagree. A well cared for Hammond will last indefinitely. They were over engineered and built to last. There is an active worldwide network of buffs, collectors, technicians and performers. There is also a groundswell of new generation fans and artists. If you don’t believe me just google Hammond Organ.
    These instruments are American Classics and the combination of electro-mechanical tonewheel sound generation and electro-mechanical sound animation through Leslie rotary speakers is unique and unmistakable.
    For decades attempts have been made to copy the authentic Hammond/Leslie sound via sampling and digital technology. Simply said, often imitated never duplicated.
    I have four Hammonds in my home and have owned over a dozen in a career spanning 50 years. No two sound exactly alike. Each one has it’s own individual quirks, moods and personality.
    To those of us who know, love and play these incredible instruments they are living, breathing animals who will perform beautifully for anyone who respects, appreciates and is willing to learn how to tame them.
    Hammond organs will be around and working perfectly long after any of us are gone.
    Long live the King.

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