Time again for a dose of music history, which has recurred irregularly since June 2016 and is my longest running feature on the blog. For any new visitors, in a nutshell, the idea is to look at events that happened on a certain date throughout rock and pop history. As always, the selections reflect my music taste and do not aim to present a full account. With that, let’s embark on some music time travel!
1958: An obscure band called The Quarrymen hit the Cavern Club in London for their first live performance. They were billed as The Quarry Men Skiffle Group. “They’d only been playing for a short while so you wouldn’t expect them to be any good…,” recalled Cavern owner Alan Sytner. “At the time, they couldn’t play to save their lives and all I can remember is their cheek and their chat.” While it hasn’t been definitively documented, The Quarrymen are believed to have performed at the Cavern Club on several other occasions. Four years later, the group would change the music world forever with a different line-up. Their name? The Beatles. Here’s In Spite of All the Danger, one of the first songs recorded by The Quarrymen. Co-written by Paul McCartney and George Harrison, the tune is thought to have been recorded sometime between May and July 1958. It was shortly after Harrison (guitar, vocals) had joined the band, which at the time apart from McCartney (vocals, guitar) also featured John Lennon (vocals, guitar), John Lowe (piano) and Colin Hunton (drums).
1958: While The Quarrymen were getting their feet wet the Cavern Club, a music phenomenon from the U.S. stood at no. 1 of the UK singles chart: Elvis Presley. Jailhouse Rock became the first-ever single to enter the chart at no. 1 and was the second no. 1 for Elvis in the UK after All Shook Up. Co-written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Jailhouse Rock was the title track of the picture of the same name that had hit the widescreen in September 1957. It also topped the charts in the U.S. and Canada and reached the top 10 in several other countries.
1967:Pink Floyd were at Sound Techniques Studios in Chelsea, London, to work on their debut single Arnold Layne, backed by Candy and a Currant Bun. Both tracks were written by the band’s initial leader Syd Barrett. When the band performed the latter tune live in 1967, it was titled Let’s Roll Another One and included the line I’m high – Don’t try to spoil my fun. Columbia (EMI) didn’t like the obvious references to drugs and forced Barrett to change the title and rewrite the corresponding line. Songfacts notes the outcome was still strange since the lyrics included the word “f–k,” making it one of the first songs to use the expletive.
1970:Dr. Robert Moog unveiled the Minimoog at a price of $2,000, an analogue synthesizer designed as a portable, simplified instrument that combined the most useful components of the Moog synthesizer in a single device. It became the first synthesizer sold in retail stores and quickly gained popularity among progressive rock and jazz musicians. It also ended up being widely used in disco, pop, rock and electronic music. Not everybody was enthusiastic. According to Songfacts Music History Calendar, The American Federation of Musicians feared the Minimoog’s realistic sounds would put horn and string sections out of business. Yes keyboarder Rick Wakeman, an early adopter of the Minimoog, said the synthesizer “absolutely changed the face of music.”
1975:Elton John, who was flying high, topped the Billboard 200 with his first compilation album Greatest Hits, bringing to a close an impressive 9-week run in the no. 1 spot. It became the most sold album of 1975 in the U.S. and remains his best-selling t0 date. The compilation, which featured 10 of John’s biggest singles, also topped the charts in Australia, Canada and the UK. Here’s one of my all-time favorites, Rocket Man(I Think It’s Going to Be a Long, Long Time). Composed by John with lyrics by his longtime collaborator Bernie Taupin, the tune was first released as a single in March 1972 and included on John’s fifth studio album Honky Château that came out in May of the same year.
Sources: Wikipedia; The Beatles Bible; This Day in Music; Songfacts; Songfacts Music History Calendar; Billboard.com; YouTube
A selection of newly released music that caught my attention
Welcome to the first installment of Best of What’s New for 2021. Hope everybody had a great and safe transition into the new year. I don’t you how you feel, but I’ve already forgotten 2020 – I wish, but well, not quite. In any case, good riddance and hopefully on to a better year!
I’m kicking off the year with three lesser known bands/artists and something new by a band that had their heyday in the ’70s: Badfinger. Yep, you read that correctly, though there are some caveats. It’s really Joey Molland, the only surviving member from their classic line-up who with a little help from some friends has come out with newly recorded versions of Badfinger tunes. Are you ready? Let’s get to it!
The Dirty Nil/Done with Drugs
Yes, as hard as it’s to believe, there are actually some new music releases dated January 1st, though based on Apple Music, I could only find a handful. One is from The Dirty Nil, a Canadian alternative rock band from Hamilton, Ontario. They were formed in 2006 after their members Luke Bentham (vocals, guitar), Ross Miller (bass) and Kyle Fisher (drums) had started playing together in high school. The band’s debut single Fuckin’ Up Young in 2011 was followed by a series of additional singles and EPs before they released their first full-length studio album High Power in 2016. In 2017, The Dirty Nil won the Canadian Juno Award for Breakthrough Group of the Year. Done with Drugs is from their new album out today cheerfully titled Fuck Art. The song “is actually my commentary on people’s interaction with social media and posting all their resolutions and stuff on the internet, which I just find fascinating…rather than just making life decisions by themselves and being private about it,” Bentham told Apple Music. The band, which combines punk and grunge music with relatively catchy melodies, reminds me a bit of Green Day.
Jarod Clemons and The Late Nights/Ramblewood Parkway
Ramblewood Parkway, a great blues rocker, is the new single by Jarod Clemons and The Late Nights, which was released on December 25. I’ve written before about this New Jersey rock band led by singer-songwriter and guitarist Jarod Clemons, the youngest son of the late Clarence Clemons, the amazing saxophone player of Bruce Springsteen’sE Street Band. Founded in June 2019, the band also includes Zach Tyler (guitar, backing vocals), Stephen Verdi (keyboards), Alex Fuhring (bass) and John DiNunzio (drums/percussion).
Henry Nowhere/Sad Songs
Henry Nowhere couldn’t have chosen a better stage name, since background information on him is nowhere to be found. Neither his Facebook page nor his Soundcloud include a profile. I’m sorry but I really don’t get it, especially in this day and age! After a bit of detective work, I came across this Billboardstory, which provided some clues. Born Henry Moser, he used to be the touring bassist for Day Wave, an Oakland, Calif. indie rock project formed by musician Jackson Phillips in 2015. In September 2018, Nowhere struck out by himself with an EP, Not Going Back. Again, the title appears to have been appropriate, since Nowhere evidently has continued his solo career and released what appears to be his second EP on December 18: Think About Me. Which definitely would be easier with more of an online presence! Anyway, here’s Sad Songs.
Badfinger featuring Sonny Landreth/Suitcase
Joey Molland, the only surviving member from Badfinger’s classic line-up, has been pretty busy lately. Apart from releasing Be True to Yourself in mid October, his first new solo album in 10 years, Molland has teamed up with different guest artists to put out new versions of various Badfinger songs this year, all released under the Badfinger name. The most recent example is a great remake of Suitcase featuring Sonny Landreth on slide guitar, which appeared December 8. Written by Molland, Suitcase originally was included on Badfinger’s fourth studio album Straight Up, which was first released in the U.S. in December 1971. Other previous newly recorded Badfinger tunes include Midnight Caller (with The Legendary Pink Dots – October 26), Come and Get It (with Rick Wakeman – September 29), Day After Day (with Ian Anderson and Terry Reid – July 30) and Baby Blue (with Matthew Sweet – May 28).
Sources: Wikipedia; Facebook; Billboard; Apple Music; YouTube
Whether you like glam rock or T. Rex for that matter or not, Get It On just is a great rock tune – simple with only three chords, yet brilliant. Really one of my favorite ’70s rock tunes!
T. Rex were officially inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Ringo Starr last night. Under normal circumstances, this would have been a live event in February, but due to COVID-19, it was postponed and became a virtual TV show on HBO, which honored each inductee with a mini-documentary.
Written by T. Rex frontman Marc Bolan and released in July 1971, Get it On became the band’s second no. 2 hit in the UK and their most successful U.S. single peaking at no. 10 on the Billboard Hot 100. In fact, Bolan penned the tune during a U.S. tour specifically for the U.S. where it was retitled Bang a Gong (Get It On), hoping it would raise the band’s profile there. But glam rock never became as popular in America as it did in the UK.
According to Songfacts, Bolan worked out the track’s rhythm with T. Rex drummer Bill Legend. When the band got to L.A. as part of their tour, Get it On was recorded at Wally Heider Studios. While the rhythm, chorus and the line “you’re dirty and sweet” were in place, Bolan had to come up with the remaining lyrics on the spot. The last line, “Meanwhile, I’m still thinking…” is taken from Chuck Berry’sLittle Queenie, a tune Bolan had in mind when writing Get It On.
In addition to Bolan and Legend, the recording featured then-future Yes member Rick Wakeman (piano, Hammond), former King Crimson member Ian McDonald (saxophone), T. Rex bassist Steve Currie, as well as Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman (backing vocals) of The Turtles. Get It On was also included on the band’s sixth studio album Electric Warrior released in September 1971, the first under the (shortened) T. Rex name and their most successful record.
The electro-mechanical keyboards are known for amazing sound capabilities and quirks
Yesterday, when all my troubles seemed so far away, I came across this YouTubedemo of the Mellotron. It reminded me what a cool musical instrument this type of keyboard is and that I hadn’t done a “hardware” post since this one about the Vox Continental from August 2018. Two great reasons for a new installment, don’t you agree? 🙂
I realize writing about musical gear can quickly get you into geeky territory. As a hobby musician, I can’t deny I get easily excited when it comes to instruments and their sounds and looks. I guess you could call that geeky. At the same time, I’m not exactly a tech wiz – in fact, far from it! As such, I mostly approach gear posts from the sound (and looks) side and keep the tech side relatively light.
Which brings me to the Mellotron. The first time I ever heard this marvelous keyboard in action, I didn’t realize I was listening to a Mellotron. Clever, huh? Well, it’s true. I suppose more frequent visitors of the blog may already have an idea where I’m going with this. I’ll give you a hint: Four lads from Liverpool…
Strawberry Fields Forever. Undoubtedly, my fellow Beatles fans already knew that! 🙂 This John Lennon gem from 1967, which was co-credited to him and Paul McCartney as usual, is perhaps the most famous example in pop rock of a Mellotron in action. I’m particularly referring to the beautiful flute sound intro, which was played by McCartney. According to The Beatles Bible, George Martin and Lennon also played two Mellotron parts, using the ‘swinging flutes’ and, towards the end of the song, ‘piano riff’ settings.
I could easily dedicate an entire post to Strawberry Fields Forever, which was one of the most complex tunes The Beatles ever recorded. Perhaps one day I will, but for now, let’s get back to the Mellotron and some history, as well as an attempt to explain how the mighty instrument works, based on my ingenious tech understanding. 🙂 And, of course, I’ll wrap things up with some examples that illustrate what Mellotron keyboards can do!
Let’s start with the technology. Fortunately, there’s Wikipedia! Basically, the Mellotron is what’s called a sampler, meaning it samples music instruments and other sounds, but instead of relying on digital sampling like the modern samplers do, it’s based on analogue samples recorded on audio tapes – essentially like an old-fashioned tape deck! When a player presses a key, a tape that’s connected to it gets pushed against a playback head, which in turn generates the sound. Once released, the tape moves back in its default position.
The tapes in a Mellotron include recordings of actual instruments, voices and other sounds, which is pretty neat when you think about it. Each tape recording lasts for about 8 seconds. This means a player cannot indefinitely hold down a key and get a sound – one of the instrument’s many quirks. There are others. As Sound on Soundexplains, the Mellotron had 35 tape heads and other interconnected hardware, which made it quite challenging to maintain from a mechanical perspective.
For example, if the springs that pull back the tapes to their start position malfunction, this could mean the sampled sound only starts in the middle of the tape, and a player would have even less than 8 seconds of sound; or I suppose no sound at all, if the spring gets stuck in a completely extended position. There are different Mellotron models, so I’m not sure they all have 35 tape heads. My point here is to illustrate the instrument’s delicacy!
As you’d expect, the Mellotron offers a variety of sounds. From Wikipedia: On earlier models, the instrument is split into “lead” and “rhythm” sections. There is a choice of six “stations” of rhythm sounds, each containing three rhythm tracks and three fill tracks. The fill tracks can also be mixed together.
Similarly, there is a choice of six lead stations, each containing three lead instruments which can be mixed. In the centre of the Mellotron, there is a tuning button that allows a variation in both pitch and tempo. Later models do not have the concept of stations and have a single knob to select a sound, along with the tuning control. However, the frame containing the tapes is designed to be removed, and replaced with one with different sounds.
Okay, I promised to keep it “light” on the technology, so the above shall be sufficient. Next, I’d like to touch on the Mellotron’s history. While tape samplers had been explored in research studios, it wasn’t until 1962 that the instrument’s commercial concept originated. And it took a little help not exactly from a friend, as would become clear later.
Bill Fransen, a sales agent for the California-based maker of the Chamberlin electro-mechanical keyboards, took two Chamberlin Musicmaster 600 instruments to England to find a suitable manufacturer that could make tape heads for future Chamberlin keyboards. He met Frank Bradley, Norman Bradley and Les Bradley of tape engineering company Bradmatic Ltd. in Birmingham. The Bradleys told him they could advance the original instrument design, and keyboard history started to change.
The Bradleys subsequently teamed up with BBC music conductor Eric Robinson, who not only agreed to arrange the recording of the necessary instruments and sounds for the tapes but also to help finance the effort. They also pulled in English magician and TV personality David Nixon and formed Mellotronics, a company to produce and market the Mellotron.
In 1963, Mellotronics started making the Mk I, the first commercially manufactured model of the Mellotron. The following year, the company introduced the Mk II, an updated version featuring the full set of sounds selectable by banks and stations. There are multiple other models that were developed thereafter, including the M400, which is pictured on top of this post and became a particular popular version.
There was only one hiccup. Fransen had never told the Bradleys that he wasn’t the original owner of the Chamberlin concept. Suffice to say the California company wasn’t exactly pleased that a British competitor essentially had copied their technology. After some back and forth, the two companies eventually agreed that each would be allowed to continue manufacture instruments independently.
In the ’70s, the Mellotron name was acquired by American company Sound Sales. After 1976, Bradmatic that had renamed themselves Streetly Electronics in 1970, manufactured and sold Mellotron type keyboards under the Novatron brand name. But eventually, the advent of modern electronic samplers caught up with both companies. As a result, they found themselves in dire financial straits by the mid ’80s. In 1986, Streetly folded altogether.
In 1989, Les Bradley’s son John Bradley and Martin Smith, who had built Mellotron keyboards for the Bradleys at the original factory in Birmingham, England, revived Streetly Electronics as a Mellotron support and refurbishment business. The company exists to this day. In 2007, they also developed a new model that became the M4000. It combined features of several previous models with the layout and chassis of the popular M400 but with a digital bank selector that emulated the mechanical original in the Mk II.
If you’re still with me, let’s now move on to the post’s final and actual fun section: Seeing and hearing Mellotron keyboards in action. And while many things in pop music start with The Beatles, the Mellotron is one of the exceptions that prove the rule! Apparently, in the mid ’60s, English multi-instrumentalist Graham Bond became the first rock artist to record with a Mellotron. He also was an early user of the legendary Hammond organ and Leslie speaker combination. Here’s Baby Can It Be True from The Graham Bond Organization’s 1965 sophomore album There’s a Bond Between Us. Per Wikipedia, the tune was the first hit song to feature a Mellotron Mk II.
Another early adopter of the Mellotron was Mike Pinder, who had worked as a tester at Streetly Electronics (then still called Bradmatic) for 18 months in the early 1960s and became the keyboarder and co-founder of The Moody Blues in 1964. Pinder started using the Mellotron extensively on each of the band’s albums from Days of Future Passed (1967) to Octave (1978). Here’s one of the former record’s absolute gems written by Justin Hayward: Tuesday Afternoon (Forever Afternoon). In addition to Mellotron, the album used plenty of actual orchestration.
And since it was Pinder who introduced The Beatles to the Mellotron, now it’s time to come back to Strawberry Fields Forever. Notably, George Martin was less than excited about the Mellotron, reportedly describing it “as if a Neanderthal piano had impregnated a primitive electronic keyboard” – ouch! Probably, he was referring to some of the instrument’s quirks I mentioned above! The Beatles still ended up using various Mellotron keyboards on their albums Magical Mystery Tour and The White Album.
Another well-known user of the Mellotron was Rick Wakeman. Before joining Yes in 1971, Wakeman was a full-time session musician. Among others, this included work with David Bowie on his second eponymous studio album and the mighty Space Oddity. As reported by Ultimate Classic Rock, the initial idea was for Wakeman to play a guide track with the Mellotron that would be replaced by an actual orchestra. But producer Tony Visconti decided to keep Wakeman’s Mellotron part.
Let’s do a few more Mellotron examples from the ’70s. These selections are taken from the previously noted Ultimate Classic Rock piece. First up: And You And I, a tune from Close to the Edge, the fifth studio album by Yes released in September 1972. The more than 10-minute track was co-written by Jon Anderson, Steve Howe (except the Eclipse section), Chris Squire and Bill Bruford. Wakeman used the Mellotron to capture stings, brass and flutes sounds, especially during the tune’s Eclipse section.
One month later, in October 1972, Genesis released their fourth studio album Foxtrot. Here’s the opener Watcher of the Skies, which like all of the record’s tracks was credited to all members of the band. Ultimate Classic Rock notes the sound of the Mellotron created by Tony Banks turned out to be so popular that the manufacturer introduced a “Watcher Mix” sound on the next version of the keyboard – pretty cool in my book!
Since all things must pass including epic gear blog posts, let’s wrap up things with one final – and I might add particularly mighty – example of Mellotron use: Kashmir, from Led Zeppelin’s sixth studio album Physical Graffiti, which came out in February 1975. Credited to Jimmy Page, Robert Plant and John Bonham, the closer of Side 2 of the double LP features plenty of orchestration arranged by John Paul Jones. This includes both Mellotron strings and an actual string and brass section. While this makes it tricky to distinguish between the Mellotron and “real instruments”, Ultimate Classic Rock notes, The consensus is that Jones’s fake strings are heard during the “All I see turns to brown…” bridge (starting around 3:25) and join up with the actual strings in the tune’s closing minutes, adding a weird and wonderful effect.
This post focused on the use of the Mellotron during its most popular period from the mid ’60s to the second half of the ’70s. One can also find occasional examples thereafter like Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark and XTC on albums they released during the first half of the ’80s, as well as Oasis and Radiohead on recordings made during the second half of the ’90s. I think it’s safe to assume some keyboarders continue to use Mellotrons to this day, though with the modern digital samplers, it has to be a niche product.
Sources: Wikipedia; The Beatles Bible; Sound on Sound; Streetly Electronics website; Ultimate Classic Rock; YouTube
Here’s an artist I pretty much had forgotten about, even though I dig many of his songs – until yesterday, when I spotted Tea For The Tillerman as a listening suggestion in my streaming music service. It immediately took me back to my teenage days in Germany when I was taking guitar lessons and learning Cat Stevens tunes like Lady D’Arbanville and Father And Son. And before I knew it, I was strumming my acoustic to see whether I could still remember the chords of the latter – I did, and while I rarely grab my guitar these days and my playing has become rusty, it still felt great!
Once I had Father And Son on my mind, other tunes popped up: Morning Has Broken, Peace Train, Miles From Nowhere, Moonshadow – so much great music written by this British artist who I feel has rightly been called one of the great singer-writers during his heyday in the ’70s, along with James Taylor, Carole King and others. At the same time, I can’t think of another popular music artist who has had such an unusual and at times tumultuous journey as Yusuf/Cat Stevens, as he is known today.
Born Steven Georgiou on July 21, 1948 in London, U.K. to Stavros Georgiou, a Greek Cypriot, and Ingrid Wickman from Sweden, Stevens started his recording career as an 18-year-old in 1966. He pretty much had immediate success in the U.K. His first single I Love My Dog charted at no. 28. The song was also included on Stevens’ debut album Matthew And Son, which appeared in March 1967. Not only did the title track climb to no. 2 on the UK Singles Chart, but the record became a top 10 album, peaking at no. 7.
In 1969, Stevens almost died from tuberculosis. Not only did this traumatic experience impact his future music, but it also started a spiritual journey that eventually would lead him to convert to the Muslim faith in December 1977 and give up his music career. But before that he had reached international stardom with a series of albums in the early ’70s, including the above mentioned Tea For The Tillerman.
In 1989, Stevens, who by then was known as Yusuf Islam, returned to the spotlight, but it wasn’t the kind of attention he had looked for. Comments he had made were widely seen as endorsing a death fatwa against author Salman Rushdie related to his novel The Satanic Verses. The reaction was harsh, especially in the U.S. Some radio stations banned his music, and a radio host in LA even called for a mass burning of Stevens’ records. The band 10,000 Maniacs, which had covered Peace Train on their 1987 album In My Tribe, decided to remove the track from later releases.
While Stevens repeatedly maintained his remarks had been misunderstood, he also said his comments were foolish. I don’t have enough insights to come to a definitive conclusion here and it’s also not my place to judge. But I think if this controversy had occurred today in the age of social media, Yusuf would have been finished as a music artist.
Starting from the mid-1990s, Yusuf Islam resumed his recording activity with a series of albums focused on Islamic themes. In November 2006, he released An Other Cup, his first all-new pop album in 27 years. Three additional such records have since come out. His most recent album from September 2017 is called The Laughing Apple. Let’s get to some music.
I’d like to start with the above mentioned Matthew & Son, the title track of Stevens’ debut album from March 1967. Like all other songs on the record except for one, the catchy tune was written by Stevens. BTW, it features John Paul Jones on bass. The then-session musician joined the New Yardbirds the following year, the band that subsequently changed their name to Led Zeppelin.
Stevens’ sophomore release New Masters didn’t get much attention, but it includes a tune I’ve always liked: The First Cut Is The Deepest. Rod Stewart turned the song into a no. 1 single in the U.K. in 1977. Another well-known version is the cover by Sheryl Crow, who included it on her 2003 best of compilation, scoring a no. 14 hit on the Billboard Hot 100.
In April 1970, Stevens released his third studio album Mona Bone Jakon. His near-death experience with TB had changed him. The tone of his lyrics had become darker. Another contrast to his first two albums was a more stripped back sound, which I love. Initially, the record was a modest success but received more attention after the release of the follow-on Tea For The Tillerman. Here’s the opener Lady D’Arbanville, one of several songs Stevens wrote about former girlfriend Patti D’Arbanville, a model and later an actress. I’ve always dug the cool guitar part on this tune.
Another great track from Mona Bone Jakon is Katmandu featuring then 20-year-old Peter Gabriel on flute. It’s just a beautiful tune!
Next up: Wild World from Tea For The Tillerman, Stevens’ fourth studio album released in November 1970, and his commercial breakthrough. It’s another tune about his ex-girlfriend Patti D’Arbanville.
Also appearing on the album is Father And Son, one of my favorite Cat Stevens songs.
In October 1971, Stevens released his fifth studio album Teaser And The Firecat, another gem in his catalog. Among the tracks I find particularly beautiful is Morning Has Broken. According to Wikipedia, this tune is a Christian hymn that was first published in 1931, with lyrics by English author Eleanor Farjeon. The piano arrangement on Stevens’ version was composed and performed by classically trained keyboarder Rick Wakeman, who is best known for his five tenures with Yes between 1971 and 2004.
Another standout on the record is Moonshadow. According to Songfacts, Yusuf today considers it his favorite of his old songs.
Up to this point, this playlist only focused on Stevens’ early years, since that’s the period I’m familiar with. But I also like to give a nod to his more recent work. I still have to explore this music in greater detail. Here’s a tune called Everytime I Dream, which appears on Roadsinger from May 2009, Yusuf’s second album since his return to pop music.
The last song I’d like to feature is See What Love Did To Me. It’s a tune from The Laughing Apple, released in September 2017 as Yusuf/Cat Stevens. This album, which mostly includes reinterpretations of old tunes and some new music, represents various milestones. It was the first since 1978 that used the Cat Stevens name. The release came 50 years after his debut record. It also reunited him with Paul Samwell-Smith, who produced his most successful records in the ’70s, and Alun Davies, his guitarist during that period.
In addition to numerous music accolades, Stevens has received various awards for his charitable humanitarian work. In 2014, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 2016, he conducted a 50th anniversary tour that kicked off in Toronto on September 12 and included 11 dates in the U.S. It appears that after a long and tumultuous journey, Yusuf/Cat Stevens is finally in a place where he is comfortable with his spiritual beliefs and his music.
The introduction of the Hammond B-3 in 1954 revolutionized music
I’ve decided to introduce a new category on the blog I’m calling The Hardware, where I’m going to take a look at instruments and technology that have had an important impact on rock music. Admittedly, my general understanding of technology is limited, so these posts will definitely be a bit of a lift for me. While I anticipate things may become a bit technical at times, I’m certainly not planning to go overboard.
With that being said, I’d like to get started by taking a look at an instrument I’ve admired from the very first time I heard it, which is probably longer than I want to remember: The legendary Hammond B-3 organ.
The Hammond organ was designed and built by American engineers and inventors Laurens Hammond and John M. Hanert and first manufactured in 1935 by the Hammond Organ Company in Chicago. Following the original, the Hammond A, numerous other models were introduced, including the legendary B-3 in 1954.
The Hammond B-3 is a tone wheel organ. These types of organs generate sound by mechanical toothed wheels, that rotate in front of electromagnetic pickups. The B-3 has 91 tone wheels located inside the console. Together with the so-called drawbars, they give the instrument its incredible sound versatility. According to Glen E. Nelson, a “Hammond B-3 can all at once sound like a carnival, a big band, a horn section, a small jazz combo, a funk group, a percussion section, a flute, and/or countless other things.”
The organ has nine drawbars that represent the nine most important harmonics. “Each drawbar has eight degrees to which it can be literally “drawn” or pulled, out of the console of the organ, the eighth being the loudest, and all the way in being silence,” explains Nelson. The drawbars and the way each can be adjusted individually allow to create an enormous amount of different sounds, such as flute, trumpet or violin-like sounds.
In spite of its impressive size, the B-3 does not have a built in speaker. As such, it needs to be run through a separate speaker, which typically is a Leslie, named after its inventor Donald Leslie. The speaker combines an amplifier and a two-way loudspeaker that does not only project the signal from an electronic instrument but also modifies the sound by rotating the loudspeakers. While the Leslie is most closely associated with the Hammond, it was later also used for electric guitars and other instruments.
Due to its versatility and sound, the B-3 became very popular and has been used in all types of music, whether it’s gospel, jazz, blues, funk or rock. One of the artists who helped popularize the instrument was jazz musician Jimmy Smith. Some of the famous rock and blues musicians who have played this amazing organ include Booker T. Jones, Billy Preston, Keith Emerson, Rick Wakeman, Gregg Allman, Steve Winwood and Gregg Rolie.
The last original Hammond B-3 organs were manufactured in 1973. The Hammond Organ Company started to struggle financially in the 1970s and went out of business in 1975. The Hammond brand and rights were acquired by Hammond Organ Australia. Eventually, Suzuki Musical Instrument Corporation signed a distribution agreement with the Australian company before purchasing the name outright in 1991 and rebranding it as Hammond-Suzuki.
In 2002, Hammond-Suzuki introduced the New B-3, a re-creation of the original instrument using contemporary electronics and a digital tone wheel simulator. The New B-3 is constructed to appear like the original B-3, and the designers attempted to retain the subtle nuances of the familiar B-3 sound. A review by Hugh Robjohns in the July 2003 issue of Sound on Sound concludes, “the New B3 really does emulate every aspect of the original in sounds, looks and feel.”
Following are a few examples of rock songs that prominently feature a Hammond B-3.
Gimme Some Lovin’/Spencer Davis Group (Steve Winwood)
Jingo/Santana (Gregg Rolie)
Just Another Rider/Gregg Allman
There is perhaps no better way to finish the post than with this amazing presentation of the Hammond B-3 from Booker T. Jones. Watching his joy while playing the instrument and listening to the anecdotes in-between the songs is priceless.
Sources: Wikipedia; History of the Hammond B-3 Organ (Glen E. Nelson); Hammond USA website; Sound on Sound; YouTube; NPR