The Sunday Six

Celebrating music with six random tracks at a time

Another Sunday is upon us, which means the time has come again to go a music excursion where the only thing that’s certain is that nothing is certain. Because anything goes, any genre, any decade, as long as I dig the music. It feels very liberating not to limit myself to a specific album or theme in these posts. Perhaps not surprisingly, The Sunday Six continues to be my favorite feature of the blog.

Dr. Lonnie Smith/For Heaven’s Sake

I’d like to start this little music journey with Dr. Lonnie Smith, a jazz Hammond B3 organist I’ve featured a few times before. Sadly, he passed away from pulmonary fibrosis on September 28 at the age of 79. Smith first came to prominence in the mid-60s when he joined the quartet of jazz guitarist George Benson. After recording two albums with Benson, he launched his solo career with his debut album Finger Lickin’ Good Soul Organ in 1967 – then still known as Lonnie Smith. At some point, he decided to become Dr. Smith and wear a traditional Sikh turban. While he neither obtained an academic doctor title nor did he covert to Sikhism, Dr. Lonnie Smith was an amazing musician in my book. As a fan of the Hammond B3 sound, this isn’t exactly a leap for me. I’d like to celebrate the doctor’s music with For Heaven’s Sake, a track he wrote and recorded for his 2016 album Evolution. The backing band included Jonathan Kreisberg (guitar), Joe Lovano (saxophone), John Ellis (bass clarinet) and two drummers: Joe Dyson and Johnathan Blake.

Norah Jones/Don’t Know Why

For this next tune, let’s go back 14 years to February 2002 and the first album by jazz-oriented singer-songwriter and pianist Norah Jones. Come Away With Me was one heck of a debut for the then-23-year-old. It surged to no. 1 in the U.S. on the Billboard 200 and received Grammy Awards for Album of the Year and Best Pop Vocal Album. Jones, the daughter of sitar maestro Ravi Shankar and Sue Jones, a New York concert promoter, has since released six additional solo albums, as well as various collaboration records, EPs and compilations. Here’s Don’t Know Why, the lead single off Jones’ debut album. The tune was written by American singer-songwriter Jesse Harris who first recorded it for his 1999 sophomore album Jesse Harris & the Ferdinandos. Until today, I had not heard the lovely guitar-based original. I’ve always loved Jones’ version.

The Traveling Wilburys/Rattled

Let’s pick up the pace with a great tune by The Traveling Wilburys. The super-group was conceived by George Harrison and Jeff Lynne during recording sessions for Harrison’s 1987 comeback album Cloud Nine that was co-produced by Lynne. The Wilburys came together in April 1998 and in addition to Harrison and Lynne included Roy Orbison, Tom Petty and Bob Dylan. While initially Harrison had envisaged a series of Wilburys albums and a film about the band, the group ended up releasing only two records. Six weeks after the release of their debut album Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1 in October 1988, Roy Orbison died from a heart attack at age 52. The second and final Wilburys album Traveling Wilburys Vol. 3 appeared in October 1990. While Lynne, Petty and Dylan were interested in continuing the group, it was Harrison who apparently lacked enthusiasm to keep things going. Here’s Rattled, a neat rockabilly tune from the Wilburys’ first album, featuring Lynne on lead vocals – rrrrrrrrr!

James Brown/It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World

Time to go back to the ’60s and James Brown. I trust the Godfather of Soul who by the early ’70s had become a major funk artist needs no introduction. It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World, which first appeared as a single in April 1966, was co-written by Brown and Betty Jean Newsome. It became Brown’s third no. 1 on the Billboard Hot Rhythm & Blues Singles chart and his third top 10 hit on the mainstream Billboard Hot 100. It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World also was the title track of a compilation album that was released in August of the same year. Each time I listen to this tune, I still get goosebumps. Here’s an extended live version that nicely illustrates what an amazing performer Brown was – the singing, the passion, the moves – just incredible!

Elvis Costello and the Imposters/Go Away

For this next pick, let’s return to the current millennium and a tune I love by Elvis Costello and the Imposters. Costello has frequently used this backing band since his 2002 album When I Was Cruel. The group includes Steve Nieve (keyboards), Davey Farahger (bass, backing vocals) and Pete Thomas (drums). Go Away, written by Costello, is the closer of Momofuku, his 21st studio album from April 2008. The tune was also released separately as a single. The album reached a meager no. 112 in the UK on the Official Albums Chart and peaked at no. 59 on the U.S. Billboard 200, while the single didn’t chart at all. At the time, Costello explained the record’s title was a tribute to Momofuku Ando, the inventor of the Cup Noodle, as reported by Billboard. “Like so many things in this world of wonders, all we had to do to make this record was add water,” he said.

Pete Townshend & Ronnie Lane/Rough Mix

And once again, this brings me to the sixth and final tune. This instrumental is the title track of a collaboration album released in September 1977 by Pete Townshend and Ronnie Lane, who was best known as the bassist and founding member of Small Faces and that band’s successor Faces. Rough Mix was Townshend’s second record outside The Who and is his only collaboration album to date. While Lane also wanted to co-write songs with Townshend, the title track is the only tune where that happened. Rough Mix enjoyed moderate chart success in the UK and the U.S., reaching no. 44 and no. 45 on the respective mainstream album charts. The title track is a groovy tune, which among others features Eric Clapton (guitar) and John Bundrick (organ).

Sources: Wikipedia; Billboard; YouTube

The Hardware: Vox Continental

Compact keyboard with characteristic sound became hit among touring bands in ’60s

When I listened to Light My Fire by The Doors the other day, I was reminded of Ray Manzarek’s distinct keyboard on that tune, a sound I’ve always loved. It also came to me that I hadn’t done a post on important music hardware in a long time – two good reasons to write about the Vox Continental, a handy and cool-looking organ that became popular in the ’60s and can be heard on many songs released during that decade and thereafter.

For those who are visiting my blog for the first time or haven’t seen one of my previous hardware posts, I’d like to reiterate that I’m not an engineering guy; in fact, having two left hands, it’s more of the opposite! As such, one could say there’s a certain degree of irony that I write about the subject. But while I’m not exactly a techie and therefore don’t go deeply into the technical aspects, music gear can still excite me like a little child, primarily from a sound and visual perspective. With that disclaimer out of the way, let’s get to it.

Thomas Walter Jennings
Jennings Organ Company founder Thomas Walter Jennings at his Dartford factory in Kent, England in 1964

Prior to the Vox Continental’s introduction in England in 1962, the Vox brand name had been synonymous with guitar amplifiers, especially the Vox AC30 used by The Shadows, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks and other ’60s bands. However, as its name already indicates, the company that made the amps, The Jennings Organ Company founded by Thomas Walter Jennings in Kent, England after the Second World War and renamed Jennings Musical Industries (JMI) in 1957, started out as a manufacturer of home and church organs. Their first successful product was the Univox, an electronic keyboard similar to the Clavioline.

The Vox Continental is a so-called combo keyboard. Does it come with French fries and a Coke you might ask? Well, not quite. Combo actually is another (British) term for band. Okay, it’s a keyboard for a band, but so is a Hammond or a regular piano, so what’s the big deal? While pianos were frequently used in the recording studio, amplifying their sound during live performances was tricky. Hammond organs like the mighty B3 certainly could meet volume requirements, but they were pretty clunky. A compact combo keyboard like the Vox Continental offered a great solution. It also looked pretty cool!

Vox Continental Electronics
The electronic inside of a Vox Continental

The Vox Continental was made possible by the invention of transistors that were less heavy and smaller than the electron tubes used in big electronic organs. The handy keyboard came in two basic variations, a single manual and a dual manual. One of the Continental’s distinct visual features is its reversed colored keys: what on a regular keyboard are the white keys are black, while the traditionally black keys are white (see image on top of the post). The top part covering the electronics with its orange or grey finish stands out as well. The curving and removable chrome stand is another distinct feature. Without a bass section, no bass pedals, no percussion, no sustain and only a single-speed vibrato, the Vox Continental was fairly archaic. Yet because of its sound and the aforementioned design features, the instrument became very popular.

Initially, Vox Continental keyboards were made at two plants in Kent: JMI’s facility in Dartford and the Vox Sound plant in Erith. In 1964, Jennings signed a licensing deal with the Thomas Organ Company in the U.S. JMI and Thomas subsequently also formed EME (Elletronica Musicale Europea), a joint venture with Italian guitar and keyboard manufacturer EKO. With the advent of the Moog and other more elaborate keyboards by the early ’70s, the appeal of Vox Continental organs started to decrease, and production was phased out. While it continued to have a significant following and remains sought-after, it took until September 2017 that Vox revived the Continental with an updated version. Since 1992, the company has been owned by Japanese electronics corporation Korg.

As noted at the outset, the Vox Continental is featured in many songs released during the ’60s and thereafter. This post wouldn’t be complete without some examples.

The House Of The Rising Sun (The Animals)

The version of the traditional by The Animals featuring Alan Price on keys is one of the most compelling showcases of the Vox Continental, in my humble opinion as somebody who isn’t a keyboard player. Sure, the sound isn’t as fat and growling as the Hammond B3; in fact, it’s rather thin by comparison, and yet it still sounds awesome at least to my ears!

Because (The Dave Clark Five)

Written by Dave Clark, Because was recorded for the band’s third U.S. studio album American Tour from August 1964. The song also appeared as a single and became the band’s second most successful hit in the U.S., peaking at no. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100. Here’s a nice clip of an appearance on American music variety TV program Shindig! from 1965. While it is much less dominant than in The House Of The Rising Sun, one can nicely see Mike Smith playing the organ.

I’m A Believer (The Monkees)

I’m A Believer appeared on More Of The Monkees, the band’s second studio album released in January 1967, and as the record’s lead single in November the previous year. Written by Neil Diamond, the song became the band’s most successful hit, topping the charts in many countries, including the U.S., Canada, U.K., Australia and Germany, among others. While Peter Tork had known how to play keyboards, the keyboarder on the studio recording was Stan Free. Initially formed a musical acting quartet for a TV series, all of The Monkees eventually learned how to play their instruments.

Light My Fire (The Doors)

Credited to all members of the band, Light My Fire was included on The Doors’ eponymous debut album issued in January 1967. It also became the record’s second single released in April that year. It was the first of their two no. 1 U.S. hits on the Billboard Hot 100. The tune is another great example where the Vox Continental is quite dominant.

In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida (Iron Butterfly)

In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida is the title track of Iron Butterfly’s second studio album from June 1968. It was written by the band’s lead vocalist and keyboarder Doug Ingle. Clocking at more than 17 minutes, the track makes up the record’s entire side B. Iron Butterfly also released a single version, which was shortened to just under three minutes. Here’s a clip of the track in its entire mighty.

Watching The Detectives (Elvis Costello)

After production of Vox Continental keyboards had seized, the combo organs remained popular, as previously noted. One of their champions was Steve Nieve, who among others became known as keyboarder in Elvis Costello’s backing band The Attractions. Here’s a clip of Watching The Detectives from Costello’s debut album My Aim Is True, released in July 1977. Written by Costello, the tune became his first hit, peaking at no. 15 on the U.K. Official Singles Chart.

Don’t Do Me Like That (Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers)

Don’t Do Me Like That, the last song I’d like to highlight in this post, is another post ’60s example featuring a Vox Continental, played by Benmont Tench in this case. It appears on Damn The Torpedoes, the third studio album by Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers from October 1979. In November that year, the song also came out as the record’s lead single. Written by Petty, it became the band’s first top 10 hit in the U.S., reaching no. 10 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Sources: Wikipedia, Engineering And Technology History Wiki (ETHW), Combo Organ Heaven, YouTube