Hammond / Leslie Heritage

Laurens Hammond (1895-1973) Inventor of the Hammond Organ
Laurens Hammond (1895-1973)
Inventor of the Hammond Organ

It’s been over 75 years since the world saw the first Hammond Organ, and it all started with an electric motor, invented by Laurens Hammond. Laurens Hammond was an inventor, born 1895. in Evanston Illinois. His mother was a unique woman, and sort of an inventor herself. His father was a banker, whose job afforded the Hammonds an affluent lifestyle, but he died shortly after Laurens was born.

Laurens was intelligent, and loved to tinker. He attended Engineering school at Cornell, served in World War I, and returned to work various jobs. But Laurens Hammond longed to be an “independent inventor”, and he got right down to work.

Did You know the first successful 3D movies to be shown in Theatres were the result of a system designed by Laurens Hammond? It was one of his first inventions. They’re still used occasionally today; but the thing that really got things started was Laurens Hammond’s invention of a synchronous motor that ran on the then-new 60 cycle electric supply.

Today we take electric power for granted, but in the 30’s, the juice that came out of the wall was often unstable. Hammond’s motor ran at the same speed no matter what, and it was completely noiseless. Whatever could he do with this invention? Hammond hit upon the idea applying his motor to run a clock. Because it was silent, there was no “tick-tock”, and his clock was an immediate success. Many are still in use today, and have become very valuable collectors items.

The great depression of the 1930’s caused the bottom to fall out of the Hammond Clock Company. Hammond tried other applications, like an automated bridge table using his motor to drive a mechanism dealing cards to each player. The table gave Hammond a slight lift financially, but it, too, soon faded.

Laurens Hammond often said, that when faced with having to come up with a new idea, the smart thing for an inventor to do is put together the old tricks you have done before, and maybe even use some of the other guy’s tricks as well. One of Hammond’s thoughts considered using his motor to generate sound. Although Laurens Hammond wasn’t a musician, he loved to hear the organ when he went to church with his mother as a child. Why not try to build an alternative to expensive pipe organs?

There was already an effort underway by other inventors to do exactly that, but no one had succeeded, then Hammond’s associate George Stephens remembered how the very first electric musical instrument made its tones. Around 1900, an inventor named Thadeus Cahill came up with the Teleharmonium. The Teleharmonium was a huge, mechanical system utilizing garbage-can sized (and larger) cylinders to generate sounds. The entire system required 30 boxcars to move. The design called for the music made by this beast to be piped into houses by means of telephone wires. Needless to say, this system failed, but the basic working idea had merit.

Using a much, much smaller design based on the ideas of Cahill’s instrument, coupled with the synchronous motor, Hammond came up with what he called an “Electric Flute”. It Worked! At first he thought it would be just a toy, a plaything, selling for thirty to forty dollars, but thinking again, he saw that this could be a major advancement in musical instruments, and proceeded to sketch out the blueprints for what would become the Hammond Organ.

On April 24th, 1934 Laurens Hammond filed for a patent on his musical machine. The paper was a whopper, spanning 18 pages and twenty thousand words. At that time the country’s top industrialist was automaker Henry Ford, who loved gadgets of all sorts. He got wind of Hammond’s patents, and sent men to Chicago to order six organs immediately. The problem was, that Hammond’s Organ hadn’t even gone into production yet.

Ford summoned Hammond to Dearborn to find out if he could help get the fledgling organ company up to speed. Hammond declined Ford’s generous offer of material participation, but the experience cemented the fact that Hammond knew he had a winner. It is a common misperception that Henry Ford got the first Hammond Organ. Mr Ford placed the first Order, but he didn’t get the first organ. That privilege didn’t go to the composer George Gershwin, either, as widely reported

The reality is actually much tamer. After Laurens got the company up and running, Hammond’s Serial Number One went to a dealer in Kansas City, where it was used for years as a traveling demonstrator. Upon its retirement, it went to the Smithsonian in Washington, where it now resides. Henry Ford eventually DID get his six Organs,and one of those six is the one that is displayed in his museum in Dearborn, Michigan.

The Hammond Organ was an immediate success, and before long Churches, Theatres and Concert halls were humming to the Model “A”‘s sound. The Great Theatre Organist Jesse Crawford switched from the Mighty Wurlitzer to the Hammond, and made popular recordings, some of which, like his Wedding music, remain available to this day. Another early star of the Hammond was Ethel Smith, whose dazzling technique (and equally dazzling looks) took her to the heights of stage and screen.

On the west side of Chicago, near the original Hammond Factory, Black Gospel Churches began to use the Hammond Organ, and a tradition was born that has never stopped growing, and has had incalculable influence on nearly every facet of music. Hearing the Hammond in church inspired Wild Bill Davis to try the instrument in a jazz setting. Fats Waller followed, and an entire movement in Jazz was born.

Donald_Leslie
Donald Leslie
Inventor of the Leslie Speaker
(1911-2004)

But the Hammond needed one more thing to become the King Of Instruments-The Leslie Speaker.

We think of them now as inseparable, fraternal twins, but the truth is, the Birthday of the Hammond organ predated the Leslie by seven years. The man behind the invention was Donald J. Leslie, an engineer who worked for a firm that made parts for the Hammond Organ Company. Don was also a music buff, and became interested in this new, marvelous instrument, but there was something that just wasn’t right to his ear. Laurens Hammond intended his organ to play in churches and classical concert halls. Don, who loved the Mighty Wurlitzer Theatre Organ wished that the Hammond Organ could sound a little softer. After some experimentation, Don Leslie hit on an idea that would put “motion” into the sound of Hammond Organ

Don Leslie capitalized on a principle called the “Doppler Effect”. It’s why a train whistle seems to go down in pitch when a train passes you. Don took a horn speaker and made it go around in a circle. And Bingo! a legend was born.

The spinning horn gave the Hammond Organ what is called in the pipe organ world a tremulant. Vibrato, Tremolo, and a little “whoosh” of air all put together. It made the Hammond Organ sound completely different. The Hammond’s life in all popular music-Jazz, Rock, Pop was born at that moment.

Don Leslie thought he had hit on a miracle, and rightly so, He promptly took his hot invention right to Laurens Hammond but as fate would have it…Laurens Hammond hated the idea! He meant for his organ to play church and classical music. But Don Leslie knew he had something golden, so he went into business for himself, producing the musical innovation that was called “Vibratone-The Pipe Voice Of The Electric Organ”

The Dean of Theatre Organists Jesse Crawford was among the first to popularize the sound of the Hammond and Vibratone combination, and did he ever! For a while, what we now know as “Leslies” were popularly called “Crawford” or “Hollywood” speakers. And yes, the rumor is true…Hammond Dealers were NOT allowed to sell Leslie speakers. They couldn’t even acknowledge there was such a thing.

Musicians are resourceful, and organists from every corner embraced the combination. Somewhere along the way, the “Vibratone” became the “Leslie Vibratone” and ultimately just the “Leslie”. Eventually, a two-speed motor was added to get the distinctive “slow” Leslie sound. Any tune’s excitement level could be boosted by having the organist glissando to a high C while simultaneously switching from slow to fast speed.

In 1958, Don again tried to sell his company to Hammond, but the old man was stubborn, and rejected it again. Don then let the beast out of the cage, licensing his invention to many other organ manufacturers, while continuing to practically match Hammond’s production one-for one. Who wanted a Hammond without a Leslie? The company was so successful, that Electro-Music (as Don’s company was called) never had to advertise.

Don Leslie eventually sold Electro-Music and moved on with his life, happily, but never again made such an earth-shattering invention. He died in 2004 at the ripe old age of 93, and was as sharp as a tack to his last day. Don never sought the limelight as some of his contemporaries did, so you don’t hear of Don Leslie the way you do Les Paul, Leo Fender, or Bob Moog, but his contribution was just as important.

In 1954, Hammond introduced the organ that secured the legend, the Model B-3. It’s Chorus-Vibrato and Touch-Response Percussion™ made sounds that were totally new and fresh. It’s hard to determine whether musicians were ripe for a new sound, or that the new sounds pushed musicians into uncharted waters, but one thing is for sure: When Jimmy Smith met the B-3, music was changed forever.

Gospel churches embraced the Hammond B-3 like no one else. The Ministers of Music elevated Hammond playing to a level that leaves even the most proficient artists shaking their heads in disbelief. Many believe that the Hammond Organ reaches it greatest heights in the hands of Gospel artists.

The B3 also swept the nation in pop during the late fifties. Artists such as Eddie Layton, Lennie Dee, and Jerry Burke on the Lawrence Welk TV show had hit records, and sold out concerts. But perhaps the top of the pop B-3 players was Earl Grant, whose smooth style on the number one hit “Ebb Tide” led him to become a regular guest on the Ed Sullivan show

Jazz Organ became the quintessential “cool” music for the swinging Sixties, Jimmy Smith was the Top Cat, but Jimmy McGriff, Brother Jack McDuff, Charles “The Burner” Earland, Don Patterson, “Groove” Holmes and Dr. Lonnie Smith (to name a few) swung with a ferocious fervor.

The rock revolution was also in full bloom, and the Hammond Organ played a large role. Al Kooper, Brian Auger, Rod Argent with the Zombies, Steve Winwood with Traffic, Felix Cavaliere with the Rascals, Mark Stein with Vanilla Fudge, Keith Emerson with ELP, Rick Wakeman with Yes, John Paul Jones with Led Zeppelin, Jon Lord with Deep Purple, Gregg Rolie with Santana, Neal Doughty with REO Speedwagon, Dennis DeYoung with Styx, and Jerry Corbetta with Sugarloaf all had platinum hits with the B-3 front and center. Even Billy Joel’s first album was a hard-rocking affair that found the “Piano Man” playing a highly-amplified B-3. Who knows how many youngsters caught the Hammond bug from hearing these (and other) stars?

The B-3 was also de rigueur for the Soul and R&B sounds of Motown and Philly. Keyboard pioneers like Billy Preston and Sly Stone all came of age as Hammond Organists in their Churches, and injected that flavor into all of the music they influenced

In 1975, the last classic B-3 left the assembly line. About 270,000 were built. However, times were changing. Moog and Arp synthesizers were the rage of the day. Kids of the burgeoning “Mall culture” deemed the organ “square”. Seeing leisure-suited salesmen playing songs aimed at their grandparents probably didn’t help.

The Punk and New Wave movement all but rendered the organ (and most other keyboards) obsolete. Hammond’s presence in pop music dimmed. The Hammond brand was sold to an Australian firm who made organs that had nothing to do with Hammond’s illustrious history, and the King of Instruments went into hibernation for almost ten years.

The rebirth of the Hammond Organ came from an unlikely place. Suzuki Music of Hammamatsu, Japan, under the leadership of Mr. Manji Suzuki signed a distribution agreement with the Australian firm, and in 1991, bought the brand outright. Suzuki Music had grown to be the largest manufacturer of Educational musical instruments in the world, also making fine harmonicas and pianos. Now they had a legendary brand to rehabilitate.

Immediately, they created and released the XB-2, the first truly portable (and affordable) Hammond. It wasn’t perfect, but it had all the right ingredients and sounded a LOT like a B-3. When put through a Leslie, the illusion became clearer. Rock groups and Jazzers took to the 35 pound beauty like a duck to water. Suddenly organ started popping up again.

And just as suddenly new young faces were making the scene. Artists like Larry Goldings, Joey DeFrancesco, Tony Monaco, Tony Z, Moe Denham, John Medeski, Barbara Dennerlein and John Novello were all tearing it up in the jazz world on B-3. In the Rock, Country, Blues and Pop Worlds, there was seldom a stage seen that did not sport either a portable Hammond or actual B-3.

Hammond kicked the ball out of the park in 2002, when, against all odds, The Original B-3 was put back into production after a hiatus of 27 years. It was different animal…the mechanical tonewheel design stayed the same, but the “old family recipe” is realized with Digital ingredients. You’d never know the difference by playing it. The “New B-3″ received blessings and endorsements from the old guard and young lions. Its technology has flowed throughout the entire Hammond product line.

In the 21st Century, the Hammond and Leslie have come full circle. The B-3 sound is everywhere. There are more imitators than you can count. It now seems that everyone makes a B-3 clone, but Pros and Hobbyists alike overwhelmingly prefer the real thing.

With the release of the 15 pound Sk-1, Hammond has found the true worthy successor to the throne, with the addition of Hi-Definitions Extravoices like Grand and Electric Pianos, and other essential keyboard and orchestral sounds to the authentic Hammond Tone.

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