It weighs as much as two baby elephants, can be equally temperamental, and requires a comparable amount of care to thrive. It has roughly the same dimensions as a 220-gallon aquarium and can be as tricky to transport. While its name might not be instantly recognizable, its unique sound certainly is to anyone who’s listened to jazz, blues, gospel or rock music in the last 50 years. So, what is it?
It’s the Hammond B-3 electric tonewheel organ.
The Hammond Organ Company was established in 1935 by Laurens Hammond and John Hanert. Their electric organs were originally offered as an economical alternative to the wind-driven pipe organs commonly used in churches. It soon became apparent, however, that there was a demand for such instruments in private homes as well. Notable early customers included Albert Schweitzer, Henry Ford, Eleanor Roosevelt and George Gershwin. By the 1950s, Hammond Organs began to enjoy increasing popularity among professional musicians. Sometimes referred to as the “poor man’s big band,” their use was adopted by virtually all musical genres. Lacking internal speakers or amplification, the instrument is most frequently paired with a Leslie tone cabinet, an imposing piece of equipment in its own right (standing 3 and a half feet tall and weighing 150 pounds). The Leslie, as it’s commonly known, includes a bass woofer and spinning horn speakers, whose rotation rate can be controlled to provide varying vibrato effects, further contributing to the B-3’s unique sound.
The instrument’s orchestral tones can be heard on recordings by Booker T and the MGs, Procol Harum (“Whiter Shade of Pale”), The Spencer Davis Group (“Gimme Some Lovin’”), Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and Bob Dylan (”Like A Rolling Stone”) to name just a few. In addition, the Hammond B-3 has long been the favored keyboard of Gregg Allman, and figures prominently on the majority of recordings by the Allman Brothers Band.
There’s a reason for the B-3’s enduring popularity. John Gould, Vice President and General Manager of Eventcraft Inc. on Amelia Island says with a smile, “It just moves people. It’s not only the meat and potatoes, but the gravy as well.” Eventcraft, which was founded by Mark Deaton in 1996, provides backline instrument rental and concert production services. While they have a wide collection of vintage instruments, they proudly claim three Hammond B-3 Organs as components of their keyboard inventory. Coincidentally, their B-3s were each manufactured in 1967, and have been, in John’s words, “blessed by the hands” of numerous musical luminaries over the years. These include Dr. John, Booker T. Jones, Ivan Neville, Gregg Allman and Dr. Lonnie Smith, as well as the keyboardists for James Brown, Ray Charles and BB King.
As Eventcraft’s B-3s are approaching their 50th anniversary in 2017, Gould and Deaton are considering throwing a party to recognize their special instrumental honorees. Nothing less is deserved, says Gould, for instruments “alive with their own soul and personality.”