Friday, 9 March 2012

Down the Rabbit Hole – Chasing a Hammond Organ

It began, as is often the case, with a drummer. This was not, however, the 1-2-3-4 count of the sticks clacking together, but rather in the form of an unassuming phone call.
“Hey…it’s Tyler,” said the voice on the other end.
“Listen…Sudsy has a line on a Hammond organ. He says Duff has a few in his house and he’s running out of room or something. Needs to dump a couple, so you might be able to pick one up cheap.”
Without knowing the players involved, you can’t imagine how fraught that short conversation was with potential adventure and weirdness. To those in the loop, the mere mention of Sudsy and Duff in the same sentence is cause enough to send red flags shooting up all over the place. Both legendary men in their own right, eccentric doesn’t quite cover it. Back in the day, both had the propensity to somehow allow the everyday mundane to spontaneously explode into an exploit that would make Hunter S. Thompson sit up and take notice. There is a full novel to be written on each, wherein you would often see their paths cross over the last forty years, bobbing and weaving through some pretty peculiar episodes. It is not uncommon for Suds to casually send a conversation spiraling into un-toppable land.
“Hey Suds, where did you get that old convertible?”
“Oh that? Back in about 1978 I went out to pick up a Trumpet from Jonsey on a Friday night. We decided to go out for a beer and ended up in New Brunswick. Somewhere near Moncton I traded the van and the trumpet for the convertible. Didn’t get home until the following Wednesday.”
I didn’t know Duff at the time, but I had heard many similar tales of his exploits, mainly from Suds. The aforementioned Hammond might serve as a subplot in many of those stories but in this instance, it does in fact take center stage. Having one Hammond is kind of rare, let alone “a few”, so you can understand how curiosity dragged me down the rabbit hole on this one.
To lay a bit of groundwork, they started making Hammonds in the 1930s and continued up until the mid-1970’s, with the B3 model becoming the most sought after keyboard known to man. (At least to gospel, blues, and rock players that is…so anyone who matters). Combined with the Leslie speaker, there is simply no substitute for the surging vibrato of awesomeness they can produce. A grand piano is grand, a moog synthesizer is cool, and an electronic keyboard is versatile, but none have the cajones of the real thing. If your memory needs a jog, think of “Gimme Some Lovin” by the Spencer Davis Group. That glorious sound you hear after the intro is all Hammond B3.  Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” wasn’t really flying until producer Al Kooper sat down at the B3 and played the (now) legendary signature riff. Garth Husdon, Dr. John and Greg Allman all use the Hammond as their go to instrument.
Needless to say, dominoes were already falling and I was on the phone to Sudsy pretty quick.
“Hey Suds, Tyler said you might have a line on a Hammond?”
“Oh…yeah, I heard you were looking for one. Duff told me he has a couple of extras that he fixed up…you know he usually has a stockpile over there in various states of repair.”
Extras? Who has extra organs lying around?
“They’re a pretty complicated piece of machinery.” Suds admitted.
“Parts are hard to find and there’s a million wires everywhere but he gets them going and sends them to good homes. He’s a genius with them. Well maybe more like a mad scientist. Anyway…I’ll give you his number.”
I had heard accounts about Duff’s ability to bring a Hammond back to life with MacGyver like abilities by cobbling together spare parts, whether they came from an organ or not. He is famous for using light switches and old computer cables to route power around the organ. Anyone who can fix a 1952 Hammond using a dot-matrix printer and electrical tape obviously knows his stuff. I have seen with my own eyes a mangled contraption that Duff made for Sudsy himself, now affectionately referred to as Frankenstein. It’s light and small, so it can be carried to gigs, and like its namesake it is a hideous looking, yet misunderstood creature. It’s held together with what appears to be an old desk and rope and it works just fine.
Apparently, there is an underground network connecting all Hammond organ enthusiasts who form some sort of rescue organization. If a church in Jackson Mississippi is getting rid of its Hammond organ, these channels could very well have it end up in Ontario the next week, under the care of the elusive Hammond guru called Duff. These folks are very protective of the remaining stock and any attempt to infiltrate the club must be done so with good musical intentions. Hence the trepidation of my next phone call to the one and only Duff. I must admit, I was a bit nervous, knowing that there are only so many of these babies to go around and maybe I’m not worthy because I haven’t travelled the path of a road hardened musician. I’ve never lived in a Buick and I don’t drink cheap wine straight from the bottle. I do however, have a music room, and a friend in the band who can tear it up on the organ, so maybe….just maybe I could be the proud owner of my own Hammond. By the time I got on the phone I was like a parent-to-be at an adoption interview. I found myself describing the relative merits of my jam room.
“I have a dehumidifier, so it’s not musty in the summer, and I have a humidifier to keep everything in tune over the winter. I promise to love it and care for it like and not spill beer on it.”
Turns out Duff is pretty laissez faire about such details.
“These things are basically indestructible” he says.
“They could fall off the back of a truck and keep working. Come on over and we’ll talk.”
Deeper into the rabbit hole I go. Duff’s house is a very, very small bungalow hidden behind a very tall fence. It’s that one house on the street that you pass by a thousand times and never notice it’s there. Things don’t get really weird until you get inside though. The tiny front room which I assume was once the living room now houses a small cot and three Hammonds, one of which has been reduced to a strange skeleton like creature, perhaps for parts. Surprisingly, it is in working order. Bits and pieces of electronics are everywhere, with half built Leslie speakers awaiting parts to come through the supply chain in Tennessee or Calgary or wherever. There is a sort of half kitchen with a microwave and a sink, and a tiny back bedroom. No bed in the bedroom – just another Hammond and a closet full of parts. I don’t spot any other trappings that would indicate someone actually lived there, such as food or clothes.
As soon as I entered, he began rattling off the history lesson of the Hammond, its inner workings, its relationship with the Leslie speaker and every other detail a concerned parent to be should know. My head was swimming after the first 2 minutes.
“Just show me which one I can have!” I wanted to say.
Turns out mine is in the back and is a CV model, a cousin of the flagship B3. I know it’s good, ‘cause Suds has one too.
“This is the same as a B3, but it doesn’t have the percussion.” Duff says.
“Perfect” says I.
But it’s not perfect. There is paint spilled all over the top, stinky 1946 fabric stapled to the back and worse yet, it has been Duffmatized. This is the term we have given to instruments that have been chopped, taped, bastardized, re-wired, and otherwise Frankensteined to get them in working order. Like I said before, they ain’t pretty, but he gets them to work.                                                                                  He plugs it in to a Leslie speaker and then moves around the back to show me how to start it up. Normally, the starter switch (which is now a light switch) is on the front, right next to the keys, but he has moved it to the back amidst a glut of soldering and black electrical tape.
“Flip this switch and wait for 10 seconds until the starter motor revs up.” Duff says.
I hear the whir of the inner workings come to life and after the 10 count, he flips the switch from “start” to “run” and we are away to the races. He then sits down and proceeds to let it rip and man oh man, this guy can play. I’m sold after about 10 seconds.
“What are you asking for it?” I ask, still wowed from the impromptu performance.
He tells me it is $140, which I think is crazy low, but I’m not going to argue. Then he informs me that the organ weighs in at 360 pounds and suddenly I remember why people are always giving away free pianos. Still, I’m as giddy as a school girl and I say I’ll come and pick it up with a truck and about 12 friends. The next day, I call to make pick-up arrangements and Duff tells me that he has a special low ride trailer, custom built to carry Hammond organs and he will deliver it for me. Again, who am I to argue with the man?
“I’ll come over and help you load it up.” I say
Don’t bother, he says. Apparently he will push the behemoth out his back door, onto a ramp that loads directly to the trailer…all by himself. Just so you know, without a word of a lie, the dude is like 65 years old. Okay, well whatever, he’s been moving them around for 40 years, he must have all the vectors and angles and such figured out. An hour later, he pulls into my driveway, an enormous whale of a Sedan towing a covered trailer. The car is an old Lincoln or some other such monstrosity and must be twenty feet long at least. Between the two of us, we slide the Hammond down the ramp and into my garage, where it will sit for the next two weeks while I attempt to refinish it.
Before I started any work, I actually had the sense to make a scale shell model out of scrap 1x2 to make sure the bastard would fix down the basement stairs. I tipped it on its end and carried it down in a mock simulation of the event. There was a not-so generous inch on either side, and it just fit around the winder at the bottom, if it was tilted exactly perfectly.   Very, very little room for error, but it would fit. A gallon of paint stripper later I’ve got all the spilled paint and old finish off. I have removed the source of the stink which was some sort of felt, and I have glued anything that is loose. I also rewired the starter switch to its proper location on the front and hallelujah it still works. Next question is, how do you get a 360 pound Hammond down a set of stairs with a winder at the bottom?
My move was to call in three burly ex-rugby players, all capable of bench pressing a Volkswagen.To be truthful, I also plied them with beer, which is a known weakness of rugby players. Straps in hand, we tipped the beast on its side and gently inched it down the stairs where it will stay for the remainder of its days. Getting around the corner was a feat of engineering and cannot likely be duplicated against gravity, so if we ever sell the house…guess what. It comes with a 1946 Hammond CV organ.

Your homework if you choose to accept it:


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