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April 07, 2012

Booker T. Jones, the Hammond B-3 Organ, and Leslie Speakers

When I was a kid, radio stations would play the same playlist every day at the same time. I guess it was on tape. So in grade school, for example, we would hear Tom Jones' She's a Lady on the school bus every morning. Just as we pulled in front of the school, we'd hear Tom Jones sing "she's a weaner" (winner). Of course, that was evergreen comedy gold for a third grader.

A few years later, another station played an incredible keyboard version of the theme to Clint Eastwood's Hang 'em High. I heard it every morning on the way to middle school. By then, I was playing piano, and the closest thing my teacher would let me play was the theme from Exodus. Same notes, same key. Lots of big, broad fifths. In fact, I think the Hang 'em High was based on it.

For years, I tried to find a copy of the keyboard version of Hang 'em High. Last time I looked several years ago, I Googled "hang 'em high organ" and "hang 'em high keyboard." Stuff like that. Couldn't find it. I could only find Hugo Montenegro's original orchestral version.

Last night I was following a link in the sidebar and found it by accident. It was Booker T. & the M.G.'s!

Like most keyboard players in the 60's, Booker T. Jones played a Hammond B-3 organ through Leslie speakers. Listen to Booker uncork it about halfway through this song.

Modern keyboards can make a lot of sounds, sure, but nothing else on the planet screams like a Hammond B-3 through Leslie speakers. I don't know why they don't make those anymore.

It's the Leslie that creates the warbling quality you hear. They are speakers mounted with variable-speed rotary horns. This video explains how they work. In short, the warbling sound is caused by the "Doppler effect."

I've never had the pleasure of playing a Hammond B-3, but I'm guessing the keys are touch sensitive. Why? Notice when the melody starts to echo at about 1:20 the echo is quieter. And you can see in this fascinating video, Booker played the melody and the echo in one take.

Hammond B-3's and Leslies are highly sought after to this day. There are shops with craftsmen who specialize in refurbishing them. Some acts still use them. (A quick note about Procol Harum: Wow, those guys haven't been sitting on their asses all this time. Apparently the guitar player likes Eddie Van Halen. Looks like the drummer has been lifting weights for 40 years. And the singer, Gary Brooker, sounds just like he did in the 60's.)

Once again, here's Booker T. Jones' first hit, Green Onions. Booker wrote this when he was in high school.

Added: @brianmckim tweets this documentary on the Hammond B-3. Also, our own Dave in Texas has written about the B-3.

Here is the documentary mentioned above. It's very good. One guy says the B-3 starts like an old car. Someone says it looks like a coffin. Another guy says you have to be kind of an octopus to play one.

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posted by rdbrewer at 02:42 PM

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