The Hammond B3 has been the organ of choice since Jimmy Smith popularized it as a jazz instrument in the 1950’s. There were some before him but really it’s mass secular popularity started around then. Before that time it had been a mainstay of the church, mostly Baptist churches.
Combined with the Leslie tremolo cabinets and bass foot pedals, B3 players came to develop their own harmony and soloing stylings, along with the foot pedal baselines, all added up to a sound uniquely it’s own. Through Jimmy Smith and Jack McDuff. Later Billy Preston and Booker T, then guys like Steve Winwood and Mike Finnigan, it’s profile grew in stature with the listening public.
Throughout the jazz beaux ’50’s and the boogaloo ’60’s the B3 began to be used in all types of music. Frank Sinatra to Procol Harum. Saturday night baseball games to Sunday morning praise breaks.
Much of the innovation with the instrument came out of the church. Sly Stone was one of many who’s pop leanings were firmly rooted in a Baptist church aesthetic. Today if you want to hear real music innovation look no farther than the organist at your local COGIC church. (See Corey Henry)
I’ve had three B3s. I still have the one I bought used when I was 17 at Leo’s in Oakland. The other one I bought a few years ago from a little old lady in Pasadena. I swear. She had bought it new in 1961. Had never played it. Didn’t even know how to turn it on. I’ve always felt that somehow I was being paid back for all the lemons I’ve bought in my life. She was happy with what I paid her and I was happy when I finally got it squeezed into our laundry room at our new home down here along the central coast.
Before that we had lived in Oakland. There was an elderly widower who lived down the block. When it came time for him to go to assisted living his kids moved all his stuff out leaving nothing behind except an old Hammond B3 Organ sitting in a corner of the living room. His daughter had called and asked if I wanted it. Free. Mine for the taking. I already had 2 so I passed but said that I’d call around to see if anybody would take it. I spent the better part of a day calling folks without any luck but later that evening I got a call from a deacon at the 32nd Street Baptist Church,
“We’ll take it. Bring it down here tomorrow at 11:00.”
Sunday morning I went across the street and got the keys to my neighbor’s pickup. My son and I crammed the organ, Leslie, bench and pedals into the back of the truck and off we went.
The 32nd Street Baptist church was only a few miles from our house. I’d played there before. I was surprised to see only a hand full of elderly parishioners in the church when we got there. The pastor stopped the service when he saw me and came out front to look at the organ. He instructed me,
“Back that truck right up to the vestibule”.
“The foyer” .
“Ah no. No sir, I’m not doing that”,
There was no room to get through between the two parked cars. 5 feet maybe. I wasn’t backing somebody else’s truck between two cars on a side street in Oakland on a Sunday morning. No. If I dinged one of them that could be a problem. A big problem.
He made a face,
“Give me the keys, I’ll do it”
He got in, put it in reverse and floored it. I squinted. Without slowing down he weaved between the parked cars, up the curb, across the sidewalk and stopped right at the front door of the church.
“I drove for Greyhound for 35 years”, as he tossed me the keys.
I believed him.
We pulled the organ off the truck and set it down just inside the front door. Simple enough. I drove home, returned the truck to my neighbor and then went and made lunch.
This was when I used to travel a lot. I’d be gone 6-7 months out of the year. Working like that makes everything kind of a blur. So when I got to the airport the next morning I didn’t remember much about moving that B3.
And I didn’t think about it for a few months. But then I ran into Marcus down on Lakeshore Ave. Marcus Walker sings like a bird and plays organ better than anybody I know. He’s the choir director at Triumph COGIC in Emeryville and was the one who contacted 32nd Street originally about the organ.
“Did they ever use that organ?”
“You didn’t hear?”
“Look, that church didn’t have an organ. If there’s no organ, there’s no choir, if there’s no choir there’s no young people and if there’s no young people in the congregation then everyone leaves and goes to another church. That church was dying but the worst part was what that church meant to neighborhood. People looked to them. It was a rock that the surrounding community had been built on.”
“So are they using the organ?”
“You bet. I went by there last Saturday night and the place was packed. The choir sounded great too.”
I waved to Marcus when he drove away then turned around and walked home. I guess I never technically owned that B3 but I felt like it was the best one I ever had.