A helmet, a Hammond and a podcast on Hunter Mountain

The scene: Hunter Ski Mountain, the express lift to the summit. It’s a Friday, a powder day too, but the mountain is not crowded: the storm has only just subsided and the masses have not yet made their way up from the City for the holiday weekend.

In the middle of the six-seater lift: a writer of British descent, rocking music from the iPhone playing through his new K2 Rival Pro Audio helmet. He’s blasting the latest Podcast of his British friend Jaffo’s ‘Blues and Grooves’ weekly radio show on Salford City Radio. Jaffo continually finds the obscure classics from older genres, and right now, he’s just launched into a number called “Hector” by the Village Callers, telling listeners it’s been sampled by Cypress Hill and Ice Cube, among others. A few seconds in, and a Hammond organ starts playing. It’s infectious. And good to hear: the author has been reading up a lot about the Hammond and the Leslie of late. You can’t mistake the sound. There was a time, around 1968, when you weren’t considered a real group – rock, pop, soul, funk, jazz, gospel or rock – without them.

The Hammond B-3 organ in all its pristine beauty. (Leslie speaker not shown.)

The author starts bobbing his head a little, the music is so good and the sound so clear. He’s in his own world to some extent, but after a few seconds, he notices the people either side of him are doing the same thing. He looks to his left. A snowboarder. Late 20s, early 30s. The guy is rocking his own head up and down. Looks to his right. An African-American guy, probably in his 50s. He’s doing the same thing, even swinging his upper body a little. You can’t dance on a chair lift unless you want to fall off, but these two are certainly doing their best. Neither is wearing ear-buds. That means they’re listening to Blues and Grooves as well, whether they want to or not. And it seems like they do.

The writer does another check to his left, another to his right. The snowboarder is all bundled up, and it’s hard to make out his expression, but the skier is not wearing a mask, and his goggles are clear, and as they catch each other’s eyes, he laughs at the writer’s double-take.

“Loving that music, man,” he says, loud enough for everyone on the lift to hear.

At that, the snowboarder chimes in. “Me, too. Is that Jimmy Smith?”

The question comes as a surprise. Jimmy Smith is a legend of the Hammond B-3, the legend when it comes to the jazz organists, but he is far from a household name. This rider knows his stuff.

“No,” says the author. “It’s a group called the Village Callers. But that’s got to be a Hammond.”

“Who is it again?” asks the ski-er.

“The Village Callers.”

“Don’t know it,” he says. “But I could listen to this Hammond-Leslie stuff all day.”

Hunter’s a hipper mountain than many, heavy with the young snowboard crowd. Occasionally the yurt on the terrain park will blast out hardcore punk. Generally speaking, though, the middle-aged adults tend to be successful blue collar/mid-level white collar types from the Jersey and NYC suburbs. Classic rockers, for the most part. Put it this way: the Saturday night entertainment at the bar this weekend is a Billy Joel covers band. These two, though, like the writer, don’t fit that stereotype.

“Song is called ‘Hector,’” says the author. “Named for their manager, says the DJ. Been sampled by the Beastie Boys and Cypress Hill.” He wants to go on to say that he knows all about the Village Callers, that they were Hispanics from East LA, that they grew out of a high school band in the mid-1960s, that they were straight-edge at the time of recording their lone album, the Village Callers Live!, in 1968, the year the Hammond sound was near ubiquitous, that ‘Hector’ was its only original composition – and that the organist Johnny Gonzalez openly admitted to the major influence of a certain Jimmy Smith. Oh, and that you can add the Beastie Boys, Wrecks-n-Effect and De La Soul to the list of those who sampled the track, mostly for the opening drum beats.

He can’t tell them any of this, however. He will not know as much until he gets home, gets online and gets on with researching the info. He will be disappointed with himself that such a well-sampled classic from a band of late 60s LA funk-soul-brothers had never caught his ear before, and he will wonder whether to admit as much if he shares the anecdote with others. But that is all to follow. For now, there’s just this perfect moment, suspended in mid-air, while the lift climbs to the summit, and these three guys, from entirely different backgrounds, groove openly, freely, to the same obscure tune.

Rival Pro Audio

The helmet in question. (Leslie speaker not shown.)

Once the track is done, they get to talking about the writer’s helmet, and how cool it is to have music around your ears but not in your ears, the way ear-buds and conventional headphones lock out any surrounding sounds, which on a ski mountain is not always a good thing. The writer tells the others to check out the Blues and Grooves podcast, if they’re into that kind of thing. And he can’t help himself. Tells his new buddies he has a B-3/Leslie rig at home. His father-in-law bequeathed it to him and his wife.

“Oh man,” says the younger snowboarder. “That’s amazing.”

“Do you play it?” asks the older skier.

“For certain,” says the author. There’s not enough time to get deeper into conversation, for him to tell them about the Catskill 45s and covering “Hip Hug-Her” and “Hush” and “Like A Rolling Stone” and “Magic Carpet Ride.” As the lift reaches the crest of the cliff, he just has enough time to say:

“Yeah, but I can’t take it anywhere with me. Not going to go building flight cases for that thing.” The combined weight of a Hammond organ and Leslie speaker is 445 pounds. In Michael Chabon’s latest novel Telegraph Avenue an older jazz organists dies when his Hammond collapses on him as he tries to load it into a van.

“Right, man, once it’s installed, it ain’t moving,” says the skier. “Good for you.”

The lift reaches the summit. Someone lifts up the guard rail and everyone prepares to disembark, to head their separate ways down the mountain.

“Thanks for the tune, man,” says the skier.

“The Village Callers,” says the snowboarder. “Gonna look out for that one.”

“Have a good run,” says the author, bidding the usual farewell, and he knows that his own one will be that much smoother for the experience. As he sets off to Hellgate, he wishes someone could have filmed the entire exchange. Maybe he’ll write it up when he gets home, he thinks. K2 should shoot it for a commercial.

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November 2021