The Hammond B-3 Blues

When my father-in-law passed away several years ago, we were kindly bequeathed what I had long believed to be the crowing jewel of his earthly possessions: his pristine condition Hammond B-3 organ and accompanying Leslie rotary speaker. I believe that he, his wife and their other children all thought that it should go to the most musically obsessed members of the family, and the fact that I can tickle the ivories and once carried around a self-speakered B-3 to Apocalypse gigs certainly counted in our favor.

The dual pieces of equipment were duly transported to our Brooklyn house, where they were crammed into our tiny living room, evicting our book cases in the process. Over subsequent years, though the Hammond got a certain amount of play and a large amount of compliments, it was never fully and truly utilized; it just wasn’t quite the right environment. And on the few occasions I opened it up, I had a sense that while the exterior was in absolutely beautiful condition, while there was not a broken key or surface scratch, and while my father-in-law had even kept the original manuals in equally perfect condition, that it didn’t seem to be playing 100% correctly. Once we determined, by late 2004, that we would be moving out of the City, I vowed to put this all to rights in the Catskills.

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

However, when we made the move upstate, the organ went into temporary professional storage; it certainly wasn’t going to fit into our ‘weekend’ home that we lived out of while looking for a ‘full-time’ home to buy. As you’ll know if you’re a regular reader, we ended up building rather than buying, and the temporary storage lasted almost two years (ouch!), but still, two weeks ago, the treasured equipment was delivered, still in perfect condition, and placed against brand new living room walls where it will hopefully be a central talking and playing piece. I was so thrilled to have it again that I immediately lifted the lift and … no doubt about it, there was unpleasant distortion that suggested a blown speaker, a broken tube or maybe something worse. At minimum volume, the organ hinted at the sound that has enthralled thousands of musicians and millions of listeners; but at anything approaching decent decibelage, it sounded awful. Rather than let it sit as it had in Brooklyn, I determined to put it straight to rights.

Finding a technician initially proved fruitless: though Woodstock is full of professional musicians, calls to local music shops came up empty. The Hammond web-site proved more forthcoming, even as it took me on a temporary detour via the fascinating story of the almost epochal battle between Laurens Hammond and Don Leslie. I called listed technicians in the cities of Hudson and Poughkeepsie, each about 50-60 miles away, and the first to call me back, from the latter, clearly knew his stuff; I could tell from his voice that he had a long, long history of working this equipment. I would have to pay his driving time, of course, but after discussing my Hammond’s problems, he didn’t seem to feel he would have too much to do once he arrived; besides, he told me, he would come armed with the necessary tubes.

He did more than that. He came equipped with oscillators, spectrums, voltage chargers, $100 tubes and $30 bolts, all the kind of Hammond and Leslie accessories that you can’t find in the shops anymore. More than that, he came armed with a lifetime of knowledge; turns out he’s not only one of the few qualified Hammond/Leslie technicians on the east coast, but trains others to do the same job. As such, he’s part of a dying breed; while he took one look at the equipment and told me that we could immediately sell it for x thousand dollars to “any black church in the Hudson Valley,” he later lamented of the dozens, even hundreds, of lesser organs that once belonged to people much like my father-in-law. Such equipment, while ostensibly beautiful and in need of only minor repair, has no sell-on market – not in an age where you can buy digital keyboards for $3-400 that come pre-loaded with all these old analogue organ sounds – and our technician has no intent of building a personal collection of functioning but over-sized and essentially worthless 1970s organs as the generation that bought them gradually dies off. Sad as that sounds, it’s like anything material, from old record albums to old cars: the best maintain their value, their cult status, their collectability, and their usability; the rest end up in landfill.

Is it an organ? Or is it a synthesizer? The back of the Hammond B-3 suggests it’s more a prototype synth. The Spacebox Expander at right was an addition.

The Hammond/Leslie combo being in the former camp, he got swiftly to work. He noted that the percussion effect (which I so remember using on ‘Teddy’) wasn’t working, nor was the chorale-tremolo switch (I’d kind of suspected as much, but had never really run a full test from A-Z) and he was as bugged by the distortion as myself. I tried to leave him to it, but it was difficult; he wanted to share his knowledge, and I wanted to hear it, especially as we opened up the back of the Hammond and he explained everything from the speeds that power the drive system to how the tremolo works. Because physics and engineering are not my strong points, I even got out the digital camera and filmed him giving me a mini-lecture.

Most fascinating of the Hammond’s many idiosyncratic traits is the company’s use of cadmium sulfide, a compound that, when first invented, was touted as being able to preserve the metal chassis from corrosion. Unfortunately, and like (though not as deadly as) thalidomide or asbestos, it turned out to have unintended side-effects. Cadmium sulfide provokes “dendritic growth”; in other words the compound sprouts little metal hairs that take over the chassis. You only need one or two of them to get inside the knobs and switches themselves and they end up causing chaos. My knowledgeable technician got down with a flashlight and a magnifying glass and showed me the chassis for myself; sure enough, what might have initially passed for dust was clearly some kind of metal hair, sticking up on end as if astounded by its own power for damage.

He gave the dendritic growth some of its own medicine, sending electric shocks through the system in the hope of burning it out (without, of course, burning out the equipment itself). To a degree it worked; we got the percussion working again. A new tube (fortunately only a $30 one) somewhat cleaned up the sound. Some jiggling and rewiring fixed the chorus/tremolo. But still we – well, he – could not find the root of the distortion. Every time he tested the Leslie out with his oscillators and spectrums, it seemed to be functioning perfectly; every time he used the same equipment on the Hammond, ditto. He got on the phone to the man he consider the greatest Hammond-Leslie technician on the east coast. They ended up having two conversations, and each time my technician emphasized that our combo was “very clean,” by which I took him to mean that, while it was distorted as all hell, it was otherwise in wonderful condition and called out to be repaired.

Look closely and you’ll see the dendritic growth, emerging from the chassis like tiny little stalagmites of hair standing on edge. They’re a result of the overly optimistic use of cadmium sulfide by the manufacturors.

Four hours of servicing later and he was stumped. He asked to take the Leslie’s own amp home with him so as to run tests from his own Hammond pre-amps. We agreed that he should only work on it during ‘down time’ so as to keep costs down, but he was clearly on a mission; he called me back three days later – on a Sunday – happy to tell me that the Leslie was running absolutely clean through his own equipment, that he now knew for certain the problem was in the Hammond pre-amp itself and that he suspected this damn dendritic growth was still the source. He will come back absolutely determined to rid of this strange chemical-growth infestation and get us a fully functioning, otherwise pristine Hammond B-3/Leslie rotary speaker combo.

The cost of this service is absolutely what I did not need or want after watching the budget of our house spiral out of control. But this old-timer appears very sensitive to that concern; having not anticipated so much repair work either, he assures me he will keep his bills down. That said, this is one occasion where the old adage ‘throwing good money after bad’ simply does not apply. If you’ve been lucky enough to be bequeathed something you had always coveted but could never have afforded, if you’re fortunate enough to have finally created a space where it can shine and, especially, if you’re fortunate enough to find a technician who cares about the ageing equipment as if it was his own, you have no real choice but to bite the bullet, write the check and find yourself with the organ player’s equivalent of a Steinway or Stradivarius. Watch this space. Or just keep listening. For when it’s fixed, so I’m assured, it should be clear enough and loud enough to wake the neighbors. Given how far away they live, that should be quite something!

Want to hear the Hammond B-3 in all its recorded glory? Go to the amazing and enter ‘Hammond B3’ in its search engine. In its first three responses, Pandora has just given me music by Richard ‘Groove’ Holmes, Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters, and the inimitable Jimmy McGriff, arguably the greatest R&B B-3 player that’s ever lived.

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