Wednesday, 19 March 2014

I salute the mighty organ - the instrument that went from zero to hero in 1960s pop music

Organs became big in 1959 when they featured as lead instrument in three major pop hits – Dave “Baby” Cortez’s chart-topping “The Happy Organ” (not to mention "The Whistling Organ" - now there's a novelty!), “White Silver Sands” by the Bill Black Combo, and Johnny and the Hurricane’s “Red River Rock”. Within a few short years, organs had shaken off their cheerful, vaguely comic “novelty” tag and were all over the pop charts: by the mid-Sixties, they were dead hip.

Of course, the instrument was widely used before 1959, first in theatres and then by American radio stations, but – apart from the jazz records released by Jimmy Smith from 1956 onwards – it was generally buried somewhere deep in the mix on recordings (for instance, in Bill Doggett’s 1956 classic, “Honky Tonk” and Lee Allen's 1958 hit "Walking with Mr Lee"). Perez Prado’s insanely catchy “Guaglione” (1958) and “Patricia” from the same year were exceptions: please tell me if I’m wrong, but they’re the first mainstream hits I can think of where the organ was centre-stage.

So what happened in the ‘60s that allowed the organ to take its place alongside the
Booker T. Jones
electric guitar, bass and drums – and largely to supplant the saxophone – as a regular rock instrument? Well, I’m not sure. Certainly, the sound produced by Booker T’s mighty Hammond on “Green Onions” – to this day the coolest R&B instrumental ever released – must have had something to do with it. Perhaps it also had something to do with its use on vocal hits at that time – including Del Shannon's “Runaway” (albeit a home-built electronic device rather than a commercially-available organ), Chris Montez's bouncy “Let’s Dance” and the Freddie Cannon classic, “Palisades Park”. It probably had something to do with the introduction of lighter, portable “combo” organs from manufacturers such as Vox and the Italian company, Farfisa. Anything to do with recording techniques? Again, I just don't know.

The two great organ-flaunting groups of the early ‘60s were both British Invasion giants – the Dave Clark Five (who were particularly big in the US) and The Animals. I suspect the sight of the DC5’s lead singer, Mike Smith, and the sound of The Animal’s Alan Price  helped the virus-like spread of the combo organ across Britain and America in the mid-Sixties. To this day there are few more thrilling sounds in the history of pop than Price’s sublimely soulful organ solo on “House of the Rising Sun”. After that, of course, it was used by Al Kooper to create "that thin... wild mercury sound” of Blonde on Blonde-era Bob Dylan recordings. Numerous White Boy R&B groups used it (e.g. Georgie Fame, Zoot Money, Graham Bond etc.); it became a staple of Soul music (most notably the aforementioned Booker T. at Stax and the wonderful Spooner Oldham at Muscle Shoals); it was beloved of 1960s US garage bands (Sam the Sham, The Swinging Medallions); Hippies and Prog Rockers adopted it in droves (Pink Floyd, ELP); it was the basis of The Doors' Rock sound; Heavy Metal and Reggae incorporated it (Deep Purple, Bob Marley); and it was still thriving during the Punk/New Wave era (The Stranglers, Elvis Costello & The Attractions), during which period its mutant offspring - the synthesiser - was already heading for world domination.

When it comes to pop music, I've always been keener on the organ than the piano - odd, given that the organ was never knowingly used in my favourite genre, rockabilly, and rarely employed in early rock 'n' roll. Anyway, I had trouble getting to sleep last night and started making a mental list of my all-time favourite organ-based records (as you do). I must have got past sixty before finally dropping off. Here, in no particular order – and for no particular reason – are ten of my organ-based favourites:

Oh, okay, here's No. 11:

And I forgot to mention Surf, so here's No. 12:

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