Saturday, February 19, 2022

In Search of James Brown's Other Organ

A Saga of the B-3, Mr. Dynamite, and Funky Times 


When James Brown’s other organ changed hands, no one—except me and probably some other weirdos—realized it. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

So I'll start at the beginning.

The one Brown played in the studio was the first model of the Hammond B-3 electric organ, manufactured from 1935 to 1975. His record company, King in Cincinnati, kept it in the company's studio. Along with a rigged-up echo chamber and the studio's quirky design, the organ helped make the King Recording Studio known for rhythm and blues. Before the transistor days of the 1960s (and even later) the original B-3s came with a rotating tone wheel that created an electric current. The wheel was located near a magnetic pickup. Leslie speakers came with the instrument. Most likely King purchased its first B-3 in the early 1950s, just in time to intrigue Brown when he and the Famous Flames first arrived.  Brown would go on to record there until the studio closed in 1971.

Honestly, King's studio organ had no nickname. I gave it one. I referred to it as James Brown's other organ because he was the most famous entertainer to use it. Call it what you want: a touchstone of that era's music, a soul icon, a tube-talkin' hunk 'o' funk. Names don't matter. Performance does. The organ was, and probably still is, as gritty as Mr. Dynamite's screams. Wherever it is now, King's old B-3 has Brown's fingerprints all over it, invisible to the eye but forever lingering in a half-life. (His personal organ resides in the Smithsonian.)

The first time I saw it, on a cold night in Cincinnati about 1970, I nearly fainted. So did my music partner, Wayne Perry, who knew of the organ's reputation by observing recording sessions with the Dapps, Brown's white-soul discovery. Bob Patton, Brown's promotion man and his “stone go-getter,” as the hipsters used to say, had invited us to tour the creaky King factory. As we meandered through the plant, we stepped into the studio. That’s where I first spotted the B-3 in a dimly lit and oversized cubby hole.

“Wayne,” I shouted, “check this out! It’s James Brown’s organ!”

“Oh, no,” he said in disbelief. Moving closer, he stared at it as if we had discovered an Egyptian artifact. He turned to Bob and said, “Does it still work?”

Bob looked at him incredulously. “What do you mean does it work? It's worked for years. The thing’s been around the block. Impressive, isn't it?"

Wayne and I sat down and touched the keyboard, expecting some electronic lightning to strike. Suddenly we heard organ riffs blaring in our minds. Could it have been the dearly departed Dapps laying down a carpet of soul? Even then, I understood that an instrument doesn't make music history. It's made by the talented musicians who play it. 

This is why I refer to King's B-3 as James Brown's organ. Billed by Hammond as a "portable" instrument, the B-3s were anything but manageable in weight and size. (Don't believe anyone who claims size doesn't matter.) But I knew King's B-3 had plenty of soul power left in it. Many R&B and some rock hits of that time, including Brown's, featured the organ's familiar sound. Even Wayne's own blue-eyed soul band had one. The difference was obvious. The organ we saw at King that night was special because The Man had caressed its keyboard and turned vibes into vinyl. This one wasn't just a Hammond B-3; it was James Brown's organ.

"James sang, of course, but he loved playing organ," Bob told us. "Think of all the great musicians who came through this studio over twenty years. Bill Doggett practically lived in here. He was a great organist. But this organ was James', even though he didn't own it."

Soon after our visit, King fully merged with Starday Records in Nashville. I temporarily forgot about James Brown's organ to embrace the Italian Farfisa, the organ of the 1910 Fruitgum company. The name sounded like a sports car to me. I temporarily lost my mind as well as my soulful groove. When l soon tired of the Farfisa, I remembered James Brown, his organ, and the Dapps.  

I couldn’t forget the sound, so over the years I inquired about the organ whenever I met someone who had recorded with James or for King. My friend Wayne Bullock, an organist who once played for guitarist Lonnie Mack, also tried to keep track of Brown’s instrument, but lost its trail. In the mid-1960s, Bullock played it right there in the King studio. "King had two B-3s," he told me. "I guess the second one was used as a backup." The smooth, mesmerizing sound still resonates with him. 

He played his own B-3 for fifty years before he surrendered to a smaller digital keyboard model that could sound like a B-3. He hated to keep his old organ under a tarp, but he knew he could no longer load the instrument onto a truck bed. "I can’t understand how anyone could tour extensively with a B-3," he said. "That thing about killed me. It weighed 360 pounds. Oh, man, I dragged it along for years. One time, up in Minnesota or somewhere, Lonnie and the band arrived at a gig and found that the dance hall was on the second or third floor. My organ wouldn’t fit inside the elevator doors. It was an inch or so too wide. Two of the guys in the band helped me lug it up a metal fire escape. It’s a wonder we didn't all get hernias. At the top, we tilted the thing, and just as we were ready to shove it through the outside door, the fire escape broke free of the building and sort of hung there. But we managed to get the organ inside. Getting that thing back downstairs was a nightmare too. I prefer not to think of it." 

Bullock used his B-3 when he played in soul and rock bands for decades. He played it on the first record that Wayne Perry ever produced. By 2021, however, he grew tired of being tired. How could he take it to an occasional gig? Nobody his age was strong enough to help. So he bought a small digital keyboard that could make all kinds of organ sounds, including the sound of the B-3. Still, he couldn't stand the thought of parting with his behemoth. In time, he knew he had to sell it. And he did. Whoever owns it now owns a piece of history, made by a veteran of every beer joint and night club from Dayton to Cincinnati. Somewhere inside the organ lives the 1960s and the smoky atmosphere of the Inner Circle, the Halfway Inn, the Surf Club, and Kip's A-Go-Go. 


Years later, while down in Hendersonville, Tennessee, near Nashville, I went looking for an older record producer named Tommy Hill, a 1940s country singer who started working as a staff producer at Starday Records and never left. He produced so many old country-music hits that he couldn't remember them all. Even in the late 1960s, the Starday building looked tacky. Since the early 1970s, I saw it every time I went to Nashville. I noticed that it continued to look worse by the year. By the late 1990s, I couldn't believe anyone had the courage to work in it. In fact, I thought the place was closed. But experience has taught me something: looks don't matter. Only the sound does. A studio might not look attractive, but if it creates hits, stick with it. The nastier the exterior and interior of a studio, the funkier the sound. Some people like to list the country's best studios; I prefer to absorb the best of the worst. This is another reason why I wanted to poke around Starday one day in late 1999. Finding every door locked, I was ready to give up. Then on my way back to my car I found a door that would open.

As I boldly wandered into the studio's control room, the session band stopped playing. Five musicians stared at me with apprehension. Then Tommy asked me timidly, “You from the union?” I laughed. The band resumed playing.

After everyone else had left, Tommy and I talked for a long time. He was a genteel and soft-spoken man. I began inquiring about equipment. When I stopped asking my questions, I remembered one of personal interest. What came from the King studio in Cincinnati? He remembered the recorders and everything else, from the Neumann mics to the file cabinets.

I asked, "Whatever happened to the B-3, the hot one that James Brown used?"

Tommy stared at me, then broke into a grin. "You want to see it?"

He led me to one end of the battered old studio that made King's look almost like the Taj Mahal. He stood in front of what appeared to be a big table covered by a sheet or a tarp. On top sat a stack of large reel-to-reel tape boxes and some junk. As if on cue, he pulled off the sheet as fast as a magician yanking off the cover of trick bird cage.

I stood there aghast. “Why does it look smaller than it did forty years ago?”

Tommy chuckled. "Everything looks smaller than it did forty years ago."

"Do you use it a lot?"

"Not often. We don't have much need for the organ because our clients are mostly making country records, and we have country boys playing on our sessions. We don't get too much call for a B-3. And if they do need one, the musicians usually bring in their modern keyboards. They sound just like the real thing anyway."

I shook my head, imagining Brown's fingers riding the keys of the dinosaur that sat before me.

"Tommy," I said with a sigh, "thanks for keeping the organ covered. I know James would appreciate your discretion."

Fast forward to February 2022. I received a message from a friend who said the old Starday complex, including the studio, had been razed. He lamented its passing, but admitted that sewage had been leaking inside, and the brown paint was peeling off the exterior walls, and some parts of the building were off limits. The place appeared to be a sonic Chernobyl. Nonetheless, some people wanted to save it for history's sake. Sadly, the days of Cowboy Copas and Red Sovine joining Tommy to record had ended. Tommy was working in a country-music tomb.

Reflecting on the Starday building and organ later that day, I wondered who had bought the King B-3 and how many hits it had helped create. I wondered if the proud new owner knows whose hands had touched it and made it moan with familiar R&B licks. I asked myself whether James Brown's organ is now in the hands of an evangelical preacher. An odd juxtaposition for an organ's life, I suppose, but then a church seemed like a fitting place for it.

As for me, I don't plan to search for James Brown's organ any longer. The 360-pound goliath lives on, I'm sure, and if we're lucky it has it has found someone who can play it with sincerity. Yet the memory of it lives in people like Wayne Bullock, me, you, and whomever is left of the Dapps.

Wayne Bullock: Veteran organist at his B-3.

Starday Records complex, 1999.

Producer Tommy Hill, keeper of the past.