The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

8 September 2004

The music goes round and round

Few keyboard instruments have been as influential in popular music as the Hammond B-3 organ, unveiled by Laurens Hammond in 1935. In order to give it something like the flexibility of pipe organs, Hammond came up with a set of drawbars — nine of them, each with eight positions — that provided the kind of timbre control available with pipe-organ stops.

There were two things beyond the B-3's capabilities, though: it couldn't travel solo — it required an external speaker — and it couldn't do any real vibrato. The man who solved both these problems at one shot was Donald James Leslie, who in 1940 came up with an external cabinet that contained two rotating horns (one high-frequency, one low-frequency) through which the speakers projected their sound. What's more, the rotation speed and angle were adjustable over wide ranges.

Leslie's Electro Music company began building these speakers in Pasadena, California in 1945; he had offered the technology to Hammond, but was turned down. Still, organists found the Leslie to be a superb companion to the B-3, and bought them in droves. Hammond, infuriated, reworked their speaker outputs to be incompatible with the Leslie's inputs. Hammond dealers were forbidden to sell Leslies, and Hammond briefly offered an in-console rotational system that proved to be a poor substitute for a Leslie. Nothing Hammond did, though, made any difference: you bought a B-3, you went somewhere else and got a Leslie for it, and you had yourself a world-class electronic organ. Eventually, Hammond started looking the other way when their dealers stocked Leslies, and many Hammond artists would demand that Leslies be available for their live performances.

In 1965, Leslie sold his company to CBS; the following year, Hammond — Laurens Hammond had retired in 1960 — cut a deal with CBS to buy Leslie speakers directly. The old war was over, and in 1980 Suzuki, having acquired the Hammond company, bought out CBS's interest in Leslie.

And it turned out that Leslie speakers had uses beyond sitting beside an organ; when John Lennon worked up "Tomorrow Never Knows," the most ambitious track on Revolver, he got the voice-through-a-tunnel effect by feeding the microphone to a Leslie.

As for Don Leslie himself, he retired in 1980, still in the San Gabriel Valley, and died last week at ninety-three. I think I'll dig up some Jimmy Smith discs in his honor.

Posted at 8:51 PM to Tongue and Groove


TrackBack: 10:32 AM, 9 September 2004
» Why blog? from marcland
Because you can learn the true story of Hammond and Leslie.......[read more]

Interesting. Very interesting.

Oh, and Jimmy Smith is amazing.

Posted by: marc at 10:33 AM on 9 September 2004

It's a fascinating tale, and as an erstwhile keyboard wannabe — we actually owned a Hammond for a while, though not a B-3 — I couldn't let it go by unnoticed.

Harvey Olsen has done some serious exploration of the Hammond/Leslie relationship over the years; his findings can be, and should be, read at http://www.mitatechs.com/leslierumors.html.

Posted by: CGHill at 12:04 PM on 9 September 2004

I too am a former B-3 owner. What a marvelous device it was -- and is!

There are keyboardists who won't play unless they can get the B-3 sound to issue from their instruments. There's never been anything to match it.

Rest in peace, Mr. Leslie.

Posted by: Francis W. Porretto at 5:55 PM on 9 September 2004

Very interesting. I don't think an electro-gizwhiz has been made yet that will duplicate a B-3 with a pair of Leslies. Unfortunately, they were a bitch to carry.

Posted by: Jim - PRS at 2:30 PM on 12 September 2004