Heavy Lifting: The Hammond Organ Has a Special Place in Austin ... I Should Know
Austin’s an epicenter for an instrument that stopped being manufactured 47 years ago
The Hammond organ – it's heavy, it's hard to move, you basically become a lifelong van owner if you play one, and I've often said, "If your back doesn't hurt – it doesn't sound right."
But I have to admit it, I love the Hammond: the sound, the versatility, the power, the dynamics. I've been inspired by the players that have played and still play it. Each person that sits down and plays has their own sound and ideas – so much so that the organ takes on their personality. Even though it's the same instrument, to the listener it sounds like a different instrument with each artist.
I first heard it in the Sixties on songs like "Green Onions," "Gimme Some Lovin'," "House of the Rising Sun," and "Oye Como Va" and was inspired by its use through artists like the Allman Brothers, Deep Purple, Pink Floyd, and Jimmy Smith. Eighteen years old and sneaking into clubs in Ft. Worth, I couldn't afford an organ at the time, but knew one day I wanted to have one. In my late teens I moved to Springfield, Mass., and there were several clubs that had Hammond organs and also players who knew how to play them – so I watched and learned. It's not an instrument you learn from books or YouTube, but by watching someone make different combinations of the drawbars – using the two manuals and foot pedals – and then you develop your own playing style, adding your own ideas and sounds to make it the way you hear it in your head. Uniquely, the Hammond organ can blend in with any style of music being played and any size band. Piano, guitar, and saxophone all have their own sound, but the Hammond can be mellow, aggressive, sweet, or full. It can surround a vocalist or be a lead instrument or do the work of a full big band or orchestra, depending on how well you can play it.
The original organ was made by hand and the machines that made the tone wheels and other equipment since 1935 were destroyed in a fire in 1975. During that time, though, more than 2 million were made and many are still in use today. There were different models and the electronics changed over the years, but the tonewheel engine was the same in all models, including the A-100, the C-3, the D-100, and of course, the definitive concert model: the B-3.
I bought my first Hammond organ at age 23, in 1971, after playing the clubs in Springfield, and then bought a van and drove it around New England for the next three years, playing gigs. In 1974 I joined a band in Houston backing up legendary Fifties singer Lloyd Price, then came back to Ft. Worth and played solo at the London House restaurant on piano and organ and at the HOP near Texas Christian University with the Ham Brothers band. Over the next three years I did countless recording sessions and concerts and then, in 1976, I joined Sonny & Cher thanks to guitarist Bill Ham. After that I toured with British vocalist Joan Armatrading and then moved to Los Angeles – taking my organ on the road for the next three years.
In the Eighties, I retired my Hammond from the road and kept it in recording studios. In 1984, after tours with Eric Burdon and Linda Ronstadt, I moved back to Ft. Worth. That marked the beginning of Red & the Red Hots, my first turn as a marquee bandleader. We recorded an album and I moved back to L.A. for the next 14 years, having success in performances, TV, movies, and in concert. During that time, I'd rent my organ to recording sessions – moving the 400-pound instrument and its accompanying 130-pound Leslie speaker by myself. Eventually, in 1998, I started playing it live again in L.A. clubs.
By that time, I'd been on a four-decade journey with the Hammond organ, through changing sounds – like the emergence of synthesizers, drum machines, and sampled music in the Eighties – and it going in and out of vogue. All those years later, I still loved the sound – especially live. Music has a way of coming around full circle.
In 2000 I wanted to play more Hammond, but there were few places to do that in L.A., so with the help of some friends, I did a little tour of Texas with my organ trio, playing nine gigs over 10 days, and found the audience receptive – especially in Austin at the Continental Club. Looking around Austin, I found Antone's had a Hammond organ, but if you wanted to play one outside of there, you had to bring your own. Around that time I met Mike Flanigin as he sat in on a gig I did at Speakeasy. You could say the desire to play the Hammond organ brought me to Austin because there was the opportunity to play and lots of clubs to play in – plus several club owners who were supportive of it.
After I moved and began playing my organ weekly with a trio that included Ephraim Owens and Brannen Temple, I saw quite a few places that would be suitable for Hammond, plus a very active music scene and live audience support. Flanigin had spent time in Boston where there were many knowledgeable organ players who coached him and there were instruments to play in the area, similar to how I learned in Western Massachusetts.
To learn, you really need three ingredients: the organ, the players, and the clubs. In Texas there wasn't a scene like that ... yet.
I knew Ian McLagan, who'd played in Faces and with the Rolling Stones, lived in Austin, as did Gregg Rolie, who'd sung and played organ in Santana and Journey, plus Riley Osbourn, Nick Connolly, and Mel Brown, but I was excited when Dr. James Polk came into Ludwig's Bar on Fourth Street and listened to me play. I knew he played organ with Ray Charles and at Jimmy Smith's club in L.A. After a few weeks of coaxing, he came up and sat in with me – finally!
Along with Ludwig's, I also started playing at the Elephant Room, while Flanigin would play the B-3 at a Sixth Street club called Jazz, A Louisiana Kitchen. During that time I'd drive to Dallas weekly to play clubs there and was a partner of one called Django on the Parkway. I also rejoined Eric Burdon, touring with his band from 2006 to 2016.
In 2007, Ephraim, Brannen, and I started a weekly gig at Lamberts and called it Black Red Black. Once, I got stuck in the historic building's tiny elevator while moving the organ up to the second floor, and sometimes, after leaving my instrument behind the stage, aromas from Lamberts' kitchen would stick to my Hammond. I'd be driving in my van to a gig and get a whiff of barbecue. Black Red Black recorded our first album upstairs there, with Shelley Carrol on sax and Gary Clark Jr. on guitar, ultimately winning Best Jazz Band in the Austin Music Awards.
In the meantime, Flanigin moved his organ up to a new venue Steve Wertheimer owned that he wanted to use as an overflow and waiting room for his shows at the Continental Club. Barry "Frosty" Smith – an incredible drummer who'd played in the Sixties with organist/singer Lee Michaels – joined him on drums Thursday through Saturday. It took awhile to get the room, eventually known as the Gallery, going, as it wasn't advertised, but it became a hot spot for eclectic jazz and generally creative music. Ephraim Owens started playing on Tuesdays and Brannen and I joined Ephraim, with me playing on Flanigin's organ. I moved my Hammond to the Elephant Room and did monthly shows there with two horns. Meanwhile, the Brass House on San Jacinto added to Austin's Hammond organ arsenal, and south side listening room Strange Brew had an A-100 that many played as well. Black Red Black took up residence at the Highball on South Lamar and, when it got torn down, we moved across the street to One-2-One Bar for a few years, while also playing with the Ephraim Owens Experience at the Gallery.
Little by little, a Hammond organ scene in Austin was growing – which only attracted more players.
Flanigin continued at the Gallery and added Jimmie Vaughan or Johnny Moeller on guitar, while on Wednesday nights Anthony Farrell from the Greyhounds moved in, Ephraim continued on Tuesday, and Elias Haslanger with Dr. James Polk on organ recorded and started playing under the banner Church on Monday.
Wertheimer then acquired Trophy's on South Congress and turned it into C-Boy's, and Flanigin and Vaughan moved there with yet another Hammond. Then Steve acquired another Hammond for downstairs at the Continental Club, which is in use as well.
"The Hammond upstairs in the Gallery probably gets played four to five times a week out of the six nights we're open," Wertheimer said in a recent discussion about organs in Austin. "The one at C-Boy's gets played at least three or four times a week. For a while I thought it was a dying art, but now that we've provided that instrument, it seems like there's more and more great keyboard players out there interested in playing it. There may be a lot of people who didn't know they wanted to be organ players, then they sat down on the bench and tried it out and loved the sound, which I do too – that's why I have them. They're a pain in the ass to maintain, they're a pain in the ass to move around, they're expensive, and there's nothing else that sounds like them."
After C-Boy's came into the organ landscape, some of the Gallery residents moved over to the sister business, opening spots for other acts like the Lost Counts, with Nate Basinger on Hammond, playing Friday and Saturday at the Gallery. The scene continued to grow.
When the legendary blues club Antone's, no stranger to having a house organ in its 45-plus-year history, reopened on Fifth Street in 2016, I furnished it with an organ – my fourth Hammond, which I was gifted by someone who wanted to learn it but never got around to it. Austin's organ atmosphere continued to develop in 2018 when Parker Jazz Club opened in the Warehouse District and owner/jazz musician Kris Kimura bought the Brass House's old Hammond.
So at this point, Austin has seven venues – Antone's, C-Boy's, Continental Club, Elephant Room (I move my XK-5 when I play there), the Gallery, Parker Jazz Club, and Sam's Town Point – where Hammonds live onstage, and shows every night of the week where you can hear someone playing one.
How many cities can you say that about? I've been around the country – and the world – in all my travels and never seen another. People are astounded, rightly, by how many organs in residence we have.
I moved my personal Hammond B-3, the one I'd bought in 1971, to the Gallery last October. I wanted to have a great instrument for myself and Dr. James Polk to play and also have younger musicians come in and see what this is all about.
It's wonderful to see an instrument I have such passion for being used every night of the week. In a conversation with Mike Flanigin, we both compared notes on how we learned and found it's a communal thing. We learn by watching and listening to each other, being inspired by the audience and other musicians, and having the encouragement to laugh and have fun while we're playing it.
There's no other instrument that's as complete as the Hammond – it involves every limb of your body: You play bass with your feet or your hands, you use both hands and change sounds while you play. You can make it talk and do anything you can conceive in your head. On my Wednesday nights at the Gallery, it's the Brannen & Red Show, playing everything Jimmy Smith, Sly Stone, Weather Report, Count Basie, or Quincy Jones did with a full band or orchestra. On Monday at "Church," it's Elias and Dr. Polk going back to the Fifties and Sixties with sax, Hammond, guitar, bass, and drums. Later on Mondays, it's the Michael Hale Organ Trio with Jonathan Deas of Gary Clark Jr.'s band on Hammond and many younger keyboard players, plus myself, sitting in.
Sean Giddings of the Ephraim Owens Experience holds down the Gallery on Tuesdays, while Josh Perdue plays on Friday and Saturday with Sam Witt. Downstairs, at the Continental, it's the Blues Specialists, the Peterson Brothers, and others with the Hammond organ in use as well. C-Boy's has Mike and Jimmie on Friday and Saturday, but many other weekly shows with Hammond. Parker has had touring acts like Philadelphia's Joey DeFrancesco. Antone's has many organ groups and we've had organ summits there, plus bookings of everyone from Booker T. to Ike Stubblefield, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Neal Francis, and Leon Roberts.
For an instrument that stopped being built 47 years ago, the Hammond organ sounds as good and unique as it did when I first bought mine in 1971. And the ones that are learning now will be carrying on this tradition because we have created a great, creative spot on the planet where you can hear and see this incredible instrument. I'm proud to have been a part of the process of honoring and moving music forward, but also looking back here in Austin and in the world.
Red Young is an Austin-based organist and pianist who has performed alongside artists including Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, Eric Burdon, Linda Ronstadt, Tanya Tucker, and Sonny & Cher in addition to fronting his own projects, including Red & the Red Hots.