It was a century ago that the great composer, pianist and organist Fats Waller (1904-43) introduced the organ to the world of jazz. Count Basie later, though briefly, took up the keys-and-pedals beast but it took another couple of decades for Wild Bill Davis (1918-95) to pioneer and popularize the “organ trio” format in jazz.
Davis, a veteran of Louis Jordan’s Tympani Five – and arranger of the Count Basie Orchestra’s 1955 hit “April in Paris” – played the organ like a big band, or, as Geoff Alexander put it in 1988’s The Jazz Organ: A Brief History, a “rhythm-and-blues based organ style with crescendoing, large chords and heavy emphasis on [the] volume pedal.”
When Jimmy Smith’s (1925-2005) second Blue Note album, A New Sound A New Star: Jimmy Smith at the Organ Volume 2 (a.k.a. The Champ), came out in 1956, his new sound indeed made him a jazz star. While All About Jazz claimed that the record was more “bebop oriented” than the first volume, what listeners heard here was jazz with more blues, more gospel and, more importantly, much more soul. Little wonder it was such a hit.
Suddenly, jazz organ trios were everywhere: on records, in clubs, on jukeboxes, and even in many lounges, from airports to suburban neighborhoods – where it eventually became a cliché. When Smith hit it big in 1962 with “Walk on the Wild Side,” from the album Bashin’ and propelled by Oliver Nelson’s big-band backing, organ records were cranked out faster than most people could buy them. If they even knew about them.
Major jazz labels like Blue Note and Prestige signed a slew of organ players: Baby Face Willette, Big John Patton, Larry Young, Freddie Roach, Lonnie Smith and Reuben Wilson at the former and Shirley Scott (later, just about the only organist on Impulse), Johnny “Hammond” Smith (later as Johnny Hammond), Jack McDuff, Trudi Pitts and Don Patterson at the latter.
Curiously, other major jazz labels such as Verve (where Jimmy Smith reigned mightily for most of the next decade) and Impulse surprisingly avoided the organ-trio wave almost completely. There may well have been a very specific reason for this…but that’s not the point here.
Other smaller labels – like Pacific Jazz, which had Charles Kynard (later on Prestige) and Richard “Groove” Holmes (later on Prestige and Blue Note), or the tiny Sue label, which had Jimmy McGriff (later at Sonny Lester’s many labels) – put out great and exciting organ jazz that had some modicum of popularity.
Booker T. & the M.G.s’ 1962 R&B instrumental hit “Green Onions” likely had as much to do with the rising – if mercilessly brief – popularity of organ-based jazz as well.
By the early sixties, organ jazz had a well-defined sound and style. People either loved the fatback of its grits and gravy or loathed it as a roller-rink music. Still, every major city in America had at least one jazz joint where a local organ trio could be heard. And bars everywhere had jukeboxes blasting organ jazz to approving, if not inebriated, patrons.
It didn’t last long. Only a few years later, electronic keyboards like electric pianos, Fender Rhodes and, later, synthesizers came along. Not only did these keyboards sound cooler and more contemporary, they were much easier for players to move from gig to gig than the bulky, heavy organ.
Even the music had a short shelf life. This sort of organ jazz quickly wore out its welcome. While straight jazzers never had much respect for the music, the “electrifying” addition of bass and guitar added a new dimension of “funk” to the equation.
Organ grinders more or less disappeared until the “acid jazz” revival in the nineties brought back heavy hitters like Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff and Charles Earland as well as young guns James Taylor Quartet and, notably, Joey DeFrancesco (both of whom moved the needle ahead – if not in different directions). These days, too few proponents wade in this water. But, to these ears, the Seattle-based Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio reigns supreme. (Are there others? I’d love to know.)
Here, we journey back to the “juke joint,” where the music smoked more than the patrons and the groove was greasier than the food. A few boundaries were set for the following choices, but it’s always fun to go a little out of bounds. There must be much more of this locally-sourced stuff out there. If you have any juke-joint suggestions, please comment below and we’ll work out some sequels. Enjoy!
”Brother Daniel” – The Lou Bennett Quartet (1960)
Like Rhoda Scott, American jazz organist Lou Bennett (1926-97) spent the majority of his career in France. The Philadelphia-born Bennett was attracted to the organ after hearing Jimmy Smith in 1956. He left the country shortly thereafter – returning only once more, briefly in 1964. Bennett’s “Brother Daniel” comes from his debut album Amen, featuring the great bebop drummer and fellow American émigré Kenny Clarke (who also played often with French organ grinder Eddy Louiss). Please note: The video above is not the studio original but a live performance from 1960 for French TV by Bennett and drummer Franco Manzecchi.
”Caramu” – Sam Lazar (1960)
From mid-west organist Sam Lazar’s (b. 1933) 1960 debut album Space Flight, featuring the soon-to-be legendary Grant Green on guitar and blues great Willie Dixon on bass. (A cover of Dixon’s classic “My Babe,” a hit for Little Walter in 1955, appears here as well.) Lazar waxed only three records for Argo in the early sixties, but Space Flight is the most memorable – although “Scootin,” from Lazar’s third disc, Playback may be better known. Space Flight was issued on CD in 2007 under the guitarist’s name as part of Grant Green Organ Trio and Quartet.
“A Taste of Honey” – Lloyd G. Mayers (1962)
This one is a bit of a cheat. But an absolutely necessary inclusion even so. Unlike other tunes sampled here, this “Honey” is, first, a cover and, second, an organ-combo number bolstered by Oliver Nelson’s signature big band. But this version of “A Taste of Honey” is one of the three tunes that initially inspired this set in the first place. Just one listen will tell you why.
The Brooklyn-born Mayers (b. 1929) was better known as a pianist. To my knowledge, this is his only outing on organ. Indeed, Mayers’ album, also titled A Taste of Honey - released in August 1962, a mere three months after its model, Jimmy Smith’s Oliver Nelson-arranged Bashin’ - is the only album released under Mayers’ own name.
Inspired by Art Tatum and Bud Powell, pianist Mayers had previously played with Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis and Joe Newman and would go on to play with Lou Donaldson. Mayers, without his middle initial, would later move on to several Broadway productions, most notably Sophisticated Ladies in 1981. Mayers employs his Tatum and Powell influences here to deliver a scalding organ performance that few can match.
Bobby Scott and Ric Marlow’s intoxicating ”A Taste of Honey” was popular among listeners of jazz (Victor Feldman, Paul Desmond, Duke Pearson), pop (The Beatles) and easy-listening (Martin Denny, Acker Bilk, Herb Alpert). Most of these were even hits.
The song was written for the 1960 Broadway production of the 1958 British play, yet remarkably did not at all appear in Tony Richardson’s 1961 film of the same name: now chiefly remembered as the film debut of Rita Tushingham, lately of Last Night in Soho, and as a huge inspiration for Morrissey. Even so, Mayers’ album cover surprisingly reproduces a bit of the film’s poster.
Mayer’s “Honey” is anything but sweet. This one is the monster that sugar turns kids into. For a guy who isn’t known for manning this beast of burden, Mayers tackles the organ to the ground. He pows as good as he wows.
This listener first tasted this variation of “Honey” via a memorable performance Paul Shaffer delivered with “The World’s Most Dangerous Band” on a mid-eighties episode of Late Night with David Letterman – beautifully using a synthesizer to emulate a sixties-era organ. (Thanks Dave P.!) The amazing Shaffer’s musical tribute is exactly the sort of reverence and appreciation this writer tries to deliver here in however useless words.
Mayers’ wonderful A Taste of Honey (which also delivers a nice take of another 1962 hit for Verve, “Desafinado”) was paired with Nelson’s unusual but worthy Impressions of Phaedra (also from 1962) on a 2017 European CD.
”Where It’s At” – Charles Kynard (1963)
St. Louis-born Charles Kynard (1933-79) was leading a piano trio in Kansas City (in addition to his duties as a teacher and real-estate agent) when trumpeter Carmell Jones recommended him to Pacific Jazz Records’ Richard Bock. Kynard packed his bags and right off the plane waxed a record with saxophonist Sonny Stitt. (Uncle Ben Kynard co-wrote “Red Top” with Lionel Hampton.)
Right after that Charles recorded his debut album Where It’s At with guitarist Howard Roberts and “Honky Tonk” saxophonist Clifford Scott. Kynard’s trio became the group to see in L.A.’s then-thriving jazz scene. But Kynard’s work with disabled children, private lessons and playing organ in the church kept him a West Coast secret.
While Kynard’s later work for Prestige (1968-71) and Mainstream (1971-74) is much better known (he also put out several gospel records), it’s worth going back to where it all began. Where It’s At was never issued on CD but its title track is included on the terrific UK-only CD compilation Blue Pacific Funk – Wailin’ on the West Coast (1998).
”Figueroa” – Andre Previn (1964)
This surprising little swinger comes from Andre Previn’s (1929-2019) otherwise orchestral soundtrack to one of Bette Davis’ better late-career movies, Dead Ringer. In the film, Davis plays twin sisters, one of whom is Edie, owner of a divey bar. This “lounge” – filmed at a real bar on the corner of Figueroa and Temple streets in Los Angeles – hosts an organ combo (fronted by actress Perry Blackwell [b.1925], a.k.a. Perri Lee – who could actually play the organ and did – although it’s not clear if she’s playing here) doing this jaunty number. Sure, Previn is riffing on the sort of music you’d expect to hear at a joint like this, but whoever is playing the organ here is, well, a dead ringer for the real thing.
”Mo’ Roc” (1964) and “Behind the 8 Ball” (1965) – Baby-Face Willette
Born Roosevelt James Willett in 1933, the so-called Baby-Face held piano stints in R&B and jazz groups out of Los Angeles, Chicago and Milwaukee. By the time he hit New York in 1960 to join Lou Donaldson’s band, Baby-Face had switched to organ. Inspired, of course, by Jimmy Smith, Baby-Face brought his background in the church to the instrument, adding a keen sense of R&B and even rock n roll to the groove.
Willette, now with an extra “e,” waxed two discs of his own for Blue Note, before heading back to Chicago. While there, Baby-Face recorded two additional records for Argo, Mo’ Roc and Behind the 8 Ball - the last recorded documents Baby-Face made before his shockingly early death at age 37 in 1971. The Argo records, made with his working group at the time, far outshine the Blue Notes (despite Grant Green’s presence there) for sheer grit and righteous groove.
The title tracks to both records say it all.
”Sticky Wicket” – Billy Larkin and the Delegates featuring Clifford Scott (1965)
Billy Larkin and the Delegates hailed from Portland, Oregon but made a strong impression in Los Angeles after DJ Les Carter recommended the group to producer Richard Bock. The quartet played jazz with a heavy emphasis on the blues and covered many pop and R&B hits of the day. “Sticky Wicket” comes from the group’s second LP, Blue Lights - featuring the aforementioned Clifford Scott – perhaps its best for pure organ-combo groove (“Little Jr. Detroit” and the title track also merit attention).
Interesting to note: Delegates drummer Mel Brown went on to work with Martha and the Vandellas, a gig that led to Brown becoming a session drummer at Motown…working on records by The Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and many others.
”The Flick” – Earl Van Dyke & the Soul Brothers (1965)
Detroit-born Earl Van Dyke (1930-92) was the longtime keyboard player for Motown’s house band, The Funk Brothers. The fantastic “The Flick” is one of the few non-album singles he issued at that time under his own name. Van Dyke also put out a worthy album of instrumentals, That Motown Sound, in 1965 that includes great covers of Motown classics, including a feverish take of The Marvelettes’ 1964 hit “Too Many Fish in the Sea.” Earl Van Dyke smokes the organ like few others do. For proof, check out the B-side to 1964’s “Soul Stomp,” a burner called “Hot ‘N’ Tot.”
“The Vamp” – Gene Ludwig (1965)
Pittsburgh native Gene Ludwig (1937-2010) took piano lessons as a child but discovered R&B through the music of, among others, Bill Doggett and Wild Bill Davis. He finally switched to the organ when he caught Jimmy Smith live in the city’s storied Hill District (the two played together at a 1964 Atlantic City gig).
Ludwig garnered an East Coast presence when he replaced Don Patterson in Sonny Stitt’s group in 1969. But this piece predates this and later appearances with singer Arthur Prysock and guitarist Pat Martino. The Jimmy Smith-ish “The Vamp” was from the organ grinder’s bizarrely-titled debut The Educated Sounds of Gene Ludwig (featuring a cover shot of the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning, my alma mater) on Pittsburgh music legend Travis Klein’s very short-lived Travis label.
(In 1965, Travis also put out “Side Street,” a great but very little-known single by Dayton-based vibraphonist and Acid Jazz favorite Johnny Lytle.)
”Tweetie Pie” – Dave “Baby” Cortez (1966)
Detroit-born Dave “Baby” Cortez (b. 1938) is best known for “The Happy Organ” (1959) and “Rinky Dink” (1962), the skating-rink standards of the day – and likely part of the reason the organ lost favor several years later. The title track to his seventh album, “Tweetie Pie” knocks the funky swing up to eleven. Cortez consistently waxed fine dance music on the “electronic organ” – to swim, twist, frug or shake by – but this one still sounds cool; cooler than your average roller-rink fare. This Baby’s “Organ Shindig” (1965) is well worth hearing too.
”Yeah, Dr. No” – Ingfried Hoffmann (1966)
The tongue and cheeky “Yeah, Dr. No” sounds like it could have come out of any jazz club or juke box in any American city in the mid-sixties. But at about the same time Bert Kaempfert hit these shores with “Strangers in the Night” and Horst Jankowski invited us to take “A Walk in the Black Forest,” the German pianist, organist and composer Ingfried Hoffman (a.k.a. Memphis Black) put out “Yeah, Dr. No.”
Hoffmann spent much of his time in Klaus Doldinger’s pre-Passport band. He also waxed several all-organ records of his own, including some extraordinarily funky ones as “Memphis Black”: While this was clearly an American crossover attempt that unfortunately never happened, Hoffmann was neither from Memphis or, you know…even if he could sound like it. “Yeah, Dr. No” comes from Hoffmann’s second album, From Twen With Love - and is featured on the terrific 2007 CD compilation Hammond Bond. If you like this, you should track down more Ingfried Hoffmann.
”No More Water in the Well” – Odell Brown and the Organizers (1967)
Another cover, but one that’s as little-known as it is spectacular. Chicago-based Odell Brown (1940-2011) recorded three records with The Organ-izers on the Cadet label in the mid-sixties (several solo records followed). Today, Brown is best known as co-writer of Marvin Gaye’s Grammy Award-winning 1982 hit “Sexual Healing.”
This arrangement of “No More Water in the Well” – likely conceived by producer Richard Evans – completely rethinks, reinvents and transcends the original.
The song originally appeared on The Temptations With A Lot O’ Soul (1967) and was never even released as a single (the album’s lack of success got co-writer Smokey Robinson fired as the Temp’s producer to be replaced by Norman Whitfield). This one evinces how the music was beginning to change. But nothing else the Organ-izers did ever measured up to this.