Moe Denham: A Believer in the Hammond B3 Nashville-based musician Moe Denham has spent a career getting the best from a Hammond B3 organ. After decades as a sideman and opening act, he's out with a new CD: The Soul Jazz Sessions.
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Moe Denham: A Believer in the Hammond B3

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Moe Denham: A Believer in the Hammond B3

Moe Denham: A Believer in the Hammond B3

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Say the words Hammond B3 organ and some people get a peculiar look in their eye. One colleague here at NPR says it growls, it purrs, as if the B3 were some kind of animal. Take a listen.

(Soundbite of music)

ELLIOTT: This is Nashville-based session musician Moe Denham. He's sat in with some of the biggest names in jazz and blues, from Count Basie to Clarence Gatemouth Brown. The instrument dates back to the 1950s. And it's been a fixture in churches, rock concerts, ballparks and nightclubs ever since. Moe Denham's new CD is called The Soul Jazz Sessions. He joins us now from member station WPLN in Nashville. Hi there.

Mr. MOE DENHAM (Musician): Hi.

ELLIOTT: You know, when you talk to people who know the Hammond B3 organ, they get all worked up about the way it projects sound. Can you explain to us how that works?

Mr. DENHAM: The innards of the organ - a lot of people think it's electronic and actually the only electronic thing in the organ is the preamplifier. There's a - what they call a tone wheel generator, and it generates these little round things called tone wheels which, you know, make the tones and the pitches. And what a lot of people associate with a Hammond organ is the Leslie speaker. It's got two speakers in it, one at the top that faces straight up into a revolving horn. It'll go one direction and then the bottom speaker's like a 15-inch, you know, bass speaker facing straight down into a revolving barrel. And it's going the opposite direction and at a slightly different speed.

There's movement, and there again it's the rotating speaker, but you can actually hear and feel the movement kind of ya, ya, ya, ya, ya, ya, ya, ya, kind of like that.

ELLIOTT: So the Leslie actually pushed the sound around?

Mr. DENHAM: Yes. Originally to recreate sort of a Doppler affect of a pipe organ. But it turned out that it's-it's totally different. It has a sound all of its own.

(Soundbite of music)

ELLIOTT: What struck me about the music on your CD is how one minute you sound as if you're in some cavernous cathedral and then in the same song a minute or two later I'm in a smoky barroom hearing you in a much more intimate setting. Your version of Autumn Leaves comes to mind. It sort of has many moods in one song. Let's take a listen.

(Soundbite of music)

ELLIOTT: The Hammond B3 isn't exactly a household word I would say. How did you choose this as your instrument?

Mr. DENHAM: Well, when I was real young my mother, who was a pianist, had a Steinway baby grand in her home and she had always wanted to have a Hammond organ in the home back in the 1950s. It was kind of a - almost a status symbol. There was one guy that really kind of helped to popularize the instrument, was a gentleman by the name of Earl Grant, who used to appear on Sunday nights on the old Ed Sullivan show. And they had a camera mounted right above the keyboard facing straight down so you could watch his hands on the organ work the drawbars and the whole thing.

And it was - I used to watch that, you know, reverently, religiously. And I had been taking a few piano lessons, but the piano teacher told my mom, she said, you know, this is a waste of your time, or my time and your money. And - because I just wasn't interested in it. I just wanted to go pound on stuff. But my mom, when she bought the Hammond organ, I was only 11 years old, but I was fascinated by all the drawbars and the sounds. And it's been that way ever since.

ELLIOTT: It must have been a lot more complicated to play the organ than to play the piano.

Mr. DENHAM: Well, it kind of depends, I think on how you look at it. A lot of people are intimidated by the bass pedals.

ELLIOTT: You have to kind of be able to coordinate hands and feet at the same time, right?

Mr. DENHAM: Oh yeah. It's kind of like playing drums. You got to have both your hands and both your feet doing all different things at the same time.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. DENHAM: I have eight of these instruments...


Mr. DENHAM: ...that I've accumulated. Yeah, I have eight of them.

ELLIOTT: Now, I did read that B3 players tended to have multiple organs, because since they're not made anymore you need some spare parts every once in a while. Is that why you have eight?

Mr. DENHAM: Well not really. The reason that I have that many is more for - just for collection. Lawrence Hammond invented the Hammond organ and came out with the first one in somewhere around 1936. And it was a smaller version of what is now the B3 but it basically worked on the same principle. I happen to have one of those organs in my living room, and with a serial 936, so that's how old it is.

ELLIOTT: One of the - one of the first thousand.

Mr. DENHAM: Uh-huh. And they are a little bit different. You know the farther back you go in the age of these organs, they all - they all have their own distinctive personality. There's no two that sound exactly alike. That's why a lot of people refer to them as a beast, because they are. They've got a mind of their own.

(Soundbite of music)

ELLIOTT: You've opened for Ray Charles, B. B. King, Bobby Blue Bland, just to name a few. And you've sat in with a wide variety of musicians, Bela Fleck, Neil Young, even Ernest Tubb. And you must have some interesting stories from the organ seat.

Mr. DENHAM: Uh-huh. One of my instruments that I bought - actually bought brand new was actually - how do I put this - involved in a fight. I was - I was in Indianapolis. I had two strange incidents happen when I was living in Indianapolis a long time ago. And I was playing in one bar that had like a nine piece horn band that in that day was doing stuff similar to what Blood Sweat and Tears and Chicago was doing, you know around in them, with a horn section, B3 organ and complete rhythm section.

And this was a rather large club. On this one night they were having what they called a New Year's Eve in July party. And that's exactly what it was. It was a big party, it was about 400 people in there. And about 11:30 or so at night there were three individuals that entered the club. One through a side door and two through the front door and they all had hoods and - and masks and guns and the whole thing. They were there to stage a holdup. And one of the guys went around to the bartender and pointed his shotgun right at the guy's knee and told him to empty the cash register. Gunshots started going, I ducked down behind my B3. I don't know what good it was to - I thought it was going to do because the whole bottom end of it is still open.

But the drummer ran off the stage and it there was real pandemonium. Unfortunately there were four fatalities before the whole thing was over. And in meantime, after it was all done I went around and looked at the front of the B3 and there was a bullet hole in the front of it. And what's really odd is we could never find the bullet itself. We never could figure out where it went, but it was in the front of the organ. And...

ELLIOTT: So it may have protected you after all.

Mr. DENHAM: Oh, I think so. I mean it - it stopped someplace and went somewhere. To this day we'll never know where it went. There was another situation about, oh, probably six months later in the same town, different place. On this particular night there was about five people at the bar and that was about it. And they weren't too happy with what we were playing. And one gentleman who had decided to try to drown his sorrows in beer, the more he drank the more he didn't like what we were playing.

ELLIOTT: You were playing jazz?

Mr. DENHAM: Yeah, jazz and blues. And then - this is almost like one of those old movies where the guy gets up off a barstool with a beer bottle, he empties the beer bottle and he comes about halfway toward me and he breaks the beer bottle over the back of a chair. And then he's coming at me like he's going to use it as a weapon.


Mr. DENHAM: And - and to this day I don't know how I had the presence of mind to do what I did so fast, but when he got up he was going to try to hit me coming up over the front of the organ. And so I just kind of picked up the organ from my side and just pushed it over on him knocking him down, and the organ, all 380 pounds of it landed on his knees.

ELLIOTT: So the Hammond B3 can be a weapon?

Mr. DENHAM: Oh yeah.

ELLIOTT: A self defense weapon when needed.

Mr. DENHAM: Yeah. Absolutely. You know, everybody should have one.

ELLIOTT: Moe Denham's latest CD is called Moe Denham: The Soul Jazz Sessions. He's been speaking with us from WPLN in Nashville. Thanks so much for talking with us.

Mr. DENHAM: Thank you for having me.

(Soundbite of music)

ELLIOTT: To hear more music from Moe Denham's Hammond B3, go to our Web site, That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

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