Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

How The Hammond Organ Sound Laid The Tracks For Gospel's Hit Train


If you know organs, the sound of the Hammond is instantly recognizable.


MARTIN: In the 80 years since the Hammond organ hit the assembly line, it has made its way into rock, pop, R and B and jazz. But as Anne Ford reports, there was a time when, in order to hear a Hammond organ, you had to go to church.

ANNE FORD, BYLINE: Long before Booker T. and the M.G.s came along, the Hammond organ was created to be a smaller, cheaper alternative to the sonorous behemoths you hear in churches - pipe organs.


FORD: The Hammond offered something beyond prize and size. It yielded an entirely new encyclopedia of tones.

BOB MAROVICH: You had all this different sounds that you could produce. A pipe organ couldn't shout, but a Hammond organ could shout.

FORD: Bob Marovich is the founder and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Gospel Music. He says that in 1939, a black pastor named Clarence Cobbs bought one of the earliest Hammond organs for his congregation, the First Church of Deliverance in Chicago. It was more or less a marketing move.

MAROVICH: Clarence Cobbs was a very dynamic person, a very charming person. He had the ability to bring people to him, primarily because he was one of the first pastors to launch a radio broadcast. He did that back in 1935 when there were hardly any African-American pastors on the radio.


CLARENCE COBBS: You know, a lot of us need to learn how to wait for the Lord.

FORD: And when people heard the strange new sounds of the Hammond organ on the radio, they were so intrigued that, just as Reverend Cobbs hoped, they headed to his church to hear more.

MAROVICH: The street would be lined with cars for blocks. Celebrities would show up. Billie Holiday would show up with her dog in her purse.

FORD: The Hammond's warm, warbling sound quickly spread to churches beyond Chicago, the perfect soundtrack for a brand-new genre called gospel.

JAMES BRYSON JR.: You are not going to find too many black churches that don't have a Hammond organ because it suits our music so well.

FORD: James Bryson, Jr., is the current organist at the First Church of Deliverance. As long as he's been worshiping here, the church has had a Hammond.

BRYSON: Think of an old black and white television. It may not be able to depict rightfully a sunny day. It's kind of like that with music. What I like about the Hammond organ is that it allows you to really add the coloring elements that bring it more to life.

And this is the organ that I grew up listening to (laughter) and - yeah.


FORD: By the 1960s, that full-color palette had bled over from church music onto the jazz, blues, R and B and even pop charts.


FORD: No musical genre stays the same forever. And as popular music moved away from Hammond sound, so did churches. They bought electronic keyboards that were even smaller, even cheaper.

FORD: Jerry Welch started working for the Hammond Organ Company in 1964. When it went out of business 21 years later, he purchased its entire inventory of repair parts, which he now sells to Hammond organ technicians all over the country, but those parts are running out.

JERRY WELCH: When we started, we had five public storage units, and we are now down to two and trying to get it into one. We're literally selling ourself out of business.

FORD: If you're wondering why Welch doesn't just have parts manufactured, the answer is not enough demand.

WELCH: I used to fill upwards of 80 to a hundred orders a day, and now we're down to a whole lot less than that (laughter). It might be 10 to 12 in a weeks' time.

FORD: Just as Hammond organs have gone out of favor, the sound of gospel music has changed.

MAROVICH: A Hammond organ sounds like grandma's church, especially in the burgeoning mega-church environment. It just - it's out of place.

FORD: Again, Bob Marovich from the Journal of Gospel Music.

MAROVICH: For the contemporary gospel sound, they want to use keyboards that are - sound more like what you'd hear on the radio.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh.

FORD: So to hear the Hammond organ on a Sunday morning, you'll to have to find a congregation that still worships with that old-fashioned sound, like the First Church of Deliverance, where James Bryson says that if the Hammond sound ever goes completely out of style...

BRYSON: Hopefully, I will be around. I will reinvent it and bring it back.

FORD: And if Bryson's revival doesn't take hold or you can't make it to First Church, there's always Booker T. For the NPR News, I'm Anne Ford in Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anne Ford
KUER is listener-supported public radio. Support this work by making a donation today.