One of my
friends is a man of fairly advanced age, well, let's face it -- he's OLD!
At least a hundred and fifty! (Actually, he is 89 but LOOKS about 150!!)
His name is Bob Mitchell. Once upon a time he was a very noted, if in
some quarters controversial, figger in the Los Angeles choral and organ
music scene, and also played at several Los Angeles radio stations in
the 1930s and '40s. He had a very well-known choir, the Mitchell Singing
Boys, who went on several European tours and also appeared in a number
of films in the 1930s incl "The Bells of St. Marys."
One of the
stories Bob has told me several times over the years involves a good friend
of his named Don Leslie, who was a radio repairman employed by the Barker
Brothers Department Store in Los Angeles. Don was also an amateur musician,
playing, as Bob put it, "for his own amazement." In his home he had a
Hammond Organ. (It must have been one of the first, as we are talking
the mid 1930s here).
liked his Hammond but did not like the "sterile, dry" tone quality of
it. There was no life, or "movement" -- no sense of chorus or ensemble,
as there was with the sound of even the smallest pipe organ. He wished
there was some way to overcome the lifeless sound.
day in 1937 or '38, somewhere thereabouts, Mr. Leslie was standing in
his front yard when a pickup truck drove by with a large radio speaker
mounted on the flatbed, you know, one of those big horn-type speakers,
which was broadcasting musical advertising announcements for a political
candidate. He noticed as the truck drove by and down the road that the
sound trailed off in pitch, his first observation of the well-known "doppler
got him to thinking. He had always thought the sound of the Hammond Organ
was so dry, one of its greatest detriments and making it sound the most
unlike a pipe organ. Hearing this dramatic demonstration of the Doppler
Effect gave him the idea to experiment with a doppler type of effect for
the Hammond tone cabinet, in order to smooth out the flat, dry sound.
So he went
out to a radio store and bought a "one-dollar" speaker to begin experimenting
with. He originally was just thinking about using a slow-turning baffle
to produce a "chorus" or "celeste" effect, but then he found that a faster
speed also produced a very warm tremulant -- which sounded far richer
than the electronic Tremulant (this was pre-vibrato days) on the Hammond.
At the same
time, Bob Mitchell was the studio organist for radio station KHJ, following
Gaylord Carter. He then went to KFI Radio in 1939. While he was working
at KFI, playing on the Hammond Organ in the studio, Mr. Leslie's wife
Carolyn also worked at the station. Mr. Mitchell happened to mention something
to her one day about not liking the dry sound of the Hammond and that
he would like to buy some other type of organ, really wishing there was
room for a Wurlitzer pipe organ. Mrs. Leslie told him, "Well, don't buy
ANY organ until you hear what my husband has done!"
So one Sunday
morning, Mr. Mitchell went over to the Leslies' home in Altadena, California
(where Mr. Leslie and his wife still live). Mr. Leslie took Mr. Mitchell
into his living room where he saw a Hammond organ sitting there, and he
noticed that there was a small hole cut in one of the doors in the living
room that was covered with a "screen-type of curtain." [grille-cloth]
wondered, "What in the world..." Then Mr. Leslie invited him to sit at
the console and play. As he did, he noticed that the sound was coming
from the grille-covered hole in the wall -- the tone cabinet was in a
large closet off the living room.
Leslie flipped a switch on the console and, as Mr. Mitchell puts it, the
sound of the Hammond just "spun into life!" He said it had the most glorious
full and rich tremolo he had ever heard on an electronic organ!
Mr. Leslie how he did that. Mr. Leslie went over to the closet door, opened
it, and showed Mr. Mitchell the rotating apparatus inside.
Leslie consisted of an 18"-in-diameter metal horn (like the kind used
on gramophones) mounted onto a revolving turntable. Attached inside the
wide, belled end of horn was a speaker. As the turntable spun, the speaker
spun around creating the doppler effect.
was the humble beginning of the Leslie Speaker.
Mr. Mitchell went to Willard Brown, the Program Director for KFI, and
told him about Don Leslie's new speaker. According to Mr. Mitchell, he
convinced KFI to commission one of the special cabinets which could be
selected by a switch on the console, and only Mr. Mitchell was ever to
use the new speaker -- the other organists who played at the station were
to use the standard Hammond Tone Cabinet. Mr. Brown wanted to know why
Mr. Mitchell did not want other organists to use the special speaker,
and he was adamant about it! He said, "That is MY sound and I don't want
anyone else copying it!"
Leslie was surprised to hear that Bob Mitchell claimed to have a "Leslie"
on the Hammond at KFI. He said it must have been one of their prototypes
as it was not one of his speakers.)
also introduced Don Leslie to Willard Brown, who assigned some engineers
-- from Cal Tech, Mr. Leslie recalled -- to work on the idea. They did,
but in his words, "screwed up" the idea and their version did not work
very well. They didn't really understand the concept, he said. Furthermore,
Mr. Brown got scared away from the project when he tried to file a patent
on it and discovered he could not. Seems that someone back in the 1920s
had filed a patent for a record-player with three horns that rotated slowly
on a turntable to enable everyone in a large room to hear the sounds from
Brown "threw the ball" back to Mr. Leslie, who went back to work on the
design. In 1940, after months of development, he made the first cabinet-style
Leslie, in substantially the form of the model 30A he said, with a rotary
horn and a bass reflector.
did use the new Leslie Speaker on the Mutual Radio network which was heard
all over the U.S.
made some early records of Mr. Mitchell playing the first Hammond + Leslie
combination. Mr. Mitchell said that the very first song that they recorded
was "Tea for Two," and he still has the record "around here someplace."
way, Mr. Mitchell mentioned that the early Leslie cabinets were "gargantuan"
-- the size of a refrigerator! But when people started wanting them for
their homes, he came up with more compact and streamlined cabinetry.)
told me a funny story about demonstrating the speaker for "the Hammond
people." He got a prototype finished and installed it in the "Mona Lisa"
bar, where Bob Mitchell was the house organist. The Mona Lisa was across
from the Penny-Owsley Music Store in Los Angeles, at that time the area
Hammond representatives. (Those who know their Hammond history will recall
the noted theatre organist Jesse Crawford's affiliation with Penny-Owsley.)
Men from the music store would come over to the bar, and when they got
an earful of the sound from the Hammond they of course wanted to know
how Mr. Mitchell got "that sound." But Don Leslie had secured the cabinet
in such a way that they couldn't see what was inside it!!
let the Hammond people "sweat for a couple of days" about the speaker,
then called the store and offered to bring a model to the music store
to demonstrate it. Penny-Owsley arranged for a group of about 50 organists
to come in and here the demonstration. In Mr. Leslie's words, they "just
fell apart" at the sound -- everyone just went ga-ga over it!"
said that Paul Owsley was going around the room whispering to people,
"Don't let him know it's any good!" Of course, some of those in the room
were friends of his so this got back to him.
demonstration, he wheeled the speaker out and loaded it on his "Model
A pickup truck, " and said to Mr. Owsley, "Paul, people think is speaker
is wonderful -- they have heard it on network radio, and many people want
it. I need to hear from Hammond within 30 days about licensing my Leslie
Speaker, or I am going to market it on my own."
Mr. Leslie said to me on the phone, wrapping up the story, "The Hammond
people did me a HUGE favor -- they did NOT call me within 30 days so I
DID begin marketing them myself -- However, SEVENTEEN YEARS LATER, Hammond
contacted me and wanted to buy my speaker! Too late!"
they say, "the rest ... is history."
out later that Laurens Hammond did NOT like the idea of the Leslie speaker
at all (perhaps professional jealousy -- who knows??), and he most definitely
did not want anything to do with it. Well, Hammond's loss was Leslie's
tried several ways of producing the same chorus and tremolo effects, first
introducing the double-generator chorus effect and then the new-style,
and much-improved, Vibrato and, eventually, even coming up with their
own type of rotary-baffle speaker. But none of these were as good as the
sound of the Leslie Speaker.
somehow I had always figured the Leslie speaker had come along much later
in the life of the Hammond. Maybe because so many of the Hammonds I recall
seeing when I was a child still had straight tone cabinets. However, I
have now learned that the Leslie came along when the Hammond was no more
than, what, 3-4 years old! That's really amazing.