Thoughts On The Dead

Musings on the Most Ridiculous Band I Can't Stop Listening To

Better Than Roses On Your Piano

[embedyt] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=afHQQhig9BY[/embedyt]

That’s the Hammond B3 organ, played by Jimmy Smith in honor of Al Green’s birthday. (Do not get Al Green hot grits for his birthday.) Before laptops full of sounds, and MIDI, or even analog synths, there was the instrument you are legally required to refer to as “the mighty B3” at least once while writing about it.

The Hammond organ originated because people couldn’t afford pipe organs. In defense of the pipe organs: they pretty much have to be pricey. A pipe organ is both labor and material-intensive, and then requires constant maintenance and you also need to build the building around it. This is out of reach for most churches, especially smaller American churches, but a relatively thin and quiet piano wouldn’t do, either. Pianos are for thinking; for praying, you need an organ.

So, in 1935, a guy named Laurens Hammond invented this:

hammond b3 organ leslie

Okay, not that one. That’s the B3, which was introduced in ’54, but it has all the features of the original design: two 61-note keyboards, bass pedals, drawbars for the tone, and the iconic Leslie rotating speaker. Inside the guts of the thing are tonewheels: little metal spinners next to a pickup that generated a given frequency. Speaking of spinning, the Leslie is not called a rotating speaker euphemistically: that sucker has a motor in it.

This naturally made the instrument unspeakably heavy. Combined, the organ and speaker weighed three tons, more if the crew was stashing their drugs in it, but heft wasn’t a concern for Mr. Hammond in his design; these things were not intended to be moved. The guy came to fix it, rather than you bringing it in for repairs.

The B3 is complicated, if you play it right: the tonewheels only do “on” and “off” so you control the volume with your foot, plus you’re heel-and-toeing the bass line, and also playing two keyboards simultaneously while fucking around with the drawbars. And since this is the past we’re talking about, you were smoking a cigarette while you played.

Plus, they were expensive: none of Garcia’s costly guitars could begin to reach the cost of the B3. When the Dead upgraded Pig from the piercing and cheesy Vox organ he was originally saddled with, a new one was three grand. Figure the Dead got it used for two: that’s $13,000.

(And though the Boys had a habit of picking up shady equipment, the Hammond must have been acquired from a legitimate source rather than in a “cash” deal with a “friend.” It was repossessed right off the stage in late ’70, and things you buy from drug dealers don’t get repossessed, only stuff from actual stores.)

Keith was terrified of the thing, preferring his grand piano and Fender Rhodes to the point of obstinacy, but when Brent joined the band, the road crew dug the old girl out and Brent could truly play the fuck out of that beast.

brent hammond rhodes
Brent didn’t have a piano; more correctly, the band wouldn’t give him a piano. This was a plan that reached its logical conclusion when, after Brent died, they hired a guy to decide what Vince’s sounds would be. (And Garcia specifically forbade him from playing with a Hammond tone.)

Also:

“Precarious, where should I put this amplifier?”

“On top of another amplifier.”

“How?”

“Set it down in the least stable way allowed by its shape.”

“Gotcha.”

Now, though, the Dead (Or What’s Left Of ‘Em) have over-compensated and have adopted a laissez-faire policy towards the question “How much room does the keyboardist get in the truck?” and this now happens in cities across America:

jeff chimenti keyboards overhead

Enthusiasts, you will note my long-standing love for Jeff Chimenti. I don’t need 50 shades of gray, just one: Jeff Chimenti. If Jeff Chimenti and I were playing Star Wars in the schoolyard, I would let him be Han. He might be pound-for-pound the best keyboardist that’s ever been in any version of the Dead: he plays the piano as well as Keith; and the organ as well as Brent, and that’s saying something.  Those two were motherfuckers. (Jeff also makes distracting calliope noises as well as TC or Vince.)

But, holy shit, is that too much keyboard. That’s the Full Wakeman. If Jeff Chimenti wants to continue having that much keyboard around him, then he should be further surrounded by ice skaters dressed as Knights of the Round Table. This is hubris, Jeff Chimenti, and you are flying too close to the stage lights.

Although, this is truly the Grateful Dead thing to do. The truth is that the sounds generated by each of those instruments can be reproduced now so faithfully that maybe 1% of the population could tell the difference, and each sound triggered by one keyboard. Grand pianos, B3’s, Fender Rhodeseseses: heavy as shit and finicky. The humidity matters, and they need professional care.

Plus, that is Brent’s B3 organ/Leslie speaker combo, and it belongs onstage. And if it’s onstage, someone might as well play it. (The Rhodes and the piano are of unknown–to me, at least–provenance and perhaps someone could fill us in. Keith’s piano at least one Stealie inlaid in it, so I don’t think that’s it.)

I retract my assertion: Jeff Chimenti is playing the proper amount of keyboards. In fact, I propose another two or three be suspended above him, and that the floor-piano from Big be installed beneath him.

13 Comments

  1. Thank you. Jeff is, pound for pound, grey for grey, the BEST thing that ever happened to any post-Jerry iteration of the Grateful Deads. Period. End of story.

  2. That first pic ofBrent’s Hammond/Rhodes combo doesn’t look like it’s from a Dead show. What’s the story?

  3. It’s a truly remarkable thing that it appears that the same Hammond B3 went from the latterday Pipgen era (71 ) all the way through to Jeff Chimenti.

    Although it is very hard to trace this down, I think the Dead’s organ tech in the 80s was John Thomas. He became Bruce Hornsby’s organ player in the 90s, yet another peculiar cow path. And if it was the same John Thomas–hard to say, given the impossible-to-google name–he appears to have been in the last iteration of The Magic Band, albeit without Captain Beefheart.

    Anyone who can shed any light on this, please comment. But if a piece of hardware links not only 40 year of Grateful Dead history, but Capt Beefheart as well., that is indeed something

  4. That Mean, Green, Devil Spitting, Dishevelled Machine

    April 14, 2016 at 11:46 am

    If you start that Jimmy Smith clip here, and then you start it on YouTube, but make there be an 11 second delay between the two, there you have some music!

  5. I had no idea that was Pig’s B3! I saw a Phil show a few years back with Jeff in the line-up and was up front and noticed that he was playing Brent’s organ. I never imagined that Brent, in turn, was playing Pig’s. Wow!

  6. Didn’t make it past Al Green…
    http://youtu.be/gFtA9VWuwg0

  7. Keith no like B3……

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