Torching the organ

Back in the day, there were things called Cinema Organs. They were behemoths, monsters, with rows and rows of keys. They could make all manner of sounds besides a pipe note. You know the expression “all the bells and whistles”? That came from these organs: the biggest and most expensive models had extra pipes which, at the press of a key, rang bells, blew whistles and made a dozen other sounds.


Sydney Torch at the mighty Christie organ.

The most famous Cinema Organ was the Wurlitzer, but its main competitor – the one you are about to hear – was the Christie. It was the size of a car, and weighed four tons.

In the 1930s, the best Cinema Organists were stars. People would go to a big cinema as much for the musical interludes as the movie program. One of these stars was Sidney Torch. He was a pianist by training, and his lack of experience with the organ is credited for the way he broke all the rules, and played the organ in ways that had never been done before, adapting it to play ragtime and jazz.

On this track, “Orient Express”, Torch uses the organ to imitate the sound of a powerful locomotive, then works in some vaguely eastern tunes to suggest a frantic ride through the Alps. It is pure showmanship. Imagine it, playing at volume on a great Christie, rising from the theatre floor in a cloud of dry ice – man, that would have been fun. Just listen!

  • Artist: Sidney Torch
  • Album title: Sidney Torch at the Organ
  • Track: A7 Orient Express
  • Label: World Record Club
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: R-06209
  • Year: c.1977 (recorded 1935)


But is it strong enough?

Ninety years ago, George Dorrington Cunningham, one of the most popular recital organists of his time, made a recording at Kingsway Hall, London. It was released as a 12-inch 78 rpm shellac record by His Master’s Voice. One copy, manufactured here in Australia, turned up in an op-shop in Geelong in 2016. I bought it, cleaned it up, and put it up for sale on Discogs. A man in Saint George, Utah bought it from me, with the following request:

Please package in a box with sufficient padding and protection so as to ensure no breakage occurs in transit. Thank you.

4030-cropped-and-invertedShellac discs are heavy and fragile, but I know what to do, and carefully packed it in a strong box. “But is it strong enough?” I wondered. What happened next is described in my message to the buyer.

I am really sorry – I was packaging your order, and gently testing the packaging to make sure it was sufficiently robust, when I heard a little click …. man, these things are so fragile. I will refund you immediately. I’m a bit upset – not with you, its just I love these old discs, and they will never be made again. Annoyed with myself 😦

The buyer was understanding, and on reflection, perhaps it was a good thing this happened. The disc broke like a potato crisp under the slightest pressure, so it must have been extremely fragile. I doubt it would have survived the journey to Utah. Better it happened at my end!

So, I now have a sad, broken shellac disc which will never play again.

I did record the disc before it broke, so at least we can still listen. This is the first movement of Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor”, which one of those classics you know, if only from a movie scene in which a detective investigating a crime walks into an empty cathedral.

He confronts me: “Sir, I need to talk to you about the destruction of a ninety-year-old record …”

  • Artist: G.D. Cunningham, playing on the Organ of the Kingsway Hall, London
  • Title: Toccata And Fugue In D Minor  (J.S. Bach)
  • Format: 12” shellac disc, 78rpm
  • Label: His Master’s Voice
  • Catalogue: C. 1291
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Year: 1926

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs

The big book of favorite old songs

“This is an age of Do-It-Yourself,” proclaims the sleeve note on this battered old LP, “not only for novice carpenters, plumbers and Sunday painters”. No indeed. Our copywriter – as ferocious a fan of alliterative adornment as ever clanged the keys of a QWERTY keyboard – goes on:

For millions of music-minded moderns, tired of being drenched by store-bought ‘n, factory made-music which gushes out of the radio and the television set, it is an age of Sing-It-Yourself. Business is booming for pianos, guitars and harmonicas, the “do-it-yourself” instruments.

 The big book of favorite old songs is become as standard in the modern home as black wrought-iron furnishings and foam rubber cushions. We are starting to sing again, in old-fashioned family style. It’s as healthy and nourishing as the big Sunday dinner at Grandma’s.

 And so this Long Playing songfest of old favorites to help get the fun started at your house. You don’t need a piano or guitar or harmonica. But if you have one, all the better. All set? Let’s everybody sing.

Oh well, the guy was just making a living.

2155-sleeveThe Hugo and Luigi whose names grace this album did much more than make a living. (Speaking of grace, you can imagine Grace Kelly as the elegant young woman on the right, but I digress.) Hugo Peretti and Luigi Creatore were huge in the recording industry in the 1950s. Seriously, Empire-State-Building huge. They were songwriters and producers, and oversaw recordings by Perry Como, Sam Cooke, and The Isley Brothers. Another production credit was a handsome young Southern boy by name of Elvis Presley, for whom they also co-wrote ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love’.

So why would Hugo and Luigi, who can’t have been short of a crust in 1959 when this record was released, why would they have put out a DIY singalong record, running through standards from “Auld Lang Syne” to “When You and I Were Young, Maggie”? Not sure. But Grace Kelly and her pals can really sing. It is a nicely produced record – a bit straight-laced, like the folk on the cover, but there are lovely harmonies. One gripe. Lots of the tracks begin with a short intro from an electric organ. This sort of thing:

Much as I try to love all music and all instruments, that burst of Hammond makes me think I am trapped in a church service in 1978. So I have (not like me at all) edited out the organ intro to this track, an otherwise lovely rendition of “All Through the Night”.

Nice singing, for a bunch of novice plumbers.

  •     Artist: Hugo and Luigi with their Family Singers
  •     LP Title: Sing Along by the Fireside
  •     Track: Side 1, Track 6 “All Through the Night”
  •     Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm
  •     Label: Wing (Mercury) MGW 12207
  •     Manufactured in: United States
  •     Year: 1959

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs.

You take a stick of bamboo

“You take a stick of bamboo,” goes an old folk song, “You take a stick of bamboo and you throw it in the water.”

Alternatively, you can bury the bamboo in sand for a year or two, so that it dries and hardens, and make a pipe organ. That is what an innovative Catholic Priest in nineteenth century Philippines did. He created a unique organ for the church of Las Piñas, in metro Manila. It fell into disuse, but was restored in the early 1970s, back in the days of the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos.

bamboo-lpI visited the Philippines in 1991.  The Philippines was the first foreign country I had ever been to. Properly foreign, I mean – I had been to England and New Zealand, but that doesn’t count. That’s like visiting cousins.

It was only a few years after Marcos has been overthrown. Cory Aquino was in power, but tenuously: there were coups and rumours of coups, democracy was fragile, corruption was a huge problem. But, to my surprise, I loved the Philippines. I was a journalist then, and knew what journalists know of distant countries. Coups and earthquakes, basically.

Following the news gave me no sense of the vibrancy and life of the place, how friendly and likable the people are. I even loved ugly, polluted Manila. The Filipinos are ingenious and endlessly resourceful and creative, especially in graphic art, dance and music. Their pop music is exciting, borrowing from everywhere and making something new. There is a rich tradition of folk-tinged protest song, and also of church music.

The Philippines, more than most societies, wrestles with identity. What, exactly, are we? What is authentically Filipino, when the very name comes from Spanish conquerors? One attempt to reconcile the colonial past with a nationalist sentiment was the work of Lucrecia R. Kasilag, one of the founders of the Bayanihan Philippine National Folk Dance Company, and several other important cultural institutions which have survived dictatorship and democracy both.

One of her compositions is this track, from the 1975 LP The Historic Bamboo Organ of Las Piñas. The record is mostly standard organ and choral works from the Catholic tradition, but is some Philippines in there was well, including Kasilag’s “Misang Pilipino”, in which she drew on traditional folk tunes to create a Mass in the native language of (most) of her people.

At the time of writing, the people of the Philippines have elected a new President. Rodrigo Duterte is a strongman, very much in the tradition of Ferdinand Marcos, only less subtle. Duterte has, as he promised, unleashed a campaign of state-sanctioned murder against drug dealers. Anyone who thinks he will stop with drug dealers is deluded: another dictatorship is on its way. This is bad news. A lot of people will suffer. But the Filipino people will survive, and live their lives, and thrive – as will their art. They are a people who take a stick of bamboo, and make a church organ.

  • Artist: Wolfgang Oehms and the Las Piñas Boys Choir,
  • LP Title: The Historic Bamboo Organ of Las Piñas
  • Track: Side 2, Track 2 “Misang Pilipino”
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm
  • Label: Bamboo Organ Foundation, BOR 4001
  • Manufactured in: Philippines
  • Year: 1975

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs. Mention this code “MSD519” to receive a free 7-inch disc of your choice (up to the value of $5.00) with any purchase.


Bach Unplugged

I had vaguely heard of Albert Schweitzer, without knowing too much about him. A peace activist and humanitarian, a theologian, a man of good works. Built some sort of hospital in Africa? That, and a mental picture of a guy with a big white moustache was about it.


Not just a generous moustache

He was all of those things – and the mo was certainly impressive – but Dr Albert Schweitzer was also an important musician. He was an organist, one of great talent and also a keen thinker about music. He loved the works of J.S. Bach and he wanted to rescue his hero from the excesses of the 19th century Romantic style. Bach should be played, Schweitzer, argued, in the simpler, stripped down style of Bach’s own time. In modern terms, he wanted unplugged rather than prog-rock.

In 1934, while spending some time in England, he was recorded playing the organ at Queen’s Hall in London, and one of the pieces, “When In Deepest Need” is on this disc. This gentle, reflective piece was written by Bach literally on his death bed. It is at nearly five minutes, a rather long piece to fit onto a 12-inch shellac record, playing at 78 rpm, manufactured in 1934. His Master’s Voice managed to do this by the simple expedient of making the label for this side of the disc unusually small. The picture below shows the labels on the two sides of the disc, next to the same blue-framed sticker.

The record has been played a great many times – there is no escaping the crackle of hundreds of hollow steel styli which have scraped away at the shellac. Even so, the playing is beautiful, restrained. The organ can be a Donald Trump of an instrument – all blare and bombast – but Albert Schweitzer had a different vision, a subtle expression of a dying man’s love and faith.

  • Artist: Dr Albert Schweitzer
  • Title: J.S. Bach: When in Deepest Need / My Heart is Longing
  • Track: A side, “When in Deepest Need”
  • Format: 12” shellac disc, 78rpm
  • Label: His Master’s Voice C.1543
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Year: 1934

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs.