James Taylor - Hammond Organ

“You can’t beat the Hammond for reaching an audience,” says James Taylor. Then with a twist of irony... “maybe it’s because it’s a church instrument – I don’t know.”

Taylor grew up around music. “My mother was a pianist who played the classical repertoire, Chopin and Beethoven, and my grandmother was also a pianist. She was a professional musician and she and my grandfather, who used to play the violin, always had a house full of musicians playing various classical pieces.” It was Taylor’s grandmother who bought him his first piano when he was just six. Taylor continues. “My father was an engineer, but he also paints, he has a great aesthetic. I guess art’s in the genes.”

Understandably Taylor initially took piano lessons with his grandmother, but was this, I wondered, followed up with further piano lessons at school. Taylor laughs. “I went to one of those schools where they set their sights on turning out mathematicians and scientists – although you were also popular if you could kick a rugby ball around! When I told my teacher that I wanted to play music, he responded with a rather dismissive ‘we’ll see about it’. But the school did have a number of music rooms with some really good pianos and a friend of mine (who is now a famous musician) and I used to spend our lunchtimes playing tunes on these pianos.”

By the age of 14 Taylor was already in love with the sound of the Hammond. “I’d heard Booker T and the MGs and it was so electrifying . . . that’s when I decided that this is what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to find out more about that sound and to achieve that sound. I was intrigued by how the sound was produced and that rotary Leslie speaker. I’d also been listening to Brian Auger and Keith Emerson of Emerson, Lake and Palmer and I was really into the beefy 60s psychedelic stuff, but I was also aware of this thing called Hammond Jazz and I wanted to go down that route and that’s how I got into jazz.”

Taylor acquired his first keyboard when he was 15. “I bought a keyboard that I could get a Hammond-like sound from – a Casio 202. That’s also when I joined a rock band and decided that I’d better take a second bout of piano lessons!” Then it was a case of saving up to buy the real thing. “I bought my first Hammond locally from a lady who had it in her front room and I’ve made several albums with it. It’s an M100 with a transistor Leslie 760.”

Taylor currently has five Hammonds including the M100. “I’ve got two C3s, an A100 and an early 70s X5 transistor model. When I started out I had a Hammond C3. Then I augmented my arsenal with a Fender Rhodes 88 suitcase model, on top of which I put a Clavinet D6. I also had a synthesiser on top of the Hammond. I had that set-up for around 10 years, before getting really purist about it and just gigging with the Hammond.” His current Hammond is the same C3 that he bought in 1998 when his purist streak struck. “It’s been played around with quite a bit over the years. Apart from being split, it’s had a special pre-amp fitted to it which I got from America. It just sounds so much better with this unit and it’s much more powerful. It’s very difficult to describe, but it gives a really good, rich Hammond sound. A friend of mine has set up his Hammond to get the optimum sound, but it’s still not as good as mine. Sound is so important – I’d always go that extra 10 miles to get that extra 1 per cent better sound.” I question Taylor about his preference, or otherwise, for augmenting his band.

“For me the quartet was always the ideal. That’s the setup that originally really fascinated me – bass, drums, guitar and Hammond. Having said that, bringing a horn section and vocalist onto the bandstand during a performance gives the music an added dimension and allows me to build up the intensity and heighten the connection with an audience over 90 minutes – and I tell you there’s no better feelin’.”

Hammonds aren’t exactly a lightweight instrument and I was wondering how Taylor organises his transport arrangements. “I always keep one of the Hammonds in the van . . . and try to remember to lock the doors after a gig.” I’m clearly curious. Taylor explains. “We were on our way to a gig up north when we heard this almighty crash as we were going up the M1. The Hammond and the Leslie had fallen out of the back of the van at 70mph! Everybody had their hazard lights on and there we were, running back down the carriageway. Eventually we loaded them both back into the van with bits hanging off here, there and everywhere. We got to the gig. Set up. Played the gig and everything was fine. That’s the great thing about a Hammond. They’re built like a tank. Incredibly over-engineered . . . and they’re reliable.”

Interview by David Gallant

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