Have you ever heard of Ken Griffin? He was a big recording star back in the late 1940s and early 1950s. How big? Well, he sold millions of records and there are about two dozen 10″ and 12″ LP records of his released by Columbia, perhaps the biggest label of that era. While Motown has the distinction of scoring two hits with the same song, I Heard it Through the Grapevine, by two different artists, Gladys Knight and Marvin Gaye, Griffin got to the top of the charts twice using essentially the same recording over again.
Griffin had gone into the recording studio in early 1948 and recorded an instrumental version of You Can’t Be True, Dear, originally “Du Kannst Nicht Treu Sein,” by composer Hans Otten and lyricist Gerhard Ebeler. The English lyrics and title were by Hal Cotten. Apparently it was a popular song as many musicians and singers recorded it that same year. Griffin’s recording was released by Rondo, an independent label. At some time after the original recording was released, Rondo released a vocal version, with singer Jerry Wayne’s voice dubbed over Griffin’s take, with the organ subdued in the mix. The vocal version went to #1 on Billboard’s Best Sellers chart in April, 1948, staying there for seven weeks. Then Griffin’s original release got to #2. Together the two recordings charted for 23 weeks and sold 3.5 million copies.
The song’s success got Griffin a recording contract with Columbia and an endorsement deal with Wurlitzer organs, which is how I found out about him. I have an interest in musical technology, and even have developed an electric harmonica. For a while, Wurlitzer tried to compete with Hammond’s great sounding and patent protected tonewheel generator organs with something called the electrostatic reed organ, which is kind of like a harmonica on steroids. Harmonicas, like accordions, are free reed instruments. They make noise by a reed oscillating in a slot when you blow air past it. To make up the individual tones that are combined to create organ sounds, the electrostatic reed organ has a soundproof box, inside which are many reeds, constantly oscillating under air pressure from a compressor. When a key is pressed, the control switches route a bias voltage to the selected reeds, which are located near a conductive pickup. That combination creates a variable capacitor that can be used to generate an oscillating electronic tone. If it sounds like a Rube Goldbergish invention, it is, and Wurlitzer only sold those organs for a few years. The company recycled some of the tech, at least the electostatic pickups, in their electric pianos, which sold much more successfully in the 1960s and ’70s.
Like the Wurlitzer electrostatic reed organ, Griffin was in the spotlight for just a few years. It was in a Chicago suburb, Aurora, Illinois, that Griffin started making a name for himself, getting a gig as the house band in Aurora’s Rivoli Cafe, playing nightly. Back then it was common for radio stations to do live broadcasts from popular night and supper clubs. The sessions at the Rivoli cafe were broadcast on the local radio station, WMRO, and the program became popular in the Chicago area. The radio show led to recordings, fame, and even a syndicated television show, titled 67 Melody Lane, which ran from 1954 to 1955. Sadly, Ken Griffin died of a heart attack the following year at the young age of 46. Many of his fans never realized he died as Columbia continued to release recordings they had in the can before his demise.
His music, though, lives on. I’m sorry to say, though, that I’m just not digging it. I can see why he ended with that particular Wurlitzer organ. Wurlitzer, in trying to avoid Laurens Hammond’s patents, managed to come up with an instrument that has absolutely none of the soul of a Hammond tonewheel machine, most notably the majestic B3 organ, and Griffin was just the guy to promote it. His playing is like Kryptonite to funk, perhaps the definition of roller-rink music, and in fact, Griffin’s recordings have been used at roller skating arenas for decades.
Nobody will ever confuse Griffin’s cover of Frankie Master’s Scatter-Brain with Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain.
To give you an idea of what I mean, watch the clip below from 67 Melody Lane. The show’s location was ostensibly Griffin’s home, where musical guests would come and play. In this episode, jazz musicians, pianist Johnny Costa and archtop guitarist Joe Negri play a duet of After Your Gone and then Griffin joins them for Little Brown Jug, a turn of the century standard popularized in a swing version by Glenn Miller and his orchestra. Forget funk, Griffin couldn’t even swing. Costa and Negri try to do justice to Miller’s arrangement but then Griffin comes in with something like you’d hear on an ice cream truck.
Don’t get me wrong, Ken Griffin was a far better musician than I’ll ever be. I’ll certainly never have two gold records with the same recording. I’ve just never been able to listen through a complete song of his at one sitting. Small wonder that spaceacepop.com describes Griffin as “The most successful, yet stylistically the least interesting organist of the 1950s.” (Discography here).
It is interesting that an organ without vocal accompaniment gets to the top of the pop charts in 48 but with a ready choir so many organs go unplayed in 21st century churches.
I wonder if the so common harpsichord in late 60s barouche pop is a callout to Ken Griffin. Notice it was most common among those with a basis in music study.
I’m guessing they were more likely to be electric pianos, from Wurlitzer, Fender Rhodes, or Farfisa than actual harpsichords used in those ’60s recordings. Not many recording studios had harpsichords, and the home studio was decades in the future. Also, E. Power Biggs, the classical organist, was very popular in the ’60s. Then there was 1968’s Switched On Bach by Walter Carlos (later Wendy), played on Robert Moog’s Synthesizer, which was introduced in ’64-65.
By the time all that was going on the pop world, Griffin’s recordings were consigned to the roller rinks. There were a lot of acts that were huge in the late ’40s and early ’50s that were completely unknown by the time the mid ’60s rolls around. The Harmonicats had a big #1 hit with Peg O’ My Heart in 1947 but I never knew about it until I started playing harmonica 50 years later.
Not sure the early recordings were completely forgotten, think in terms of Herman’s Hermits. Peter Noone’s and Mickey Most’s genius was understanding that if British Invasion America was Anglophile, give them old school.
You may be right, but if you think of the Zombies “Remember the Swan” or Peter and Gordon’s “Sunday for Tea” I think you will be listening to an actual harpsicord and more than an echo of what Ken Griiffin was doing.
hey great article! enjoyed reading it! had never heard of that guy. You nailed it with this:
“His playing is like Kryptonite to funk, perhaps the definition of roller-rink music, and in fact, Griffin’s recordings have been used at roller skating arenas for decades.”
As soon as I heard those clips I had flashbacks of dim, long forgotten memories as a kid: that organ sound reverberating inside cavernous rinks, as groups of rollerskaters rolled past
how similar was the reed mechanism to the older footpedal + bellows pump organs?
Another fascinating instrument lost to the ravages of time. Some were quite majestic: tall with intricate wood carvings, elaborate trim and candle holders; built pre-electricity. They’d fit right in, on a castle set in Transylvania.
Hell, maybe they’ll make a comeback in our post-apocalyptic, 0-carbon footprint, green future. Along with those victrola hand crank record players. At least we’ll still be able to play & listen to music, while we all drown in our own shit.
There may not be any ice cream trucks? but if so, make mine a 99
Reed organs were more popular than pianos for most of the 1800s.
Harmoniums were pressure instruments, while Melodeons were vacuum instruments. In addition to being lighter and more portable, reed organs only very rarely needed tuning. In the days before central heating, it was even more difficult to keep a piano in tune than it is today.
BTW, the bellows-and-reed instrument the Bandoneon, which is important in Tango music, started out as a pipe-organ substitute to accompany congregational singing for those congregations who could not afford a harmonium or a melodeon, which goes a way to explain the Bandoneon’s quirk that it plays different notes depending whether the bellows is being pushed or pulled. The same combination of fingers would give you two different but harmonically related chords.
I imagine that improvements in roads and the coming of gasoline-powered trucks played some part in the proliferation of pianos (as well as generally rising incomes). Getting the piano from the factory to the customer became less risky.
BTW, reed organs such as “lap organs” were brought to India by Christian missionaries. Over time, the designs evolved to suit microtonal Indian music.
19th-century composers such as Dvorak even wrote chamber music for ensembles including the harmonium, almost doubtless for amateur playing in the home: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qwO9SK_sFO4
Finally, Wallace Stevens’ first book of poems (1923) was called “Harmonium,” which suggests its prevalence in polite or striving society.
There are a number of pump organs at the Henry Ford Museum. Henry Ford was a supporter of old-timey music, in part because his prejudices led him to abhor modern music like jazz. When he found out that Laurens Hammond was working on a new kind of organ, he sent a team of engineers to Chicago to evaluate it and subsquently ordered 6 organs, making him Hammond’s first customer, though Ford never owned serial #1, which went to a church. When Hammond’s engineers were driving the prototype to Washington to be evaluated by patent examiners, they stopped in Dearborn on the way so Ford could hear it in person.
At the other end of the spectrum of 19th century music technology from pump organs, was Thaddeus Cahil’s Telharmonium, the great-grandaddy of the Moog synthesizer. It was the size of a building and transmitted music over telephone lines. http://120years.net/the-telharmonium-thaddeus-cahill-usa-1897/
He sounds like the answer to the question “Is the only qualification for a session musician is that he or she needs to be punctual and technically proficient?”
You forgot “Shows up sober and stays sober for three hours.”
True, but in Ken Griffin’s case the answer is still a resounding “NO!” Murphy Dunne could barely imitate someone so bad.
If that second and third requirement were in effect, the only song the funk guys could rip off was The Sounds of Silence.
There’s a Moog Museum, aptly named Moogseum, in Asheville NC close to the current Moog Music factory. It’s run by the Bob Moog Foundation and is a separate entity from the factory.
For Hammond B3 fans, jazz station WDCB near Chicago streams an hour of organ jazz every Wednesday night at 10pm Central. The show is Jazz Organic.
good info, thx everyone!
I actually have one of those old reed organs, built by The Thomas Organ Company, in Woodstock Ontario. Who incidentally also built cases for Moog synths ( minimoogs? ) during the ’70s
I bet it’s a Harmonium. The air hoses are all dry & cracked so it doesn’t work ATM
…is as Bruce Springsteen to jeep sales.
Another interesting history lesson, for free no less .