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).