Deeper Electronics: A father teaches his son the rare art of Hammond organ repair
(My apologies to George Reese, who was also there with us the whole time, but who I creatively omitted from this story so that I wasn’t trying to explain too many things at one time. I love George Reese deeply.)
You get to be 45 like me and have two daughters and inevitably you have fewer friends. Milton is one of my only Florida friends who regularly visits me since I moved away to New Orleans almost 20 years ago. He hasn’t always visited out of love; based in Georgia lately, Milton’s often had the excuse of his touring rock bands, which always stopped here and crashed on my floor, their dank odor reminding me why I’m not a touring musician. But Milton and I have maintained our friendship for long enough that its lately blossomed into love — partly because we’re both fathers now. It’s an incredible bonding experience to live out your young years with someone, and then stick with them all the way until you’re both old and watching your kids sitting in a room together all staring into separate tiny screens.
These days, Milton brings one or both of his kids with him to New Orleans whenever he’s summoned to repair some music legend’s antique Hammond organ, or get their ancient Leslie speakers spinning again like electric pinwheels. Milton’s one of less than a dozen Americans who still fixes original Hammonds and Leslies, some of which are 80 years old. So he’s very in demand, and drives all over the south on house calls. Milton’s here in New Orleans now with his 12-year-old son and apprentice, Eli. They came from Atlanta to help famous one-man-band and self-described “nightclub organist,” Mr. Quintron.
In Milton’s smelly tour van on our way to Quintron’s musical laboratory, Eli is excited to meet a real rockstar. “I saw Quintron in Atlanta, opening for Sleep,” Eli tells me. “He was awesome.” Everyone in the van nods because we all love Quintron’s wild, original music, which sounds like Jerry Lee Lewis pounding electric church organ over techno beats and synthesizer squiggles. Louisiana music royalty, Q and his talented puppeteer wife Miss Pussycat have toured the world together making people dance their asses off for decades.
Eli tells me that these adventures all around the south are the best part of his apprenticeship. “I get to travel and meet cool people and work on their instruments and stuff,” he says glowing, his crest of curly hair bouncing as he speaks — jealousy inducing hair. Milton’s been bald since our 20s, and I’m now finally close behind. The boy hasn’t hit a teen growth spurt yet and so with the hair he looks like a baby Kramer from Seinfeld. Upon first seeing Eli’s Quiet Riot t-shirt with its sleeves ripped off I fucking gasp because Quiet Riot was my own first favorite band! “I’ve gotten to see a lot of different cultures and do a lot of cool things,” Eli bounces in the van, and I suffer a weird jealous pang, wishing, for a second that Milton were my dad. As the son of judgmental conservatives, I envy Eli’s family dynamic; this casual education Milton’s giving him; this somewhat radical upbringing. Milton surely bought him that Quiet Riot t-shirt. It’s weird to sort of wish Milton was my dad but then I can’t argue with his results: While so many other tweens are just now beginning to embark upon a period of cynicism and parental distrust, Eli’s voraciously sopping up every bit of knowledge that drips from his very smart dad — including the increasingly rare art of repairing Hammond organs and Leslie speakers.
I’m thinking about friendship as we pull up outside of Quintron’s camelback shotgun house in the Ninth Ward. I was banished from this place for some time. A decade ago, I exalted the legendary underground dance parties that Quintron and his wife Miss Pussycat have thrown since the 90s, in a book I published. My giving away their subterranean parties to the universe pissed them off to where neither of them spoke to me for a year. Q wouldn’t answer the phone when I’d call to apologize. I lost a dozen friends in the music scene over this. It’s said that when you hurt anyone you also hurt yourself, and when I knew I’d hurt Miss Pussycat, I felt that pain deeply. I learned much during that excruciating year of my life. And maybe that’s why Quintron eventually forgave me, and he and I have since become better friends.
I also gained favor with Q, a Hammond/Leslie fetishist, by connecting him with my dear friend Milton, who makes his living indulging that same fetish.
Quintron greets us at his gate. Taller than all of us, he leads us into his spacious, sea-blue practice room, over to his Hammond and Leslie. Whenever I’m around notable smart people, even my friends, I can’t help asking them too many questions. I love questioning Quintron about his almost two decades driving all over Europe on tour, back in the dark ages before GPS, before the Euro, before cellphones and the IRA cease fire. “Before 9/11, you could just rent a cargo container for $300 and put the Hammond and the Leslie and all the other gear in there and ship it over to Europe,” he tells Milton, Eli and me. One way or another, Quintron continues to haul this heavy Hammond/Leslie combo everywhere, when most other keyboardists would gladly concede to a small digital Nord keyboard that sounds almost just like a Hammond, but fits in a backpack.
“Why do you do that to yourself?” I ask Q.
“Organ is usually just the icing on most people’s music,” he explains. “But the organ is up-front in my music, so it needs to be the most glorious, religious sound possible. The church organ sound is very model-able by digital keyboards, but what will never be replicated is two motorized, spinning speakers,” Q testifies of the complex Leslie system invented in the early 40’s by David Leslie, specifically to compliment the Hammond. “The sound of the Leslie is physical,” Quintron says. “It has to do with physics, and sound waves in the air hitting live human ears.”
Music fans of all ages love Quintron, because his electro dance beats rep modernity, while his Hammond’s big, classic sound can conjure auditory memories spanning all 83 years since its invention by Laurens Hammond, who aimed to provide churches with smaller, cheaper, mobile alternatives to those massive pipe organs. Even if you’re not a musician, the Hammond/Leslie combo surely means something to you. That vibrato organ wail in “House of the Rising Sun” recalls for me sweating like mad while riding my bike during New Orleans summers when it doesn’t even cool off at night. “Light My Fire,” reminds me of the singer in my high school rock band, who could play that amazing opening Hammond riff perfectly — a trick that helped the singer to win over the girl I loved. “Whiter Shade of Pale” reminds me of that same high school girl, and a mixtape she made me. And the sound of the Hammond plugged into the wah-wah pedal in “Shoplifter,” my favorite Quintron and Miss Pussycat song, reminds me of 27 days after Katrina, when no one was allowed back in town yet, but we snuck into our 9th Ward neighborhood, first stopping at Quintron’s house to find him already gutting the walls of his flooded practice room. Q was so happy to come out of the darkness and see some friends, that he gifted me with the vinyl test pressing of his then latest album, Swamp Tech. Quintron’s always been very generous with me.
Eli walks around Q’s big blue, maritime-themed practice room, exploring all the keyboards and weird percussion instruments. Eli, who himself plays drums and guitar with his dad at home and also cello with his school band, marvels over the original synthesizers that Q invented: the “Drum Buddy” light-activated synth, and the “Weather Warlock,” which turns sunlight, rain, wind and temperature into sound waves. These are some of the other weapons with which Q & P tour the world.
Finally, Quintron explains to Eli and Milton that the volume of his 1942 Leslie speaker recently suffered a drop. In return for fixing his Leslie, Q will send Milton home with an old, dead 1937 Hammond organ.
Milton gives a few commands, and Eli falls to his knees beside Q’s Leslie, ready to work. With dad’s screwdriver, Eli begins to unscrew the Leslie’s aged wooden back.
To make extra money while out on tour in their rock band, Milton and his bass player, George Reese (aka Greeser) always repaired their fellow musicians’ touring vans, which reliably broke down out on the road. “This mostly involved just cutting out their catalytic converter, just to get their flow going,” laughs Milton when he explains this.
“Their flow?” I ask, not getting his auto mechanic humor.
“Their flow was all jammed up,” he tries to explain. “Legally you’re supposed to have the catalytic converter — it does keep a lot of bad shit out of the environment — but you don’t really need them. So, we’d just take it out altogether, and just get their flow goin.”
And so Milton and Greeser began calling their side hustle “Flow Kings” — a name Milton would later attach to the Hammond/Leslie repair business that he purchased from his boss Richard Goodsell, who’d run it for almost two decades under the name, “Numerous Complaints Music LLC.”
Milton apprenticed at Numerous Complaints for three years. “But it wasn’t until I bought the business that I started going a lot further into it,” Milton tells me as Eli works. “Flow Kings is less sales-oriented than Richard’s business was, and more make-the-instrument-sound-beautiful oriented — which is not as good for my bottom line as Hammond sales would be, but…”
Eli, naturally, is also make-the-instrument-sound-beautiful oriented. We all watch the boy remove the Leslie’s parcel of glass tubes like slender grey light bulbs, and hand it to his father. Milton takes it and we follow him to a table across the room. “I made sure to not leave Eli out of anything,” Milton brags to us as he tests each of Q’s tubes. “He’s been in my shop his whole life, started going on service calls with me at two or three years old. By the time he was five, he could take the back off, just get everything ready for me.”
“He’s like the nurse and you’re the doctor,” I observe.
Milton nods his bald head. Quintron nods too except his hair is very long. His hair’s been short throughout most of his music career, but ever since a cancer scare a few years back, he’s taken to wearing a cowboy hat atop long, scraggly black hair. I do wonder if his near death experience didn’t also inspire his forgiveness for my fuck-up. Quintron watches Milton shake a tube to determine if its bad, then replace it with one from his private stash of antique parts that are as hard to find today as a Hammond/Leslie repairman.
I walk back over to Eli, who I’m now realizing is smarter than me in at least three different ways. It’s strange to envy a kid. “My daughters reject most of the activities I love,” I share with the boy and my two friends.
“Yeah I’m lucky,” Milton acknowledges so Eli can hear. “He has a natural aptitude, and he’s interested. He can definitely do any of the mechanical stuff. We just haven’t yet gotten into the deeper electronics.”
Father turns to son and they share a serious look, before returning to the work.
Milton hands the parcel of tubes back to Eli, then follows Quintron over to the dead Hammond organ that Q’s sending Milton home with. “That was my first ever Hammond, 1937 Model D. Got it from an old guy in Miami. I toured with that for at least eight years,” Q says, looking wistfully at his dusty donation. “It’s on two or three of our records. It went to Europe with us…” The organ’s now so troubled that Quintron, adept himself at repairing electronics, just can’t fix it anymore. Only someone like Milton can return it to life. Or someone like Eli.
They haul the ancient Hammond out to Milton’s white Econoline on a pair of antique wooden organ dollies. I stay watching Milton’s kid locate both of the motors that keep Quintron’s main Leslies spinning. He peels away some pieces of foam and uncovers a suspected faulty motor. Without asking anyone’s permission, Eli removes it.
Milton and Quintron return sweaty. From a distance, we all watch Eli work.
Quintron turns to me, nodding, eyes wide: “This is important,” he tells us.
We all know what, or who, he means before he explains, “Every organ player these days is trying to find the oldest guy who was around back when the original Hammonds were built. There becomes less and less people every generation who are interested and knowledgeable in this, or who think it’s worthwhile. These organs are pretty bulletproof, definitely less prone to problems than modern gear, so, Hammond organs will exist forever, I think. There’s always gonna be a niche market for this. And Eli has a mega head start,” Q adds. “I guarantee some day I’m gonna be calling Eli to come fix my shit.”
Quintron extends an awkward hand to me, and we shake, silently reaffirming our bond.
With his newly restored Leslie sounding peak glorious and religious, we all take to jamming. Quintron’s Hammond pumps out a Samba beat for us to follow. We all build up the rhythm behind Q as he tries out his newly sweetened Leslie speaker. Eli plays the drum kit, and I stand beside him thumping a rack of roto-toms while also shaking Miss Pussycat’s maracas, which are sheathed in colorful, cloth maraca-cozies that she’s hand-sewn. I notice she hasn’t come downstairs tonight, and I fear she still doesn’t enjoy my company so much since I betrayed her trust. But I have to concentrate on keeping this beat right now. I feel a guilty relief when Eli sounds a little unsteady behind the drum kit; I can’t have a 12-year-old knowing more than me and being better than me at fucking everything.
Famously a musical lone wolf, Quintron collaborates with his wife and almost no one else. On very rare occasions, he’s backed accredited underground icons like Memphis band the Oblivians, or recently deceased dirty soul-singer, Andre Williams. But not with half-serious musicians like me. Which is why, after he ends our first five-minute jam, I slyly dig out my cellphone and text a friend, “Yo, I just jammed with Mr. Quintron!!!”
The smell of the Hammond’s old wood mixes with that of tour sweat in Milton’s van as he drives us back across town to my house. “I thought Quintron was a cool dude,” Eli offers. “And I thought that we could really connect, music-wise, me and him.”
“Yeah, he’s pretty cool,” I agree. “What all did you do to his Leslie, Eli?”
“Well, he was having a problem with the upper motor set, so I oiled that,” he begins. “He’d also put some foam in the motorbox to keep it from vibrating. But I felt around in there and realized the adjustment screw was out of alignment and making the top motor wiggle around. I tightened the adjustment screw and that stopped the vibration. Then dad put the tubes back in.”
“Pretty smart,” I tell him, hoping my own kids end up as smart, since I myself clearly won’t in this lifetime. I wonder, “Do you think you could see yourself staying in this line of work?”
“I could carry it on as a business I guess. I’d have to learn a lot,” Eli replies, sounding doubtful. “I like the electro-harmonics aspect of it. And I love Leslie speakers. And I love soldering. But mainly, I just like hanging out with my dad and making some money.”
Upon returning to my house, I lay down on my couch while my dear friend Milton and his son walk directly out to my much smaller jam room in the backyard, to continue the music. I can hear Milton and Eli from inside my house, faintly — not loud enough to wake Milton’s sleeping daughter, who babysat my now-sleeping daughters tonight. Father and son run through some Sabbath riffs, then Motley Crue’s “Kick Start My Heart,” then “Back In Black.” I can tell they’re switching instruments, but I really can’t tell who’s playing what out there, they both sound great. I lay, eyes closed, fading out, enjoying Milton and Eli’s jam, and thinking about how, in the best of cases, our kids are our friends that we’ve grown to our specifications. I mean, Eli’s really loosened up by now — to the point where I can’t tell any difference between the father and his son.