2007   AUGUST 14   #226

LAYTON-O-RAMA! - Eddie Layton

The organ was once universally known as the "King of Instruments", be it pipe or electronic. This was especially true in the 1950's, when organ became a significant voice in pop and 'easy listening' music. The moniker was due to the fact that the organ could serve as a one-person orchestra and simulate many different sounds, and the player could play all instrumental parts, including the bass parts with his/her feet. The organ had the ability to take many pieces of music popular in the day (e.g., film, show, and TV themes, popular orchestral pieces, etc.), and enable one person to replicate them or rearrange them. It could also alleviate the necessity to have an orchestra or full band on hand in many situations, because one player could create such a full sound.

So, in addition to becoming wildly popular in homes throughout the world, where amateur organists by the score could create miraculously full sounds with only a modicum of ability (especially when all of the 'auto-play' features came around), the organ developed its own roster of 'stars'; virtuosos who could really play, could extract the most out of this mighty instrument, and dazzle audiences and become celebrities in the process.

Among the first major organ stars in the 1950s were Jesse Crawford and Ken Griffin, who usually played in a very melodramatic and not very rhythmically propulsive style. They were big influences on the next generation, whose major stars were probably Lenny Dee and Klaus Wunderlich. The market was flooded with LPs of organists playing major pop hits of the day and orchestral adaptations, some really good, many execrable. A great many of the lesser quality ones on minor labels by no-name players were touted as "In The Style Of Ken Griffin" – buyer beware any album that has these words! This is usually hideous stuff.

Eddie Layton may not have been the biggest star, but he was a bright one, and was surely one of the most imaginative organists of all in the 1950s. After childhood study of music and subsequent study of meteorology, he enlisted in the Navy, where he met the Hammond Organ for the first time. He was drawn to it immediately, and after the war he sought out the esteemed Jesse Crawford to study with. He landed a gig playing at Radio City Music Hall frequently, and then at CBS, where he spent years playing the typical slushy musical backdrops for soap operas, most notably "The Secret Storm".

This led to his meeting a gentleman named Michael Burke, who ran the New York Yankees after CBS bought the team. Burke offered Layton a job playing the organ at Yankee Stadium starting in 1967. Layton knew nothing about baseball at the time, stating that he thought "a sacrifice fly was an insect". He nonetheless decided to give it a shot; even after Eddie's objections that he didn't drive or own a car, Burke countered with an offer of permanent limo service to and from the games from his home in Queens.

It worked out pretty well. Layton held the job for 37 years until the end of the 2003 season, and became as nearly as indelible a part of the Yankee Stadium experience as anyone. In the process, he forged new ground through his (as he put it) "cheering with my music". He claimed to invent the now de rigueur bugle-esque "Charge" (F-Bb-D-F---D-F!), although this is open to debate, as someone who frequented Shea Stadium a few years prior with a trumpet lays claim to it also.

No matter. Layton, along with Gladys Gooding, Jane Jarvis, and many others, helped put the sound of the organ in everyone's ears as part of the baseball game fabric, and it exists to his day, although not as prevalently as in the past. Layton also played for the Knicks, Rangers, and Islanders along the way, making him the answer to an oft-bantered trivia question about who 'played for' all these teams. He was not the first baseball organist, and not even the first at Yankee Stadium (a gentleman named Toby Wright apparently played there in 1965-66), but Layton is probably the most recognizable name and a true pioneer in stadium organ.

During his long career, Layton became so synonymous with the Hammond that the company utilized him as its primary endorser and worldwide ambassador for some 50 years, sending him all over the globe to perform thousands of clinics and in-store demonstrations. In the process, he became an organ recording star as well, releasing many albums, mostly on the Mercury label and its Wing imprint, later on for Epic, and a few other labels along the way.

Most of the 33 selections here are culled from eight different albums Layton waxed, probably between 1956 and 1961, though no concrete info exists on this. All of the albums were on the Mercury label, except for one on Epic. Two cuts are from B-sides of 45 RPM singles that Layton cut, one for Epic and the other for the obscure Benida label. Layton dominates the proceedings throughout, although there are uncredited rhythm sections on many of the cuts. In those days, you could find all kinds of info on the album jackets about the types of tape recorders and mikes and tape that were used, and where the musicians were placed in the studio, but not who the musicians were. The only identifiable names of supporting cast are found on the two singles: the emotionally charged rendition of "I Can't Stop Loving You" credits the great Teacho Wilshire as the 'arranger and conductor'; and "Toot De Toot" has a composer credit of 'Jean Thielemans'; it is a safe bet that the composer, and quite possibly the guitar player, on this is actually Toots Thielemans, the harmonica great.

And speaking of the album jackets, these alone are worth the price of admission. You can see some of them online if you search for them. They have incomprehensible cover art: Layton holding a Chihuahua, sitting on top of the outside of a rocket ship, or seated at the organ holding a microphone about twice the size of his head. Equally hysterical are the liner notes, which use the flowery writing style of the day, and often focus more on the recording techniques than the actual music.

All of these recordings are resplendent ear candy because of Layton's remarkable and singular ability to extract so many different sounds out of the Hammond. Layton had amazing ears and musical sensibility, and worked tirelessly at mimicking sounds of other instruments and sounds found in nature. Listen for the thematic use of his arsenal: on "Hot Canary", those bird sounds are all produced on the organ, as is the heartbeat in "Heartaches". In fact, most everything except the rhythm section and occasional percussion is produced by Layton at the organ: the horn, steel guitar, and banjo simulations, and the amazing 'organ as conga drum' heard on several cuts. If you know or play the Hammond organ, you'll know that this is no mean feat (try it sometime!), and you'll appreciate how amazing Layton was. He could not only cop the sound of another instrument on the organ, but could phrase it in a style that made it sound authentic, which is more than half the battle. Not even his more esteemed and more famous peers (Dee, Wunderlich, et al) could touch him at sonic exploration; there was probably no one who ever probed the aural possibilities of the Hammond organ as deeply as Eddie Layton. His sonic safari is akin to the early pioneers of the Moog synthesizer, and he was working with a decidedly more limited amount of sonic control and textures.

NOTE: make sure you are listening to these with both sides of the stereo field operative, as many cuts have rather severe separation of Layton and the rhythm section, as was the style in early stereo recordings. It would be even more severe if I had stereo copies of all of these albums, but some of mine are in mono.

Also, let it not be overlooked that Layton could play the holy hell out of the organ when he was feeling it and the material was right (check out "Cumana", "Love", and "Dipsy Doodle", in particular). He had phenomenal technique, a ripping sense of rhythm, and a devilish swagger to his approach. He characterized his own playing as "not jazz, but jazzy", and this sums it up pretty well. He may not have played the most boppish or fluid improvised solos, but his way of expressing a straight-up melody is astonishing, and you can't beat his rhythmic propulsion. He could really tear up the organ and he could really swing, in his own way. Of course he's not Jimmy Smith, but look at it the other way: Jimmy Smith is no Eddie Layton, either.

Much of the music is very popular hits of the 40s and 50s (and earlier), and a lot of the tunes (notably Perez Prado's "Patricia", and "Tico Tico", championed by the great organist Ethel Smith in the 40s) were staples/warhorses of the organ circuit, and were frequently played and recorded by nearly every organist, amateur or pro. A lot of it could be classified as unbearably hokey now, but, hell, that was the style of the day then. It's Layton's sonic palette, his slashing and driving playing, and subtle yet creative orchestration that sets this stuff apart. Layton may not have been the wildest, or most charismatic, or most famous of the organ stars of the day, but he was undeniably something unique and special.

Anyone who is familiar only with Layton's work at Yankee Stadium will marvel at what he really had up his sleeve when left to his own devices, as can be heard in full flower here. He really didn't use a fraction of his bag of tricks at the Stadium, and these recordings show what a genius he really was. Except for his 1996 CD "You Gotta Have Heart", nearly all of Layton's recordings are forever out of print and will probably never be formally released again, so this is a treasure trove of stuff you may never have heard were it not for Otis' benevolence and foresight.

Layton also was noted for having his own tugboat, on which he frequented the Hudson River. He also had a remarkable electric train collection, allegedly having a track hung from his ceiling on which they ran. He was a great supporter and benefactor of Pace University, which has a Student Union room bearing his name, and he played at the Pace Commencement Ceremonies for many years at Radio City. He never married and had no extended family, and died from natural causes on the day after Christmas, 2004, at age 79.

Eddie Layton was a true unsung giant of his genre, and hopefully these recordings will be a reminder to all of his greatness.

- Contributed by: Hoppy Stone

Music files removed at owner's request

The albums (Vinyl, 33 RPM):
Organ Moods In Hi-Fi featuring Eddie Layton (Mercury MG 20208)
  Ain't Misbehavin' (2:46)
  Banjo Medley (1:45)
  By The Waters Of The Minnetonka (2:37)
  Heartaches (1:53)
  Hot Canary (2:31)
  Patricia (2:45)
  Stein Song (2:02)
  The Dipsy Doodle (2:17)
Great Organ Hits (Mercury SR 60639)
  Granada (3:09)
  The Happy Organ (2:23)
  Tico Tico (2:21)
Caravan (Mercury MG 20426)
  A Foggy Day (2:34)
  The Trolley Song (2:29)
Organ Sounds & Percussion (Mercury PPS 2029)
  Chattanooga Choo Choo (2:18)
  Cumana (3:17)
  Love (2:17)
  March Of The Siamese Children (2:24)
  Sabre Dance (2:42)
  Skyliner (2:38)
  The Donkey Serenade (2:41)
  The Sheik Of Araby (1:59)
Better Layton Than Ever (Mercury MG 20377)
  Bright Lights of Brussels (2:10)
  Hawaiian War Chant (2:56)
  Nola (2:16)
Folk Sounds (Mercury MG20814)
  Swing Low, Sweet Chariot (2:46)
Skatin' With Layton (Mercury SR 60258)
  Button Up Your Overcoat (2:30)
  Hot Noodles (2:42)
  Twelfth Street Rag (2:14)
Eddie Layton Plays Lawrence Welk's Greatest Hits On The New Hammond Organ (Epic BN 26215)
  Apples And Bananas (1:57)
  Calcutta (2:25)
  Lawrence Welk Polka (2:07)

The singles (45 RPM):
  Toot De Toot (Mambo) (2:36) [Eddie Layton and Trio, Benida label, B-side of 'Song From Desiree', #5025]
  I Can't Stop Loving You (2:54) [Eddie Layton, Epci label, B-side of 'Gabrielle', #5-9787/ZSP110362]