Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes Joey DeFrancesco, organ

Live and Learn

An Emenee Chord Organ
An Emenee Chord Organ

I have been known to make snide comments about the electric organ. This is an unfortunate artifact of my childhood in the 1950s and 60s, when toy organs made by “Emenee Industries Inc.” (of New York, N.Y.) were everywhere.  They came in different sizes, though the ones I remember were the chord organs (see the illustration above): the buttons on the left side of the thing played simple harmonies to accompany whatever pathetic, wheezing tune was being played on the keys to the right.  It was an instrument so simple and crude as to make its cousin – the accordion – look and sound like a Steinway Concert Grand by comparison. 

When I became a jazz freak as a teenager and first listened to the great Jimmy Smith (1925-2005) play jazz organ, I was unimpressed. I still related the sound of Smith’s organ (a Hammond B3, as I later learned) to those Emenee beasties of my childhood, and because the organ is incapable of the sort of punchy, unexpected accentuation (syncopations) that give jazz its polyrhythmic character (its swing), I found Smith’s playing to be rather flaccid.  

Alas, the arrogance of youth.

My attitude towards jazz organ remained one of epic disinterest (flavored with a pinch of disdain) for the next fifty years.

Live and learn.

Joey DeFrancesco (1971-2022) playing a Hammond B3 organ
Joey DeFrancesco (1971-2022) playing a Hammond B3 organ

On Saturday, August 26 of this year, I received an email from my old friend (and patron) Karen Fiske, who wrote:

“Hi, Bob! Any chance you can write about Joey DeFrancesco, who just left us too soon? My spouse often rhapsodizes about the Hammond B3.”

The “spouse” to whom Karen referred is my equally old friend Chuck Fiske who, not incidentally, cut his musical teeth on the accordion (for which his wife and children have forgiven him, though, perhaps, he has not yet forgiven himself).

“Joey DeFrancesco” I mused.  Who the heck is Joey DeFrancesco?

Live and learn.

I did my due diligence and I fell in love.  I discovered that Joey DeFrancesco was an American jazz organist (and occasional trumpet player, saxophonist, and singer). Born in Springfield Pennsylvania in 1971, he died in Phoenix, Arizona, the day before Karen Fiske had sent me the email referenced above, on August 25, 2022 at the age of 51.  I discovered that he had released more than 30 albums under his own name (a not-insignificant number of which I now own) and had recorded extensively as a side-person with such music world elites as Miles Davis, John McLaughlin, Larry Coryell, Ray Charles, Bette Midler, Diana Krall, and Van Morrison.  He signed his first record contract (with Columbia) at the tender age of 16.  He was a student and disciple of the famed jazz organist Jimmy Smith, though to my ear DeFrancesco far outpaced the master.  And using techniques that I will describe in a bit, DeFrancesco managed to overcome entirely the dynamic/percussive shortcomings of the organ; shortcoming that, until I heard him play, had always made jazz performed on an organ sound to me like day-old oatmeal: congealed mush.

Finally, I learned that for the great bulk of his career, DeFrancesco performed on a Hammond B3 organ.  I’ll explain the significance of that in a moment.  But first: the late, great Joey DeFrancesco performs his own Better Than Yesterday on a Hammond B3, recorded in 2020:

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