Procol Harum

the Pale

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RIP Don Leslie

Inventor of the Leslie cabinet, without which ...

Palers' Band organist Jeremy Gilien writes to BtP, September 2004:

Regarding the RIP to Don Leslie in September 5th's What's New at 'Beyond the Pale', I cannot let the death of this man go by as a mere footnote in the continuing lore of Procol Harum without adding at least a small tribute.  His contribution to their characteristic sound is far too important. 

The significance of the role which Dr Leslie's invention played in contributing to the effectiveness and success of A Whiter Shade Of Pale, and therefore the subsequent career of PH, should not be but often is underestimated.  It is inconceivable to me that that record would have made the kind of impression it did without that swirling, ethereal, Dopplerised Hammond organ, which could only have sounded as it did because of the Leslie speaker system through which it was channeled. 

So many bands besides PH also benefited from this wondrous contraption.  I myself am a proud owner of one of them, made all the more special to me by the autographs of Mssrs. Fisher and Brooker atop (see illustrations!).  If Mr Leslie was a resident of Southern California, I would be interested in paying my respects at a memorial service. 

Obituary by Myrna Oliver, LA Times Staff Writer
Donald James Leslie, inventor and manufacturer of the Leslie speaker, which helped popularise the Hammond organ and contributed to the development of electronic music, has died. He was 93. Leslie died of natural causes Thursday at his home in Altadena.

A fan of church and theater pipe organs, Leslie became enamored with the compact electric Hammond organ shortly after it was introduced in 1935. He first heard the instrument engineer Laurens Hammond's low-cost alternative to the pipe organ in the Barker Brothers Furniture Store in downtown Los Angeles, where he serviced Capehart radios. The small electric organ, Leslie thought, sounded much like a theater or church pipe organ in the vast furniture showroom. But once he got it home he was disappointed with its sound in confined spaces. He started experimenting with devices to make the instrument sound like labyrinthine pipe organs.

Leslie had taught himself mechanics and electronics in a series of jobs, including work for the Naval Research Laboratories in Washington  DC during World War II. When he came up with his hand-built Leslie speaker, he offered it to Hammond, hoping for a job, but was rejected.

Jeremy's own Leslie cabinetSo Leslie founded Electro Music in Pasadena to manufacture his speaker, which became a popular sound-refining amplifier for Hammond organs and those made by Wurlitzer, Conn, Thomas, Baldwin, Kimball, Yamaha and others. The Leslie also proved useful for portable keyboards, synthesisers and other electronic instruments, contributing improved sounds to jazz, rock, blues, gospel and pop music.

The Leslie helped adapt electric organs for homes and musicians' small studios, expanding the market well beyond churches and large auditoriums.

Through the 1940s, the name for Leslie's invention two rotating horns enhancing both treble and bass registers varied considerably, from Hollywood speaker to Crawford speaker (for organist Jesse Crawford) to Leslie Vibraphone, among others. But most customers referred to it as the Leslie, and by 1949 Leslie speaker had become the universally accepted name.

Leslie acquired 48 patents for the speaker and other musical inventions. In 1965, he sold Electro Music to CBS, which made it a part of CBS Musical Instruments. By the 1980s, Hammond had finally bought the speaker Leslie offered the organ-maker four decades earlier, and the Leslie is now built by Hammond-Suzuki USA.

Hammond recognised Leslie's symbiotic enhancement of its product in 1978 with an award for "his outstanding contribution and dedication in making the Hammond-Leslie sound responsible for creating the organ industry."

In 2003, Leslie, along with the late Laurens Hammond, and Leo Fender, founder of Fender Guitars, were among the original inductees into the American Music Conference Hall of Fame.

Born in Danville, Ill., Leslie grew up in Glendale and lived his adult life in Pasadena and Altadena. He is survived by his wife of fifty years, Carolyn; a daughter, Jeanine; two sons, Scott and James; a sister, Mary Elizabeth Grime; and six grandchildren. The family has invited friends to a celebration of Leslie's life at 4:30 p.m. Saturday at the family home in Altadena. They have asked that memorial contributions be made to the American Diabetes Assn., P.O. Box 1132, Fairfax, VA 22038-1132.

Organ links at 'Beyond the Pale'

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