The Hammond Organ Company may have discontinued making its classic B-3 model, but there are still a few master musicians who know how to burn on the instrument.
Charles Earland, one of the greatest practitioners of the art of B-3—burning in jazz history, had been playing synthesizers for the past seven years. Now, however, he’s again applying his formidable chops and intense sense of swing to his old axe on Front Burner, his Milestone Records debut. "To me,” Earland says, "the B-3 was the first synthesizer that came along. It was an electric instrument and you could create so many things with it manually.”
Front Burner is Earland’s first album in over three years and his first organ date in nearly a decade. Musicologist Bob Porter, who’d produced Earland’s hugely successful Black Talk! album for Prestige in 1970, wanted to record the groove master on B-3 again because, according to Porter, no one can "kick the 3” quite like Earland does.
"An analysis of the Earland organ style,” Porter has written, "reveals perhaps the best walking-bass line among organists and a unique second type of bass line that creates a rolling, long-meter feeling on rock tunes. In addition, he has a true feeling for melodies. His melodic phrasing is second to none among organists and is the equal of many great musicians on other instruments... He presents fast tempi faster even than Brother Jack McDuff!”
Front Burner is a cooking, straight-ahead affair. Joining Earland is trumpeter Virgil Jones, a veteran of Black Talk! and other of the organist’s early Prestige sessions. Saxophonist Bill Easley, who’d been introduced to Earland by George Benson, had played with him at jam sessions but this is their first recording together. On guitar is Bobby Broom, an innovative young player whose biting tone and stinging lines fit nicely into the organ-group format. Buddy Williams, Earland’s friend for over 20 years, kicks the traps, while Frank Colon, Williams’s cohort in the Manhattan Transfer rhythm section, adds his conga grooves to several cuts.
The album is dedicated to the late Sheryl Kendrick, a keyboardist and vocalist who was Earland’s musical partner on his previous Columbia albums as well as his wife. "I Will Always Love Her” was written specifically with her in mind, while "Gospel Time” is reflective of her deep love for gospel music.
"She was a big influence in my life,” Earland says of Kendrick, who died of sickle-cell anemia in 1983. "I kinda stopped playing a little bit after that. Now, I’m just trying to get back out again.”
Earland was born on May 24, 1941 in Philadelphia, the B-3 capital of the world. Organ, however, was not his first instrument. "My dad had an alto saxophone and I used to sneak it off to school,” he recalls. "I was taking free lessons at school. My dad didn’t know I was using his horn.”
By the time he was in high school, where his classmates included Frankie Avalon, Fabian, Pat Martino, and Lew Tabackin, Earland had mastered the saxophone. He played in orchestra and marching band. In the school’s dance band, he played baritone saxophone alongside tenor sax man Tabackin, guitarist Martin, and trumpeter Avalon.
After graduation, Earland went on the road as tenor saxophonist with organ grinder Jimmy McGriff. It was during his tenure with the McGriff trio that his infatuation with the B-3 began.
"He just looked like he was having more fun than I was having,” Earland says of McGriff. "After I would play my solo, I’d be standing up there watching, but he and the drummer played from the beginning to the end of tunes. He had so many more things to do. I could only play one note at a time and he could play as many as he wanted to.”
Earland taught himself the organ by practicing on McGriff’s instrument during intermissions and, after leaving McGriff, returned home to form his own trio with Martino and drummer Bobby Durham. Moving to New York, the organist cut his first records for the obscure Choice label in 1966, then hit the big time as a member of alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson’s group from 1968 to 1969.
Earland was playing with his own combo in Harlem when Donaldson walked into the club with a copy of his popular Alligator Boogaloo album under his art. The saxophonist told Earland to take the album home, learn all the tunes, nad meet him for a gig a few nights later. "I learned all the songs,” Earland remembers, "but when I went up to play with him, he played everything but those songs.”
The organist recorded two best-selling albums with Donaldson for Blue Note. Then, at the suggestion of tenor saxophonist Houston Person, Bob Porter signed him to Prestige and cut Black Talk! using Person, Virgil Jones, and guitarist Melvin Sparks and drummer Idris Muhammad from the Donaldson group. The session, which included Earland’s now-classic instrumental reading of the Spiral Starecase pop hit, "More Today than Yesterday,” became one of the most popular straight-ahead organ albums of all time, even cracking the Top 100 on Billboard’s pop album chart. (Recently reissued in the Original Jazz Classics Prestige Soul Masterpieces series, Black Talk! is again selling briskly.)
Eight more albums followed on Prestige, including Living Black (on which Earland introduced saxophonist Grover Washington, Jr., to the jazz world) and the double-disc Leaving This Planet. Among the other top-flight players who contributed to the organist’s Prestige sessions were trumpeters Freddie Hubbard and Lee Morgan, saxophonists Joe Henderson and Billy Harper, and drummers Billy Cobham and Harvey Mason.
After leaving Prestige, Earland cut several straight-ahead sessions for Muse before taking up the synthesizer and recording crossover albums for Mercury and Columbia.
Earland moved to Chicago following Sheryl Kendrick’s death and resumed playing the B-3. "It felt good to be back on the organ again,” he explains.
Bob Porter, producer of Front Burner, concurs. "It’s good,” he says, "to see somebody burning again.”
Charles Earland died December 11, 1999.