Andrew Gilbert ALCM (TD), DipLCM
Music Teacher and Computer Specialist

Biography

They tell me that I’ve always been musical! Well, I can certainly remember singing in both the school and church choirs from an early age and I was recently reminded of the fact that I used to sing the latest pop songs at the top of my voice walking to and from my primary school each day. Thankfully it was only a five minute walk and no recordings exist of this!

At first, organ music was just something that I heard or sang to in church but when I was around 8 or 9 years old my Dad took me to the annual “Schoolboys’ Exhibition” held at London’s Olympia. It was here that I first heard the Hammond organ being played, by one of Hammond UK’s star demonstrators, the well-known theatre organist Ena Baga - you can just see her photo in the Hammond Exhibition Stand image below. Inspired by the Hammond’s big sound, at the very next opportunity, I sat down at my grandmother’s old Kimball reed organ, pulled out some stops, pumped away at the pedals and started to bash out a ‘tune’ or two at the keys. I’m sure it must have sounded awful, but no one ever told me to stop!

The Hammond Exhibition Stand

The Hammond Exhibition Stand.

A short while later, my older sister started work at the East Sussex County Music School and received the ‘perk’ of free piano lessons. When she practised, I would sometimes ‘sit in’ with her, watching and listening carefully, and then I’d sit at the piano and simply play what she had been working on. This playing was all by ear at first, of course, but I soon started to read the music too, making the vital connection between the ‘dots’ and the keys. The piano lessons were soon shared between Elizabeth and me but after a short while, when it was realised who was going to be the better player, they were transferred to me on my own. I then received what I would describe as a very strict, ‘classical’ piano education from Miss Margaret Moyes, who was one of Newhaven’s two ‘proper’ piano teachers back then. After three years, I’d reached Grade 6 but the electronic organ was about to make a major reappearance in my life.

One Saturday lunchtime my Dad took me for a trip out in the car and on the way back we popped into the Newhaven Railway Club for a beer. Well, a beer for dad and a Tizer and a bag of crisps for me! I saw and heard a small combo organ being played on stage and once again I was impressed by the big sound that this tiny instrument could make. Not long after this, Dad discovered that a Hammond organ was being played every Saturday at another local social club and, given my obvious interest, took me along one evening, which was to be the first of many! The organist was a real gentleman by the name of Cliff Mulley, and he kindly let me sit on a high bar stool, right behind him as he played his trusty Hammond model T100 to listen, watch and learn. On one of his visits to the club, he gave me a flyer with details of a ‘Hammond Organ Showcase’ concert to be staged by the Brighton Hammond Organ dealer, Lyon and Hall, at the famous Dome concert hall, in Brighton. This concert was to star the UK’s ‘Mr Hammond’, Keith Beckingham, and the internationally known theatre organist George Blackmore, and it would feature the fabulous and rare (at least in the UK, where less than 50 were imported) Hammond model X66 organ. My Dad took me along for the evening and it was Keith Beckingham who opened the show on the Hammond T200 with Never on a Sunday. I think it was then that I started to realise how sharp my musical ‘ear’ was, as I could remember almost every note he played – indeed I can probably still play that exact arrangement! The second half of the evening was given over to George Blackmore with a virtuoso performance on the X66. He opened up with the rousing overture from Zampa and when the applause had died down he asked “Can you hear it OK at the back?” When the reply came back as “Yes!”, he pointed to the two large X66 speaker cabinets next to the organ and, to much laughter, replied “You should try sitting here then!” And that, as they say, was that. I was well and truly ‘hooked’!

 

Keith BeckinghamGeorge Blackmore

Jackie Brown

Clockwise from top left: Keith Beckingham, George Blackmore, Harold Smart, Jackie Brown.

It was only a week or so later that we went on a family shopping trip to Southwick Square, near Brighton. Mum and I were in Woolworths when Dad came in and said that there was a big organ dealership right next door. At first I thought he was kidding, but he was right! This was the Southwick branch of the Southern Organs chainso we went in and had a look. There was row upon row of organs of all shapes and sizes – I’d never seen so many in one place before! We didn’t buy an organ that day, but we did come away with a Hammond X66 LP record (which I still have and listen to!) and we were given tickets for another big show at the Dome, this time featuring UK organ stars Harold Smart, Douglas Reeve and Jackie Brown at the latest Thomas organs. After seeing that show I just knew I had to start playing properly. Alas, buying an organ was out of the question, my parents had only just paid out a lot of money for a new piano and a guitar. Cliff Mulley suggested that I learnt accordion to get used to sustained melody notes and, after successfully starting with a small 32 bass instrument, I was soon upgraded to a great sounding Italian 120 bass model.

I suppose that I must have been about 13 when I first actually played an electronic organ, as opposed to just listening. This was a tiny Hammond VS100 Cadette, and was back at the Brighton Hammond dealer, Lyon and Hall. After listening for a short while, one of the shop’s organ teachers, UK cinema organist Bobby Pagan, came across and asked how long I’d been playing. I think I said something like “Ten minutes.” No, he said he wanted to know how long overall, and was most surprised when I told him that this was my first ever time at an organ. He then swiftly moved me across to the much larger T200 model. Now this was basically the same organ that I’d been watching Cliff Mulley playing, so I knew how it worked, and I remember that I actually managed to set up my own sounds. My playing, though it must have been very basic, attracted something of a crowd and, spotting the mileage in this, the manager, Phil Baldwin, told me that I could come in and play whenever I wanted. I took him up on the offer – almost every Saturday – playing everything in the shop from the biggest Hammonds to the smallest Yamahas and even Philicordas! By then I was going to all the local organ concerts and demonstrations, and also regularly visited Southern Organs in Southwick. Once they realised I could play, they too invited me to come in to make some music. Their ‘musical director’ Jackie Brown said that l had the happy knack of getting good sounds out of whatever organ I played, so I was able to add Conn, Lowrey, Baldwin, Wurlitzer, Farfisa and Thomas to my ‘playlist’.

south organs

Southern Organs Southwick

It was about this time that Dad discovered that there was a large Gulbransen President organ at a hotel in Hove, so one day we paid a visit and Dad asked the manager if I could have a go. He wasn’t that keen but reluctantly agreed to let me have a few minutes at the organ, with the rider that if I couldn’t play properly I’d be off in moments. Well, I ended up playing for over twenty minutes and was invited back to play at the weekend....and the weekend after, and so on! Less than six weeks later, I was surprised to be appointed as the hotel’s resident organist. I was officially too young to be allowed in licensed premises, let alone work in them, so I became ‘16 years old’ a bit early! It was clear that I needed to learn a lot more music in a very short space of time and I’d also have to practise a lot more, so Dad bought a Gulbransen Pacemaker for me to play at home, joking that ‘I could pay him back when I turned professional’. This extra organ practice soon affected my piano playing and it was time to come clean with my piano teacher, Miss Moyes. She wasn’t that pleased, but I nevertheless continued on with piano, working my way up through the higher grades, as well as having organ mentoring – in classical, theatre and electronic styles

I’d often heard the late, great Brian Sharp play his fantastic orchestral style arrangements on the weekly BBC Radio 2 programme ‘The Organist Entertains’, presented at the time by Robin Richmond, and went to see him play some Gulbransen organs in concert in early 1972. After the show, my Dad spoke to Arthur and Peter Butler, the UK Gulbransen importers, saying that I had one at home. They promptly sat me down at the new Theatrum model and I played a few tunes for them including Aquarius, from the musical Hair. That tune immediately brought Brian across as he wanted to know who was ‘playing one of his tunes’, and I got to ‘swap notes’ with him on the piece, not realising that he, along with almost all of my ‘idols’, was to become a firm friend in years to come. I guess Peter and Arthur must have been impressed too as they filed my name away for later.

In the light of subsequent events for both Brian Sharp and myself, it’s worth pointing out that this was the first time either of us had seen a Kawai organ. The Butlers had just started importing them and had brought one small model along. Brian didn’t (or, more likely, wouldn’t) play it, so that was left to the Southern Organs staff, and the sound that it made was dire. It’s just as well that they improved immensely by the mid 1970s, then!

I’ve just added a new instalment of ‘It shouldn’t happen to an organist’ to the downloads page that tells the story in more detail, along with some other tales of working with Brian. 

Brian Sharp at the Gulbransen Theatrum

Brian Sharp at the Gulbransen Theatrum

My first real job in the music business was in 1972, as the ‘Saturday Boy’ in Lyon and Hall, the same music shop where I first played that little Hammond organ. The photo below shows the shop’s piano department some 20 years or more before I started. Not an organ in sight yet, they came some years later, but things hadn’t changed that much by the time I arrived, and the metal frame chair was the same one that I sat on at my desk, which is the one right in front of the chair, with music books on! Working in the shop was a good grounding in the music business which, as I soon discovered, was very different to simply playing the organ! Phil Baldwin handed me a well-thumbed copy of the American Wurlitzer Sales Manual and told me to ‘read, learn and inwardly digest’ it, but it was way too aggressive in its hard sell techniques, and to I had to tame it down a lot for UK use. I later came across the book a few times with different makers’ names on, it seemed to have been written just the once, then slightly customised as required.

Lyon and Hall

Lyon and Hall, Brighton, in the 1950s

The combination of playing at the hotel and working in the shop was to carry on throughout my remaining years at school, but I still carried on with my piano and organ studies. In September 1973 I was appointed resident organist at another much larger hotel nearer to my home, and I bought my own Hammond T500 organ and Leslie 145 speaker to use there. I also paid Dad in full for the Gulbransen Pacemaker – the princely sum of £375 - but then promptly sold it on a couple of weeks later for £450! It was around this time that I started to play theatre pipe organ, and I got to know instruments like the Wurlitzers at the Granada, Kingston on Thames and the Gaumont State, Kilburn, the Comptons at the Odeon, Leicester Square in London, the Granada, Sutton and the ABC, Plymouth, as well as the lovely Christie at the Granada, Walthamstow. It wasn’t long before I started playing organ concerts on some of the London Granada organs for the Theatre Organ Club, as well as for local organ societies on various makes of electronics.

One of Dad’s friends was a local TV and radio news reporter, David Clitheroe. He had taken a regular interest in my music and, in addition to writing some newspaper articles about me for the local press, he interviewed me a couple of times on the radio. This led to my meeting BBC Radio Brighton producers Keith Slade and Stuart Hobday, and they gave me two half-hour organ music slots on the station’s ‘Music For You’ programme. These went down well and as a result they asked me to co-present ‘At The Console’, with three other well-known local organists, John Mann, Douglas Reeve and Bobby Pagan. This was to be a new light organ music programme that became very popular on local radio, eventually running for well over ten years and, although the four ‘core’ organists remained the same, we were occasionally joined by other local organists such as Dickie Lord, Peter Larson and Linda Bayfield. Some of my broadcasts were copied to other BBC local stations and also to BBC Radio 2, where Robin Richmond used them on ‘The Organist Entertains’. The cheques for the ensuing ‘repeat fees’ were often unexpected (and always sadly very small) but nonetheless welcome!

Clockwise from top left: John Mann, Douglas Reeve, Bobby Pagan.

After our first meeting, Peter and Arthur Butler had kept an eye on my progress and I had done a little ad-hoc (and always unpaid!) demo work for them from time to time. In August 1976, I remember that I spent one very busy afternoon on their stand at the London Music Trades Fair, playing and demonstrating their Kawai E500 model and some WLM portable models. It was supposed to be a day out in London with my girlfriend with just a fleeting visit to the Trade Fair! Thankfully, she was also interested in electronic organs and didn’t mind a bit. Was this something of a test for me, I wondered? Well maybe it was because in July 1977 Peter called me and asked me to work for him for a whole week, again at the London Music Trades Fair. I would be demonstrating their entire new line of Kawai organs and synthesizers – and this time I would be paid! The week went very well and he subsequently invited me to do some more work for the company - providing I could drive to the various venues. I was still taking driving lessons at the time, so I had to pass my driving test – and do so as soon as possible!  Well, I did that just a few weeks later and within three days of passing the test I started my Kawai travels with a trip up to London for a concert, followed by a visit to a Kawai dealer in Hastings later in the week. Not long after that I found myself driving all the way up from Newhaven to Bradford for a week-long organ extravaganza staged at the Novotel Hotel by one of Kawai’s biggest UK dealers ‘The Organ Loft’. The dealer had taken over the entire ground floor of the hotel, including all its function rooms, not to mention bedrooms for all the visiting players! It was my first chance to meet my opposite numbers with the other companies, all of whom would soon be good friends.

Demonstrating Kawai organs in 1977

Demonstrating Kawai organs in 1977.

As a result of all this work I was asked to join Kawai full time in January 1978 as their UK Product Specialist. In February of that year I attended the Frankfurt Trade Fair for the first time. The Kawai engineers told me to try out a new prototype organ and preset synthesizer, and then asked me what I thought of them. They wanted to know if and how I’d improve things. I must have made a good impression as my suggestions were all taken up and the final products sold like hot cakes when they arrived in the UK later in the year. I was told that I was now officially ‘on the R&D team’, and was often seconded directly to Kawai, travelling all over Europe and also to Japan. I helped to design some of the company's major products like the E550, DX900 and X430, culminating with the SR series organs.

franfurt

At my very first Frankfurt Trade Fair in 1978 - complete with a beard!

I’m a family man at heart and, in the mid 1980's, I decided to take some time out from the non-stop, never-in-one-place, music business while starting a family with my lovely wife Pauline, and then watching my son and daughter grow to school age. Having become interested in computing via the Sinclair Spectrum, Commodore 64 and early IBM PCs, and wanting to work locally, I literally bluffed my way into a job working in IT at the Sealink ferry company at Newhaven, just a mile from home. I guess I simply knew more about computers than the interviewers did but I then had to prove myself, of course! Subsequent promotion within Sealink and later career moves led to my involvement with the clearance of freight traffic through UK Customs at the port, and I ended up ‘computerising’ much of the workload for the companies I worked for. The suites of software that I wrote were apparently still in use long after I’d moved on.

My daughter Kerry in concert.

My daughter Kerry in concert.

I didn’t give up playing, of course, and did some freelance demo and concert work with Kawai and Hammond. In late 1989 I was asked to join the Lowrey UK demonstration team as a freelance member, working with their then new NT series organs like the Heritage and MX2. In early 1993, I decided to return to music on a full-time basis, building up a local teaching practice, and I also started to play again on the electronic organ club circuit, using the latest Lowrey instruments. Having written a few short articles for the now late, lamented Keyboard Player magazine, I was asked to do some more, and very soon became one of their principal reviewers and writers, testing all manner of organs, pianos, synthesizers and keyboards.

I’ve always regarded musical education as being of great importance, and I now concentrate on teaching piano, organ and keyboard, both privately and in schools, and also at Bonners Music Academy in Eastbourne. I’ve had the pleasure of taking many, many students from their first few notes, right up through the grades and some of them have gone on to Diploma level or have become professionals themselves. I also teach Music Technology - the use of computers, high-tech equipment and the like. I wrote a series called Computer Music for Keyboard Player, and some of my students have now taken Degrees in the subject. I also wrote a whole series about music exams, called Making The Grade and, just to show that you can teach an old dog new tricks, I decided, as part of the work for that series, to take some of the new Diplomas from the London College of Music. Hard work, but very fulfilling, and I’m now working on what’s turning out to be a long and very detailed Fellowship Thesis!

I always loved playing on stage in concerts, but by the late 1990s, I was beginning to get tired of all the travelling and driving involved with them, and I decided to switch to full-time teaching. So, in 2003, after 30 years of concertizing, I played what I expected to be my last public electronic organ concert. This was for the Sussex Organ Society in Lancing, and I thought this would be a most appropriate ‘exit’, as my first ever concert way back in 1973 was for the very same society when it too was just starting out.

So although I don’t play much in public these days, I still play for the occasional wedding, christening or funeral at local churches. However, in April 2016 I played my first public concert in 13 years, as part of a memorial evening for my old friend and colleague Brian Sharp, who had passed away a month or two earlier. I was able to play the Compton cinema organ, Yamaha Tyros 5 keyboard and Roland AT900 Platinum, that organ belonging to another old friend appearing that evening, Chris Powell. At the end of the evening, Chris and I, along with Dorian Collins and Mike Sullivan, were able to play as a ‘virtual quintet’ with Brian Sharp. Dorian Collins had a copy of the original backing track that Brian had made for one of his ‘signature’ pieces, House of Dreams so we all joined in with Brian’s playing for the piece. Quite an emotional few minutes for me, as I’d played that as a duet with Brian on many occasions.

I had recorded Brian Sharp’s 1972 Gulbransen Theatrum concert on my Christmas present from a few weeks earlier in 1971 – a small Philips cassette recorder. The audio quality was not the best, obviously, but with a little digital manipulation I was able to produce a version of The Summer Knows that was good enough for me to use in a ‘virtual duet’ in that memorial concert.

In August 2016 I was on holiday on the Isle of Wight and thought it might be nice to catch up with the Hammond X66 as there was one in a hotel very close to where we were staying. What I thought would be a short private session blossomed into the chance to play an informal, and totally unrehearsed, concert to a small group of Hammond X66 fans. I had a blast, as they say. There are now audio and video clips also available on the Downloads page.

hammond x66

At the Hammond X66 on the Isle of Wight

Although most of my organ playing is now just for fun, usually at home on my own wonderful Roland AT900 Platinum, I’ve definitely rediscovered the ‘buzz’ of playing on stage and these recent developments mean that I will start playing concerts on electronics and theatre pipe organ again in the not too distant future – watch this space, as they say!

As well as being a regular contributor to the BBC's 'The Organist Entertains' programme, I have recorded two albums. The first was 'Wonderland by Night', on the Kawai DX900 organ and the second was 'The Swing of Things', featuring the Kawai SR6 organ, plus various Kawai keyboards and Kawai grand piano. Having recorded a fair amount of new material for on-line postings in recent years, I’ve decided to produce a CD to raise money for charity – working title “Platinum Plus” - and this is actively being worked on right now, with the Roland AT900 Platinum and Yamaha Tyros 5 as the main instruments. Some of the AT900P and Tyros 5 tracks on the downloads page are ‘tryouts’ for possible inclusion on the CD.

I have become a regular contributor and moderator on various web forums, in particular The Organ Forum , the Yahoo groups for Hammond organs, Lowrey organs the Tierce de Picardie organ and keyboard forum. There’s also the Vintage Organ Group on Facebook and you’ll find me there from time to time!

Away from the world of music, over the past few years I’ve become quite involved with local history, firstly as a member of the Newhaven Historical Society and now as the chairman of the Our Newhaven group. I help administrate the group’s living history website and you’ll find its red and blue ‘O N’ link on this site’s home page. I’ve recently done a few audio-visual presentations for local groups, concentrating on my own specialist subjects – the harbour, its shipping and particularly its tugs. (My father was the Master of the local harbour tug Meeching for many years and, but for the intervention of music, I’d almost certainly have followed in his footsteps.) I’ve also started writing about shipping and have had several articles published in the local press and in magazines like Ferry and Cruise Review. It’s been suggested that I write a book about the Meeching, based on her ‘Life History’ that I wrote for Newhaven Museum, and this will eventually be done, when time permits!

But back to the organ, and my musical tastes here are very wide-ranging. I love everything from classical, to theatre organ, electronic, jazz and orchestral stylings. And as far as non-organ music goes, my playlist includes almost anything from Gregorian chant, baroque masterpieces, gentle adagios for strings or romantic piano, through Big Band, the Beatles, the Carpenters and Abba, to some of the latest dance tracks, R&B and chart hits. I have a bit of a ‘thing’ about the music from films and shows, too.

I still consider myself to be very much a dyed-in-the-wool 'organ nut' at heart. Though almost all of my time revolves around pianos and keyboards these days, I still enjoy playing just about anything that has keyboards and pedals whenever I get the chance. Whether it has pipes, valves, tonewheels, transistors or microchips, I get the same buzz out of the instrument now as I did when I first heard it over 50 years ago.

Going straight - Playing for a wedding.

Going straight - Playing for a wedding.