Don Thompson Plays
Great English Organs
hear samples of the tracks on this cd, click on the track names below.
(The player will continue to play each sample in sequence after your selection - click the pause or close button on the player to stop it)
1 Opening And San
2 Moonlight Serenade
3 Woodchopper’s Ball
4 Medley From “Cavalcade”
5 Russian Rag
6 When Your Lover Has Gone
7 Repasz Band March
8 Sleigh Ride From Lt. Kije
9 Quickstep Medley, Dixon Style
10 Overture To Pineapple Poll
11 My Old Flame
12 While We’re Young
13 Overture To Camelot
14 The Homecoming
15 A Musical Tour Of London
16 Spring Is Here
17 Breezing Along With The Breeze
18 Moonlight In Vermont
19 Trio In A Style Of Bach
20 Three Great Hollywood Ballads
21 Toccata -Von Himmel Hoch
Don Thompson spent the first fifteen years of his
professional life in England and was influenced, as were many others before and
since, by organists such as Reginald Dixon and Sidney Torch. However, the last
forty-two years of his professional life have been spent in the USA, where he
has developed a more American style of playing in the arrangements of big
ballads. His playing could therefore reasonably be described as Mid-Atlantic
rather than British. Following are notes on the organs and music featured on
this CD which documents his “homecoming” to play once again in England.
The program begins where Don’s interest in theatre organ began, at Blackpool Tower on the promenade next to the Irish Sea, where as a little boy he first heard Reginald Dixon play the famous Wurlitzer. Don returned to play a concert on the same organ sixty years after he first heard it and excerpts from that very nostalgic occasion in May 1998 begin the CD. There were hundreds of people in the ballroom at the time. Naturally enough, some dance music is featured and the scattered applause during “Don’s Boogie” (based on Woody Herman’s “The Woodchopper’s Ball”) was a response to a particularly athletic jive maneuver from a couple on the dance floor.
At Reg Dixon’s Sunday concerts the ballroom would fill an hour before he began. Invariably, Reg’s broadcasts featured an audience sing-along. A Tower staff member would bring out an easel and place large boards on it bearing the words to the songs, so of course everyone sang. That facility was not available to Don at this concert so the singing is not as exuberant as on the broadcasts. The selection from Noel Coward’s “Cavalcade” featured popular and patriotic songs of the period. You will hear a particularly lovely vox humana in the second chorus of “Keep the Home Fires Burning.” “What?” I hear you say, “The Tower did not have a vox!” Quite correct, this one came from an actual human somewhere out in the vastnesses of the ballroom. This song features Crawford-style tibia rolls in open harmony and we suspect that kind of thing had not been heard in the ballroom previously or probably not afterwards either, for that matter. You’ll also note that Don avoided using the famous “trick” couplers and the over-amplified piano. Unfortunately the lone singer wasn’t able to persuade many people to join her until close to the end, but judging by the applause they enjoyed the selection, singing or not. On this occasion also Don was not permitted to change any pistons to his own settings because the organ was to be played later that day by the then resident organist, so all selections were hand-registered.
From the Tower we go a few hundred yards inland to the Empress Ballroom which also featured a Wurlitzer. This one was originally a 2/10 in the Tower but was taken over to the Empress when the Tower installed its new Wurlitzer in 1934 and the 2/10 was enlarged to be the same size as the Tower organ. The Empress had fine acoustics due to its barrel-vaulted ceiling. The organ wasn’t easy to play because the chambers are above and behind the organist. This track was recorded during the period when Don was playing summer seasons in Blackpool in the late 1950s. The Empress organ was eventually removed and re-installed in the Playhouse Theatre, Manchester as the BBC Theatre Organ and Don played “When Your Lover Has Gone” there when he appeared for the Manchester Organ Festival some years later.
We next go to the Granada in Clapham, a South London district. This recording was made the day before the theatre was demolished. All carpets, drapes, seats, etc., had been removed and the acoustics are exceptional.
“The Sleigh Ride” is from a suite by Prokofiev called “Lt. Kije” and this is one of only two theatre organ version of it ever recorded. This is also the only theatre organ version of “Pineapple Poll” and the “Cavalcade Medley”. Following the Granada Clapham session we go across London to Watford, a north eastern suburb of the metropolis and in the Town Hall there is a Compton organ which Don originally played when it was in the Gaumont Chelsea in the mid fifties. It was removed and enlarged and re-installed in Watford in 1960 and the late Noreen and John Foskett arranged Don’s access to the organ. “Pineapple Poll” is a ballet based on the music from Sir Arthur Sullivan’s “Savoy Operas”, and the overture provides a sparkling introduction to the ballet. The music is mostly from “HMS Pinafore.”
Also North-East of London is St. Albans and in the Musical Instruments Museum there reside two organs. The first is a rarity, a Rutt organ which originally was in the Regal, Highams Park, London. This is one of only three cinema organs built by R. Spurden-Rutt of Leyton. It has only six ranks and three manuals and a unique and large illuminated surround. The middle manual is a coupler. This was the first and only recording of this instrument at the time.
Also in the Museum is the Wurlitzer originally in the Granada, Edmonton. Don played it in its original location in the fifties and recalls that the lift was quite alarming, the organ swayed noticeably when going up and down and the organist had literally to hang on to the bench to avoid sliding off. The organ as re-installed has a Weber Duo-Art grand piano which is used effectively in “The Homecoming.”
After Watford we go North to Newcastle upon Tyne for another overture, this one from “Camelot,” still a current success at the time of this recording. In 1961 Don was resident organist at the Majestic Ballroom in Newcastle on Tyne, a facility owned by the same owners as the Odeon (formerly Paramount) in Newcastle, so Don was more or less given carte blanche to go into the Odeon and play any time he wanted when the theatre wasn’t in use, and even featured the organ on TV. Jesse Crawford thought this organ was the finest Wurlitzer in England, although its crash cymbal later left something to be desired!
Don returned to Newcastle in 1964 to participate in the final concert on the Wurlitzer, which was headlined by George Blackmore. The official last resident organist there, Con Docherty, closed the show with a heart tugging “Auf Wiedersehn My Love”, since the theatre was to close the very next day.
Next we go to the huge console of the 4/16 Wurlitzer in the Gaumont State in Kilburn, another London neighborhood. Sidney Torch recorded some memorable 78s there. Don played the “Tour of London” at a concert he gave there in 2000. The audience was asked at the end of the “Tour of London” selection whether anyone could identify all the tunes, and the uniform answer was “all but one:” That one was “The Westminster Waltz”, which is by Canadian Robert Farnon.
Finally, the unmistakable sound of the Odeon, Leicester Square Compton organ in the heart of downtown London comes from an even bigger console with five manuals. The organ has one of the few “Melotone” electronic voices still working. There are only seventeen ranks and couplers over five manuals and of course the huge art deco console is completely ”over the top.” However, it completely matches the circular designs on the theatre walls and so is not at all out of place. The ”Trio in a Style of Bach” was written by Billy Nalle and, according to Ian Dalgliesh’s review of that 1974 concert in “The Console”, “it had the audience all agog.” The concert closed with Garth Edmundson’s flashy Toccata “Von Himmel Hoch”, a very impressive “finger buster”.