How Delvon Lamarr Makes the Hammond Organ Sing

"I always tell people the organ chose me," says Delvon Lamarr. "It’s not like an instrument a kid grows up wanting to play. If I can just sit down on it and it happens like it did, then it was meant to be."

Growing up in Seattle, Washington, Lamarr’s life has been punctuated by eureka moments when the stars aligned and the path he should follow appeared before him. The leader of the Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio grew up surrounded by music. His mother sang in church and used to sing back-up for gospel star Johnnie Taylor when she lived in Chicago in the 1970s.

However, it was Lamarr’s older brother that provided the first hallelujah moment. "He used to always have all these records and samples because he did hip-hop and one day he gave me a cassette tape, ‘I think you’ll like this,’ and it was The Best Of John Coltrane," says Lamarr. "The first track I heard on there was "My Favorite Things" and I fell in love with jazz instantly. I told my mom I wanted to play saxophone and it was all downhill from there!"

"My Favorite Things" by John Coltrane.

In school, Lamarr discovered he possessed perfect pitch and could pick up an instrument and play it, starting with the baritone sax. "I couldn’t read music, so I used to watch the guy next to me and just play whatever he played," he says. He soon gravitated towards trumpet and the drums, and it was while gigging as a drummer that he started playing with Hammond organist Joe Doria, leading to another Damascene revelation.

"Joe Doria and Dan Heck, guitar player, they’d been playing this gig with drummer John Wicks every Wednesday night at a place called The Art Bar. I wish that club was still there because it was a little dive, but man it was a cool spot," says Lamarr, who got the call to fill in for Wicks who was out on tour. One night another drummer came to sit in, so Lamarr asked Doria if he could try playing the Hammond. "I sat down at the organ, foot pedals and all, played it like I’d been playing it my whole life. It was natural."

Fate lent a hand again in 2015 when Amy Novo, Lamarr’s wife and manager, encouraged him to start his own band and the Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio was born with guitarist Jimmy Jones and Dan McGraw on drums. Their 2016 debut, Close But No Cigar, topped the Contemporary Jazz Chart and displayed the group’s heady mix of jazz, funk, soul, and drawing on Stax and Motown as deeply as Jimmy Smith and Jack McDuff.

Live At KEXP! arrived in 2018—the YouTube video of the session has passed 11 million views—followed by I Told You So in 2021. Their latest album, Cold As Weiss, is their first to feature new drummer Dan Weiss alongside Lamarr and Jones. It is available now from Colemine Records.

When you switched from drums to organ, where did you find your first Hammond organ?

They were a lot cheaper back in the day because people were trying to get rid of them. Now it seems like everybody wants them, so the prices are elevated. I still have my first Hammond, an A-100.

How I found that—one o’clock in the morning, I was looking at this magazine here called The Little Nickel, and it had a Classified section. "Hammond organ, 400 bucks." Alright! I was like, should I call right now? It was 1-1:30 AM, but I decided to call anyway because I really wanted it.

So, I called and I guess it was a bunch of rockers all partying and they were like, "We moved into this house and this organ is here, we want it gone." I said, "I’ll be there in the morning." I rented a U-Haul truck, picked it up, and that was my first organ.

The funny thing about that is I wanted to play organ so bad that I didn’t have a van to move it in, so whenever I got a gig I would rent a U-Haul truck. This was in the days when they didn’t have the little vans like they’ve got now, it was the big box trucks, so I’d show up to the gig in a 26-foot box truck with one organ in the back. I was just excited to play so that’s what I had to do.

It was your wife, Amy, who pushed you to start your own band?

The whole concept of this band is all her. A lot of people give me credit—I didn’t do anything. I still don’t do anything. I pretty much show up to the show, that’s what I do. She made it like this for all of us—we just play music, we shouldn’t have to worry about the business side.

We’ve been together 16 years now. She watched me struggle, dragging around a giant instrument. I wasn’t making any money, sometimes it would cost me money to go play. I just wanted to play music, so I used to do whatever it took. I had a full-time job, I worked 14 hours a day. I’d get off around 10 and go straight to a gig, that’s the way I was living for a long time.

She said, "You’re too good for that." I wanted to play but I didn’t think anybody wanted to see me. She was like, "Man, get some guys together and create music, I’ll take care of all the rest." I don’t do anything but write music. She’s still grinding it out to this day.

How did you develop the trio’s sound?

At the end of the day, we play the kind of music that we want to hear. Me and Jimmy’s musical repertoire and the things we listened to growing up are almost identical. I listened to a little more jazz than he did—he was all Motown, Stax, rare soul grooves, and I was too because that’s what I grew up listening to in my household through my mom and my brother.

Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio - Move On Up (Live on KEXP)

Naturally when we get on a stage, we play the things that we know—all the grooves, the soul, the jazz, all that stuff that we’ve always liked—so it was a natural fit for us to do what we’re doing. The thing is, we have the same humor. Our musical influences are the same, but the chemistry between the two of us is one of those natural things that happened because of how we are. We’re very similar and we’re both Virgos.

There’s a new face in the drum seat, Dan Weiss?

He joined us at the beginning of 2020. I felt bad for the guy. Since the departure of our original drummer, we’d been trying out different guys to find the right fit for us, and we had an audition for a permanent drummer. We ended up getting over 160 applicants, there were a lot of people that showed interest, so a lot of videos to watch.

I remember we went on the road with a band called The Sextones, and Dan Weiss was the drummer in that band. I’ve always liked his drumming, so we ended up giving him a try at the beginning of 2020. The reason I say I felt bad for the guy is he was excited, "I’m going to quit my job, this is what I always wanted to do." Literally, we played four shows and everything started getting cancelled. He's a trooper, he hung in there, and we’re getting back at it. It was almost something out of a comedy movie—"This is what I always wanted to do. I quit!" and then, "Now you have no shows."

Is the name of the new album a reference to Dan?

Yeah. Dan’s one of the funniest dudes I ever met in my life. Sometimes he says things and we’re like, "Oh man, that was cold," so we’re like, "Let’s call it Cold As Weiss."

Browse Hammond Keys

How does songwriting work within the trio?

Most of our songs are written during our soundchecks at shows. One soundcheck we’ll come up with one groove and then the next soundcheck we’ll come up with a different groove, and we’ll try to merge the two grooves together and see what happens.

Our last album, I Told You So, half of those songs weren’t even finished when we got to the studio. We just did it in real time. In between songs, I’d try to figure out a melody to this groove and come up with a different part. We write music spur of the moment.

Are there sections in your live shows where you allow space for creativity on the fly?

We’ve done that plenty of times. If we complete a whole song during soundcheck, sometimes we’ll try to play it at the gig. Sometimes it works out and sometimes it don’t but, hey man, that’s music. What are you going to do? You’ve got to keep music interesting and fresh; I’ve always been a believer in that. If it’s not interesting, if it’s not fresh, what have you got? Sound.

Do you play live in the studio?

Oh yeah. When we record our albums, we’re literally all in the same room. There’s no separation. Every now and then we’ll overdub a tambourine, but that’s about it. As far as the performances, we play straight through, mistakes and all, wrong notes. If you listen closely to "Jimmy’s Groove," which we released as a single, Jimmy wasn’t even in the room when we started doing that song. Probably two minutes in, you can hear him plug his guitar in and he just trickles into the song.

Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio 'Close But No Cigar' | Live Studio Session

How has the band developed across your three studio albums?

Our first album, Close But No Cigar, we weren’t even planning on recording an album. We got a call from studio engineer Jason Gray saying, "I’ve got some free time, I’m just seeing if any of my friends want to record?" At that time, we were just jamming at a club, The Royal Room. We did a weekly residency there, so we’re like, "Alright, let’s just go in there and see what happens."

That was another studio session where most of the music that we recorded was incomplete, and we finished them in the studio. One of the originals was a song before we got there, but all the other original tunes we were figuring out at the time. Our second studio album, I Told You So, we had more of our influences in there. We’ve got "From The Streets" on there, it has more of a hip-hop, old school soul sample vibe. We were doing "Careless Whisper"—things like that, a lot more of our musical influences are in this one. The second studio album we went there knowing what we wanted to do and that was a huge difference in the outcome.

When soloing, do you think of your organ as taking on the lead vocal role? Do you try to sing with the organ?

I actually do, and the reason for that is I recognize that we are an instrumental band and sometimes it’s hard for people to grasp onto instrumental music. What I strive for is getting the organ across as if somebody is singing it.

I try to be as melodic as possible, and I’ve been told multiple times that when people hear me play, it sounds like somebody singing it but there are no words there. I think that’s important because if I came out just swinging at notes, people can’t grasp onto that. My approach to playing the organ is simplicity and being as melodic as possible because that’s what people understand, they understand these melodies even though there are no lyrics.

Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio - Ain't It Funky | Daytrotter Session, April 2018

Do you mainly get booked at venues and festivals aimed at jazz fans?

Oh man, we play everywhere. We play at tiny jazz clubs, and we've also played in Portugal for 100,000 people. What we do seems to resonate through all demographics. Kids dig what we’re doing, teenagers, 60-year-olds, 70-year-olds—what we do seems to appeal to a lot of people so therefore we literally can play everywhere, and we have.

We played this club in Paris, Duc des Lombards—it’s like a 150-capacity, beautiful club. The tables are literally right against the stage. We’re not a quiet band by any stretch. We try to make that clear to everybody, like when we play, we come to play no ifs, ands or buts, but people don’t care. They sit there front and centre, they’re paying attention, they’re super engaged, and for me that’s what I really like.

I always say this: If it has a beat, people will dance to it. It doesn’t necessarily have to be good, people who like to dance are going to dance, but I love people to be engaged. I don’t care if they’re moving or not, they can sit there and if their full focus is on what we’re doing, that’s what I strive for. We have the best of both worlds. We can go to the party joints and get the party started, and we can play a sit-down jazz club where there is dinner and drinks, and the outcome is the same.

When you’re touring outside the US, is it easy to make sure you always have a Hammond to play?

When we go to Europe, everything is backlined. We’ve had a couple of questionable organs over there but all in all, I haven’t really had any issues with getting the organs. In the States, I usually drive my own gear if I can. I maintain my organs, I have seven of them. I feel sorry for our garage right now, but I keep them maintained so I know my gear is working when I take it on the road.

Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio 'Memphis' | Live Studio Session

A lot of times, the issue is people will have organs but don’t maintain them—not a lot of people play the organ pedals anymore. You get keyboard players who play the top part, but they don’t focus on the pedals, and I’m a pedal player, so that’s been the most common issue, the bass pedals don’t work.

What have been the highlights of life with the Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio?

That’s a tough one because we’ve had so many of them. There was one time we played—I’ll never forget this—at the Jazz Café in London. We played "Careless Whisper" and the minute Jimmy started playing that saxophone line, the crowd went nuts. I think this was right after George Michael died. I don’t think I even played the melody because everybody just started singing it. They literally sang the whole song and man, that was pretty epic.

What was your reaction to the pandemic? Was it a chance to spend more time writing and recording, or did you find the lack of live performance stultifying?

It was kind of both of those things. If you look at our tour schedule, we toured a lot. To have it abruptly end and to be at home, we’ve never spent that much time at home. I can’t remember the last time since this band started that we spent this much time at home. It was a system shock when it happened, like, I don’t really know what to do, I’ve got to learn how to cook! My sleep schedule was all out of whack, I’m used to being up late so I ended up playing a lot of video games.

At the same time, we got super creative. During 2020, I probably wrote maybe 150 song ideas that eventually I’m going to have to record at some point. We have so much content now that’s still in the can. Our brains just started working. When you’re on the road, we can do these things at soundcheck but when you’re sitting there with nothing to do, your brain is clicking all the time. My brain was clicking constantly.

Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio - Tacoma Black Party (Live on KEXP)

I even bought a bass guitar, I’ve been writing basslines. I’m not horrible on the bass, so that’s my newest instrument. Not even just us, my wife is writing tunes. One of the songs, "Keep On Keepin’ On," is on the Cold As Weiss album. So, it was a system shock, a wake-up call to make sure you have all your stuff in order as far as your finances and all that stuff because you never know what’s going to happen and this was a lesson in that for us. We got a whole lot of music to come out.

What are your hopes for 2022?

I hope to get out of this pandemic so we can get back to really doing what we do. That would be great. One of my main things is the survival of music and music venues because I know in 2020 there were a lot of really good clubs that we’ve played at that have shut down never to reopen again.

When that happens, it makes it difficult especially for the up-and-comers to get gigs because there are less venues and more musicians fighting for these venues. I hope that situation can turn around. I really feel like if it wasn’t for these venues giving us a chance even not knowing who we were, we wouldn’t be where we’re at, so that’s important for the next people who need that chance.

As clubs started shutting down, hopefully that doesn’t start happening again and we can turn this whole thing around. That’s what I hope for—everybody to be able to do their thing regardless of where you’re at in that musical status. I hope everybody can be safe and keep doing what you do.

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