Off to Amsterdam to play the organ
Americans travel to Amsterdam for various reasons, but seldom, if ever, do you hear about someone going there for a meeting of the city's Hammond Organ Club. But Pleasanton's well-known musical team of Julie and Don Lewis were there a few weeks ago as hundreds of the world's top organists spent a weekend performing for each other.
Don Lewis, the renowned pianist who performs around the country and most recently at a pre-Christmas musical celebration at the Pleasanton Firehouse Arts Center, started playing the organ as a teenager. When he began playing professionally, he found the new Hammond organ more versatile and bought one in 1968. A Hammond Organ Co. executive heard him play at a concert in Denver and asked him to represent the firm at its booth at the 1969 National Association of Music Merchants trade show in Chicago. He was an overnight success and in the next few years represented Hammond at shows that took him throughout the country and to Europe, Southeast Asia, Australia and Japan.
Along the way, and with Julie, his wife of 34 years, often at his side and his business manager, he bought a few more Hammond and other brand-name organs, always enthused by the new sounds manufacturers were producing. He even added a few sounds of his own, becoming in recent years an expert in synthesizers with multi-keyboard setups consisting of an organ and monophonic keyboards.
Those were challenging days for Don Lewis, who often stretched his arms to the limit just to reach the keyboards around him. So he decided to design a keyboard console that would allow better access to the synthesizer and keyboards for performance, eventually encasing the instrument he named LEO into a clear acrylic case. As a singer, he was given more freedom by LEO to perform with more dynamics and unique sounds in concerts around the Bay and beyond. After one jam-packed performance at the famed London House in Chicago, where he blended his pop/jazz/classical artistry together, a Chicago Sun-Times nightclub reviewer labeled Lewis as the "ClassJazz Organist," a description that has stuck.
Although Don Lewis no longer represents Hammond Organ and has long ago moved to his own synthesizer specialty in performances, he and Julie still have fond memories of their years with Hammond. To prepare for his performance in Amsterdam, playing on an older Hammond organ model, the two retrieved the same model they had placed in storage 27 years ago and restored it in their Mission Park neighborhood home. Then they left for Amsterdam.
With all of the new technology and variety of organ-sounding music on the market today, they found the Amsterdam club "an amazing experience." With 400 members, it's the largest club of its kind in the world with aficionados playing Hammond organs dating back into the 1930s when the company was founded. One organist, who came to the Amsterdam 20th anniversary meeting of the club from Finland, has 350 Hammond organs stored near his home, all in pristine condition. Others played on different models of the Hammond, "belting out" tunes from their days playing pipe organs to two teenage girls who jazzed up their performance well beyond what most of us could imagine coming from a Hammond organ. Don Lewis, again with Julie cheering him on, was the last to play, having come the farthest for the celebration. The "ClassJazz" organist brought down the house, with loud applause throughout his concert.
Don Lewis, by the way, will play at the Ardenwood Elementary School in Fremont today, with Julie helping him move their organ synthesizer from their home, into their van and into the school auditorium. School Superintendent Parvin Ahmadi wants the Lewises to perform at Pleasanton schools, and later this month, Don Lewis will perform again at the Bethel A.M.E. church in San Francisco when it celebrates its 160th anniversary.