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The Early Days of the Leslie Speaker

It was May 31, 1947 and you were looking for something to do in Tinseltown. An ad in the Hollywood-Citizen News caught your eye. It was for The Epicure, a restaurant/night club located at 5510 Hollywood Boulevard. Maybe the free parking makes you want to check it out. Or maybe it’s the top sirloin steak for $1.35. Or the promise of a “delightful atmosphere.” Or maybe, just maybe, it’s the fact that “radio recording artist” Alex Clipper would be at the Leslie Vibratone.

The what?

We all know that Donald Leslie created his first speaker system in 1940 to be used with the Hammond Organ. We know the Hammond crew turned him down, so he went into manufacturing the speaker on his own. He used names such as Brittain Speakers, Hollywood Speakers, and Crawford Speakers over the next few years, before settling on and producing the Leslie Vibratone in 1947. We at BookerLAB dug up some old newspaper files (thanks to track how well the Leslie Vibratone did in those years.

The ad for The Epicure is likely one of the first mentions of the Leslie Vibratone in any kind of mass advertising to the general public (we assume Don Leslie and his speakers were often mentioned in trade publications). The curious thing is that it doesn’t mention what Alex Clipper planned to do with it. Sing? Play the organ? Or was this some kind of avant garde show where he fiddled with the knobs to get feedback?  It remains a mystery.

In December of that year, a music business insider gossip column in the Los Angeles Daily News mentioned a group called The Paragons, managed by Joe Vallera, were using a Leslie Vibratone with their Hammond organs. Well, now we are getting somewhere. (Note, we are pretty sure this is not the same Paragons that first recorded The Tide is High, which later became a megahit for Blondie in the 1980s).

Some other fun things we found:

  • In another Daily News music business gossip column from March 1948, which also featured tales of Jimmy Durante, Jane Russell, and Benny Goodman, it was announced that CBS had purchased a Leslie Vibratone. (Foreshadowing? CBS would buy the entire company in 1965.)
  • A music store in Richfield, Utah took out an ad in the local paper announcing it was selling the Leslie Vibratone, aka “The Pipe Voice of the Electric Organ.”
  • The Fox Theatre in Pomona California featured a musician named Ray Adams with his “famous Leslie Vibratone Speakers” in 1949.
  • A St. Louis woman placed a Leslie Vibratone at the top of her Christmas Wishlist in 1950.
  • Bill Ward (not the Black Sabbath drummer) played the Bodega Café in Deadwood, South Dakota, with the Leslie Vibratone Speaker, in bold letters.
  • A church in Culver City, California hailed that it had purchased the “latest in electronics,” the Leslie Vibratone, for its church organ in 1950.
  • Also in 1950, in Big Stone Gap, Virginia, Billy Barnes promised the annual Christmas party at the local high school that December would feature something extra: a Leslie Vibratone being shipped from California, and that it would be one of the first times a speaker would be used on the East Coast.
  • Genetti’s Tyrolean Room in Hazleton, Pa. (featured in the Jack Black Movie, The Polka King), announced a revamped lounge that featured an organ attached to two Leslie Speakers in May 1951.

And just about then is when Leslie Speaker Cabinets really began to take off nationally and eventually internationally. What are some of your earliest memories?

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