Is it an album cover, or is it a vintage baseball card? The cover of Denny McLain’s “At the Organ” certainly looks more like a 60s baseball card than your usual jazzy LP. For those who don’t know him, Denny McLain was a star baseball pitcher who also played cheezy lounge music on the Hammond B3. At the height of his baseball career, he was allowed to capitalize on his sports popularity by releasing a couple of albums. If he had not been a star athlete, I don’t think these recordings would have ever found their way on to a Capitol release. An interesting and flamboyant individual, McLain was rowdy and outspoken and often involved with mobsters and illegal gambling. Living a life that was more like the gangster 20s than the hippiefied 60s, McLain would eventually serve jail time for a variety of charges.
Having said all that, this album is not a joke or a total fluke, instead, McLain has some decent chops on the Hammond (the new X77 model on this album) as he plays some of his favorite pop and lounge tunes accompanied by a couple horns and a rhythm section. McLain does not take any solos, but his melodic playing is done in a full chordal style similar to George Shearing on the piano. As Denny plays the melodies he displays much creativity in utilizing the tools of the Hammond, such as constantly changing sounds and textures with the drawbars, and those dramatic swoops that come from sweeping your hands up the keyboard. No doubt, McLain had plenty of previous playing experience before he recorded these tracks.
Most of these tracks are fairly corny pop tunes, and would probably only appeal to hardcore exotica collectors, but there are few cuts where McLain shows a slightly weirder side. “Hurdy Gurdy Man” uses a proto trip hop beat while McLain plays the psychedelic chords of Donvan’s tune with an odd stuttering attack. “Cherish” has a baffling bizarre arrangement that keeps shifting tempos, and on “By the Time I get to Phoenix”, McLain eschews the melody and just outlines the chords in a more psychedelic fashion. Hearing these odder cuts does make you wonder what sort of untapped potential lies within the mind of Denny McLain.
Although McLain has some decent skills on the keyboard, I think most jazz fans would run from this recording in horror, this is definitely more for collectors of exotica and weird pop music. The exotica revival has been very good for McLain’s legacy as he was mostly forgotten as a musician until his tracks started showing up on mid-90s exotica revival collections such as “Organs in Orbit” and other space age bachelor pad type compilations.