Sunday, January 6, 2013

Farfisa Organ: Wooly Bully

Growing up in the US, I tended to think that many of the recordings featuring combo organs on this side of the Atlantic used Farfisa organs; however, I was wrong. An equal number of classic American combo organ songs were using Vox organs, which were considered the top of the line for both established acts and garage bands. Most British bands using combo organs sported Voxes as well.

The combo organ craze of the ‘60s made it easy on bands who wanted a polyphonic sound to provide some glue to their songs without the heavy price tag and the added weight of purchasing a tone-wheel organ like a Hammond. It was also possible for one person to carry a combo organ – not so with a Hammond and they were less prone to malfunction than their heavier cousins.

I got my combo organ in August 1982. It was made in Japan under the name of Ace Tone – a predecessor company to Roland. My model, the TOP 1, was the bottom of the line instrument. It had a typical combo red and black exterior but it was in rough shape in 1982, but it played and I cleaned it up and it was worth the $45 I paid for it. I still have it, but have not fooled with it in years. At one time in a fit of insanity, I almost sold it. Thank goodness I didn’t. I sold my Wurlitzer Electric Piano at about the same time and now I could kick myself.

The author and his Ace Tone, 1984

We are here, however, not to talk about Ace Tones, Hammonds, or even Voxes. Our time is to discuss to discuss the organ with the quintessential sound – the Farfisa. The name came from its parent company, FAbbriche Riunite di FISArmoniche, which otherwise translates as the “united factory of accordions.” In 1962, this accordion manufacturer began making electric accordions; however, the popularity of Vox combo organs (later made in Italy) inspired the Farfisa organ and they began manufacturing their own brand in 1964. Gibson’s owner, Chicago Musical Instruments, distributed Farfisa products in the US.

While the Farfisa Compact also came in gray and black, the classic version of this instrument was in combo organ red and black. On the left, it had 12 keys in a reverse color scheme. This octave could be played as a set of bass notes or could be set to be an extension of the organ sounds. Later FAST versions of the Farfisa had three sets of key colors – black/white, gray/white, and white/black. The bass could be programmed to the black/white keys, extended into the grey/white, or extend the organ sounds over the entire keyboard.

Unlike the Vox, some models of the Farfisa Compact folded the legs inward to make transportation and storage easier. Some Farfisas came with an expression pedal (i.e., that’s volume and just “swell”) and a knee lever that opened up all of the settings and was called a Multi-Tone Booster. Just add vibrato and you have that cheesy Farfisa organ sound that made it to a number of recordings.

The first Farfisa hit in the US came about when Domingo Samudio and his band decided to write a tribute song to the “Hully Gully.” Named after Samudio’s cat “Wooly Bully,” his band Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs had a hit record during a time when it was difficult to get an American record into the Top 10 – let alone at the number 2 spot.

It also was named the number one record of 1965 by Billboard, which was highly an unusual situation as this is typically reserved for a song that peaked at number one and that held that position for a number of weeks. Uno, Dos, One, Two, Three, Cuatro!

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