Some time in the late 1970s, a Wurlitzer organ appeared out of nowhere in the corner of our dining room. It was a big wooden affair with a folding lid, two keyboards one above the other, and a whole bunch of switches, dials and pedals.
You could tell it was a Wurlitzer organ because it had the word WURLITZER emblazoned across it in garish gold letters. Off to the right, more discreet lettering bore the legend Crane & Sons Ltd., Liverpool & London.
It turned out my grandma’s sister had recently decided to replace her electric organ. Never one to miss out on a bargain, grandma had bought the old organ for my sister and me. The first my sister and I (and, I recently learnt, our parents) knew about grandma’s generous gift was the day it landed in our dining room.
When you turned on the power, the organ made an alarming thump followed by a more subdued humming noise. It took several minutes to warm up. While you waited, you got to flip the switches and turn the dials into the required configuration. There was a large collection of black switches labelled with the names of musical instruments: violins, cellos, glockenspiel, guitar, horns, and so on. The most notable thing about these switches was, no matter which combination you selected, the sound emanating from the organ remained essentially unchanged. It seemed to me Wurlitzer could have saved themselves, and us, a whole lot of bother if they had simply had a single switch labelled electric organ. There were also switches to alter the bass and treble settings, which did at least seem to make some appreciable difference to the din, as did one labelled Sustain. But our favourite switches were the three labelled Vibrato, the options being On, Fast and Full. We always flipped all three, which made the notes more wobbly.
In case you haven’t already worked it out, I should perhaps make it clear that, with the exception of grandma’s electric-organ-playing sister and their long-dead half-brother (of whom, more shortly), I come from an entirely unmusical family. Don’t get me wrong: we all enjoy listening to music, but actually playing the stuff is another matter entirely. To this day, I remain in awe of anyone who can string a bunch of notes together. It’s voodoo, as far as I’m concerned.
The organ came with a matching stool whose seat lifted to reveal a compartment for storing sheet music. Inside we found a thick book of ‘popular tunes’. Presumably, these were tunes popular with the sort of people who enjoyed a good sing-along around the family Wurlitzer: Danny Boy, We’ll Gather Lilacs, Abide With Me, and a host of other songs my sister and I had never heard of. There was also a photocopy of the music for the song Why Does a Red Cow Give White Milk When It Always Eats Green Grass? Although we didn’t know the tune, my sister and I had at least heard of this one, as it had been written by grandma’s half-brother, the first-world-war pilot, variety entertainer, and pantomime dame Hal Miller.
Rather than arranging for costly music lessons, Dad, whose own musical curriculum vitae began and ended with an appearance in H.M.S. Pinafore at secondary school, decided to wait until either my sister or I began to demonstrate any sort of natural aptitude for, or even vague interest in, playing the organ. To ease our path to musical greatness, he hit upon the idea of labelling the Wurlitzer’s keys. He spent an entire wet afternoon carefully applying Letraset dry-transfer letters to both rows of white keys. The black lettering wouldn’t show up on the black keys, so those were left unlabelled.
All that remained was for my sister and me to consult the popular song book, choose a song we actually knew the tune to, read out the letters above the words of the song, and bang the keys with the same letters on the Wurlitzer. Just about the only song we did recognise was Silent Night. I can still recite the letters to this day:
GAGE / GAGE / DDB / CCG / AA CBA GAGE / AA CBA GAGE / DDF! DBC E / C G E G FD C
Getting on for four decades later, Silent Night still comprises my entire musical repertoire.
Where was Mum in all this? Silently fuming. After a while, not so silently. From the day it arrived unannounced to take over the dining room, Mum began to drop subtle hints about how awfully big the Wurlitzer was. Within weeks, she was referring to it as ‘that damn thing’ and was refusing to dust it. In later years, she took to kicking it as she hoovered nearby.
The circumstances of the Wurlitzer’s eventual disappearance were as mysterious as those of its arrival. In 1986, I returned home from university to find the organ gone. Its alcove in the corner of the dining room had been reclaimed by its former occupant: Mum’s precious, well-dusted Ercol sideboard.
The Wurlitzer was never mentioned in polite conversation again.