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A Life in Tune: Ludwig grooves on jazz organ

Sunday, October 26, 2003

By Nate Guidry, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

It had come to this for Gene Ludwig. He was only 21 and already at a significant crossroads.

So he walked to the bathroom mirror, stared intently into it and then flipped a coin. Heads, he would continue working as a civil engineer. Tails, he would pursue a career in music.

Gene Ludwig with his Hammond B-3 organ. (Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette)
Click photo for larger image.


The title song from Ludwig's 1999 recording "Soul Serenade"
(470K MP3)

Ludwig solos on "Freddie the Freeloader," also from "Soul Serenade"
(469K MP3)

A 2001 recording of "Chile con Carne" from the disc "The Groove ORGANization"
(460K MP3)

Visit the following sites to download MP3 players:

Real Player
Microsoft Windows Media Player

Jazz fans and musicians know what side turned up.

For nearly a half-century, they have heard Ludwig, now 66, pounding the keys of the Hammond B-3 Organ, one of the most groove-laden instruments ever to grace a jazz bandstand.

Back in '63, he recorded a 45-rpm single of "Sticks and Stones," a song made famous by Ray Charles. The single was released the same week President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

Later, he worked with smooth bass-baritone vocalist Arthur Prysock, guitarist Pat Martino and Sonny Stitt, an underrated tenor saxophonist who played with terrifying fluidity.

Ludwig has flirted with stardom, never quite able to grasp it. His life has been sacrifices, road fatigue and dingy hotel rooms. He's been underrecorded and largely unappreciated outside jazz inner circles.

Still, he toils, without regrets, his bulky B-3 and Leslie tone cabinet in tow, from one gig and town to the next. The B-3 is ponderous, weighing in at around 450 pounds with two 61-note keyboards, built-in special effects and foot pedals. The Leslie weighs another 75 pounds; its rotating components produce a unique sound.

"He is legend for his musicality," said guitarist Bob DeVos from his home in West Orange, N.J. DeVos, who performed on Ludwig's 2002 "The Groove Organization," met the organist in 1969.

"Gene spent a lot of time backing up people, so he has a lot of experience. He's a great blues player, but he isn't restricted to one style. He's also a very democratic player and leader."

'In love with the groove'

A Life in Tune

This occasional series profiles longtime performers and aficionados to mine their memories and knowledge of a lifetime in music.

Balladeer Jerry Betters rubbed shoulders with legends (July 20, 2003)
Symphony orchestras and jazz ensembles coveted the services of bass player Joe Wallace (May 11, 2003)
Negri has proved handy on the guitar (March 2, 2003)
Condeluci recalls glory days as a percussionist (Dec. 8, 2002)
Trumpeting a jazz icon: Danny Conn (Sept. 22, 2002)
The real Slim's heyday (Aug. 11, 2002)
Collector goes on the record about his jazz-infused 90 years (July 21, 2002)


Ludwig was born in 1937 in Twin Rocks, a tiny coal-mining town in Cambria County. After a few years, his father took a job at Westinghouse and moved the family to Wilkinsburg and later to Swissvale. At the home in Swissvale, Ludwig started tinkering with an old piano that the previous owners had left.

"At that time, I had been listening to a lot of big band stuff ... people like Glenn Miller and the Dorsey Brothers," said Ludwig, sitting with his wife, Pattye, in the living room of their Monroeville home. "I started messing around with the piano, and my dad asked if I wanted to take some lessons."

At age 6, Ludwig started taking lessons with Elizabeth Boose and studied with her for the next six years. He continued to practice during high school, but he discovered a broader variety of music while listening to radio legend Porky Chedwick, who was a disc jockey for WHOD in Homestead.

"I got a really good taste for R&B from Porky," said Ludwig. "He was playing a lot of Ruth Brown, Big Joe Turner and organ players like Bill Doggett and Wild Bill Davis.

"The music was so different from the big band stuff I had been listening to. I just fell in love with the groove, and I started trying some of that on the piano."

In 1955, he graduated from Swissvale High School and enrolled in Edinboro State Teacher's College, where he studied physics and mathematics. After two years, he was forced to quit because money was tight and his father was on strike at Westinghouse.

He returned to Pittsburgh, where he eventually accepted a position at Fuller Construction, which was erecting several new buildings Downtown.

At the Hurricane in the Hill District, where food and music fought for top billing, Gene Ludwig was inspired by musicians such as organist Jack McDuff, in an autographed 1962 photograph.
Click photo for larger image.

He eventually started performing with singing groups around town. One night, he went to the Hurricane, a Hill District nightspot, to hear organist Jimmy Smith.

The small club, owned by the late Birdie Dunlop, was famous for its Brazilian shrimp and fried chicken. Patrons came from all sides of the street -- the upper crust and the under crust, shoulder to shoulder. Bobby Layne, the former Steelers quarterback, was known to frequent the place. One night, Layne placed two crisp $100 bills in the saxophone of Big Jay McNeely as a tip.

Food and patrons aside, the Hurricane also was known for its sizzling organ groups -- jazz by Wild Bill Doggett, Jack McDuff, Shirley Scott, Don Patterson, Jimmy McGriff and Smith, who performed with a searing, thunderous style.

"I'll never forget that night," said Ludwig. "I ordered chicken wings, and Jimmy got up there and started playing 'Preacher,' a Horace Silver tune, and the drummer laid down a shuffle beat. And I was so happy I threw up my arm, and one of the wings hit the ceiling and landed in my lap.

"I said 'Man! That's what I want.' I decided if I could scrounge up enough money for an organ, I would get one."

Ludwig eventually purchased a Hammond M100 organ and later a C Model.

During an Atlantic City concert in 1964, Ludwig played on the same bill with Smith, who used Ludwig's C Model. After the show, Smith thanked Ludwig and then told him he should try to get a B-3 because the C Model would work him to death.

Ludwig returned to Pittsburgh, bought a B-3 and started performing with his trio. They traveled to Count Basie's club in Harlem, the 100 Club in Cleveland and other clubs that featured the organ.

In 1969, Ludwig replaced Don Patterson in Sonny Stitt's band. The relationship lasted about a year and produced Stitt's "Night Letter," a recording on the Prestige label.

"Working with Sonny was an education," said Ludwig. "I had been playing a long time before I joined Sonny. He taught me a great deal about music, although I don't know if he knew it."

Lean times, good times

After the Stitt job ended, Ludwig returned to Pittsburgh and started working regularly with saxophonist Bill Easley and, later, Walt Maddox.

Soon, Arthur Prysock came calling, and Ludwig joined the vocalist on two separate occasions, for a year beginning in 1973 and again in 1979. It was also around this time Ludwig recorded "Now Is the Time," a funky, groove-drenched recording for Muse Records.

"The groove is where it is for me," said Ludwig. "I let loose when I hit the groove. A groove on the B-3 would be comparable to Willie Stargell hitting a home run. The sound of the instrument combined with the grease, funk and groove is such an inspirational feeling.

"The B-3 is an aggressive instrument. It doesn't matter what you play, you're going to put funk and soul into it."

Throughout the '80s and '90s, Ludwig continued to travel and work in local venues such as the Crawford Grill and James Street Tavern.

In 1997, he signed a record deal with Blues Leaf and released "Back on Track," which he followed up with "Soul Serenade," "The Groove Organization" and "Hands On," released this month.

"I can't tell you how much I learned from Gene," said 24-year-old drummer Tom Wendt, who performs on "Hands On" and started working with Ludwig while still a high school student at the High School for the Creative and Performing Arts.

"He came up at a time when the instrument was extremely popular. He was heavily influenced by Jimmy Smith, and for me performing with him at such a young age was great because I felt I was learning from the source.

"There aren't too many guys like him left. He was extremely supportive. He gave me room to play and he never told me how to play. He's also a great human being and set a great example for me."

Back in his living room, Ludwig crosses his legs before sipping from a cup of water. He thinks of that night at the Hurricane and wonders whether it's been worth it.

"I've had some good times and some lean ones," he said. "Sometimes I didn't know where my next dollar was going to come from. But I would never trade it for all the money in the world."

Nate Guidry can be reached or 412-263-3865.

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