You never know what you’ll find lying on the side of the road, or tucked away at a yard sale, or hidden in a back corner of some strip mall pawn shop.
“I hear stories all the time about people finding them beside a dumpster or up in an attic somewhere,” said Tom Booker O’Hanlan, founder of BookerLab, a Greenville-based music technology company. “People throw them out, thinking they’re just some old cabinets. They don’t realize they have on their hands one of the most iconic speakers ever made.”
O’Hanlan is referring to what’s known as the “Leslie speaker,” a combined amplifier and loudspeaker that projects sound from an instrument through rotation. The speakers themselves, which are boxed up in plywood, look like an old-fashioned cabinet, but inside is the technology behind some of the most popular songs of the last half century.
To put it simply, the Leslie speaker takes normal notes and modifies them to create a signature wah-wah sound, as the speaker literally rotates the sound toward and away from the listener continually. While this effect can be simulated digitally, countless musicians swear by the original speakers — those supposed hunks of junk often found lying on the roadside or in yard sales.
“There’s a whole world of aficionados online and across the world who are obsessed with this stuff,” O’Hanlan said, and he includes himself among them.
O’Hanlan founded BookerLab back in 2017, having already spent decades in the business world as the founder of the computer hardware and software company Sealevel Systems. He was already in “semi-retirement” but didn’t feel like “just wandering off into the sunset,” as he puts it. A music lover for years, he’d been tinkering with a Leslie speaker in his garage and had come to appreciate what he called the “moving air effect” of its sound. But properly maintaining a classic Leslie, some of which are nearly 80 years old, is often a difficult task. So is adapting the Leslie to meet modern needs without sacrificing its original appeal.
O’Hanlan wanted to change that, so he dusted off his entrepreneurial spirit and founded BookerLab, his first new company in almost 35 years. The company specializes in allowing new users to connect their Leslie speakers more easily and efficiently to modern equipment.
“We’re trying to keep the Leslie alive through modern interface electronics,” he said. “Love is not easy, and when you love something like this, it takes work. But we see ourselves connecting the past with the current and the future, providing more versatile and functional connections and gadgets for this market.”
O’Hanlan could talk on and on about preamp interface pedals, vintage motor controllers, AE amp eliminators and the bevy of other products BookerLab creates to make using a Leslie easier for modern musicians.
“Sure, most people don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” he said, “but there’s a growing market of people who do, one that’s subtle but passionate, and that’s our niche.”
From past to present
The Leslie speaker was first released in 1941, named after its creator, Don Leslie, who was driven to create the speaker after hearing a performance on a Hammond organ, an electronic organ invested by Laurens Hammond.
Leslie had been impressed by the Hammond organ when he heard it played in a spacious church, but upon hearing it in a more confined space, he thought it sounded too dull and still. So he invented the now-famous speaker that rotated the sound, creating a much more spacious resonance.
“The Hammond organ is a fantastic instrument, but I don’t think it would have become as famous and as legendary as it did if it wasn’t for the Leslie speaker,” said James Shawcross, a piano and organ aficionado who runs the YouTube channel The Piano Forever. “What’s kind of funny is the creator of the Hammond organ actually completely despised Don Leslie and his invention.”
Despite Hammond’s distaste for the speaker, its popularity helped revolutionize electronic music. Even the most casual of music listeners over the last half century have likely heard it, whether they’re aware of it or not. Musicians as varied as The Beach Boys, The Beatles, Cream, Pink Floyd, Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Rolling Stones, ZZ Top and The Grateful Dead all used Leslie speakers for some of their most iconic recordings.
O’Hanlan said he’s glad to see its popularity remain strong with the next generation of musicians.
“You think these online forums would be just a bunch of guys like me in their 60s, and there is a lot of that, but just as many are young musicians in their teens and 20s,” he said. “It’s really cool, because it’s not every day you have people from different generations connecting like that.”