Big Cats, Baseball and Boats

February 15, 2011 § Leave a comment

"Eddie Layton at the Mighty Wurlitzer" (Mercury, 1959)

Big cats and keyboards can really go together sometimes, as this album and another favorite of mine reproduced below demonstrate. Eddie Layton actually had several great album covers, including one on which he and an organ are strapped to a rocket that I’ve also always liked. This record features him playing a Wurlitzer theater organ at Radio City Music Hall in New York, though he was better known for playing a Hammond. Layton even became a spokesman and demonstrator for the company, and was apparently very adept at mimicking the sound of a variety of other instruments and even nature and other abstract sounds on the machine. “Not even his more esteemed and more famous peers (Dee, Wunderlich, et al) could touch him at sonic exploration,” writes Hoppy Stone on a blog for radio station WFMU. “There was probably no one who ever probed the aural possibilities of the Hammond organ as deeply as Eddie Layton. His sonic safari is akin to the early pioneers of the Moog synthesizer, and he was working with a decidedly more limited amount of sonic control and textures,”  And, he continues, “let it not be overlooked that Layton could play the holy hell out of the organ when he was feeling it and the material was right.”

"Tiger on the Hammond" Jackie Davis (Capitol, 1960) – another fearsome sleeve

Knowing him from a couple of his records, I had always thought of Layton as more or less just another organist from that golden age of lounge music in which albums tended to have words like “mood,” “sound,” “beat,” and “hi-fi” in their names (Layton’s first album, in 1955, was actually titled “Organ Moods in Hi-Fi”). I hadn’t known that he had been a long-time organist for the New York Yankees. Baseball has a long tradition (or at least from the early 1940s, when the Chicago Cubs brought one into the park for a day and it caught on) of organists playing during games, and most teams still feature the instrument, though (unfortunately) a bit less so than in days past. Layton stumbled into his gig when he was playing for soap operas for CBS in the mid-’60s. They had purchased the Yankees and asked him to become the team’s organist, but he told them he’d never been to Yankee Stadium and knew nothing about baseball. Moreover, he couldn’t drive and said he didn’t want to take the subway home at night. The team said not to worry, they would send a limo to pick him up before every game and then drop him off. Layton agreed, and ended up falling in love with his new position, which he kept — with some time off in the 1970s to pursue other musical interests — until he retired in 2003.

When he died the following year, the New York Times published his obituary in the Sports section, where they recollected what has to have been one of the more amusing incidents to take place on a big-league diamond: “Layton was not supposed to play during the baseball action, but he told National Public Radio how once ‘I just got lost in the moment’ with the Yankees’ Reggie Jackson at bat. ‘I kept playing and playing and playing and playing,’ he remembered. ‘And Reggie looked up at the booth, and the umpires looked up at the booth. Reggie threw down the bat and he started dancing at home plate.'”

Layton at Yankee Stadium

Layton accompanied the team through its run of titles in the late ’90s, and ended up with five World Series rings — not bad for someone who probably never hit a curve ball in his life. (Layton did throw out the first pitch before a playoff game in 1998; it bounced several times before it got to the plate. He was good-natured about it.) Again, from his obituary: “‘I’ve had my day,’ he told The New York Times in October 2003 as he closed his career. ‘Playing with 50,000 watts of power, what rock star has an amplifier like that? I play for up to 56,000 people a night. Not even Madonna has done those kind of numbers.'”

Layton was also close to long-time Yankee public address announcer Bob Sheppard, who passed away just last July at the age of 99. The two ate together before every game, and, according to Layton, also bet a penny on every game — though not on its outcome. “We bet a penny on how many runs will be scored, or will they take the pitcher out — and what inning — or we pick two Yankees, which of them will have the most hits… and he keeps track of that. And at the end of the game, he picks up his penny, or I pick up my penny, whatever it is.”

Sheppard also eventually began to give Layton a ride home after games. As mentioned, the organist never learned to drive. He did, however, own a tugboat he liked to pilot on the Hudson. I guess Layton was, as is sometimes the case with musicians, a little eccentric. At the time (and probably still), no private individual owned a tugboat, but, according to the New York Times, who did a piece on the subject in 2000, “Layton wanted one. He got this cockeyed idea almost 30 years ago that he would like to be a sailor, and the type of boat that caught his fancy was a tug. He also had plenty of free time during the day.”

Eddie Layton at the organ with his tugboat captain's cap

“He saw a 26-foot hull of a work boat in Maine and somehow imagined another use for it,” the article continues. “A year and a half later, in 1974, it was launched in Mystic, Conn., to his design. He liked the colors of the classic Moran tugs that ply the New York waterways: maroon cabin, green hull. He put on a just-for-show black smokestack with a big E, for Eddie, on it. He added a mophead-like ”cat’s whiskers” over the bow, which real tugs have. He called the boat Impulse.”

Layton, who never married, also had a model railroad track hanging from the ceiling of his Queens apartment. He sounds like in some ways he was a big kid…in a good way. I wonder if he had much to do with his album cover concepts, but if so that sensibility may have been at work there.

The organ Layton played all those years at the Stadium is now in the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center at Montclair State University in Little Falls, New Jersey, about 15 miles from Manhattan. I wonder if his tugboat is out there somewhere.


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