We’ve talked with Dennis James about his experiences as an organist, as well as a student learning to play the organ. In the interview with him, he told Switching Styles a humorous story about one of his first teachers, Leonard MacLain.
Organist and teacher Leonard MacClain is a household name for his skill and improvisation. It all started in Philadelphia where MacClain started and continued doing what he loved best; music.
Also known as Melody Mac, he was known for his, well, melodies. Especially with decades of experience as a theatre organist. His name didn’t stay only in the States. Melody Mac’s music with Epic Records gained him international fame. Some of his prominent compositions include “Days Without You are Endless”, “Smile Darn Ya Smile” and “Where You Are Concerned”. That’s not all his works, however. There are countless more in albums such as Choice Christmas Carols (1952) Theater Organ in Hi-Fi (1956), Joy to the World (1956), Operetta for the Theatre Organ (1957), More Theater Organ in Hi-Fi (Epic LN-3655) (1960), and Theatre Organ After Dark (1960).
He was a music teacher throughout his musical career. As a music teacher, MacClain passed on his skills and knowledge to young musicians. One of these students was Dennis James.
James is well known as both an organist and a historical music preservationist. The organ is the main instrument he uses and mainly preserves orchestral music. Much of his success, and arguably his passion, stems from MacClain, one of his first teachers.
During one of the lessons with James, MacClain told a story about a famous French cathedral organist by the name of Louis Vierne. Vierne was a French organist and composer at the end of the 19th century. While in the midst of playing during a service at the Notre Dame, Vierne had a massive heart attack. His body landed on the keys with a deafening roar as all the organ’s pipes played simultaneously at full volume. Vierne died on stage.
Turning to James, his mentor said, “Now, THAT’S the way we organists all want to go!”
The very next week after MacClain shared the story, James walked into the studio for a lesson expecting to see his teacher waiting for him. Instead, he saw MacClain slumped over the keys of the Hammond electric organ. In a rushed panic, he ran over to him. The story about the fate of Vierne was still fresh in James’s head. Fearing the absolute worse, he shook him.
MacClain groggily sat up, and said in a voice that was still drowsy, “Oh, Uhm, sorry . . . I fell asleep.”
“Such drama!” James exclaimed, remembering the incident.
Between the two organists, MacClain and Vierne, there were unfortunate parallels as MacClain had been having heart problems. At the time, he was using a portable oxygen tank and mask. The story seemed to be more foreboding than either realized.
Later, MacClain did have a major heart attack that landed him in the hospital right before the Fourth of July in 1967. He was scheduled to play a major solo concert for a national convention of pipe organ enthusiasts in Detroit. Certainly, he wasn’t able to make the performance. MacClain sent his student in his place to perform at the concert. The only problem is that the young 16-year-old James had never seen a theatre organ save for one short encounter when he was nine. He had never played one.
To overcome this, MacClain provided lessons from his hospital room. Luckily, he had quite the experience with organs including the Wurlitzer theatre pipe organ that was being used for the concert. Using a little hand slide viewer, he showed James the controls and techniques for the full-scale top of the line custom four-manual Wurlitzer theatre pipe organ. Going through each of the controls, he explained from his bed how each of them worked.
The last piece of advice he gave was to put the crescendo pedal all the way down (the crescendo pedal that puts on all the stops without them actually being set), then do the same thing with the shoe beside it (the one that opens all the chamber shutters), and finally, play a full double-hand chord on the second last row of keys (otherwise known as the Great manual). This, he explained, was the very first thing you do.
“The point here was to let this little 16-year old kid know what he was getting into,” Dennis explains, “I did exactly that, and nearly flipped back off the organ bench to the floor in fright. Such a sound, Such power! You talk to any adolescent boy organist and you’ll find out it’s all about the power.”
James played the first 40 minutes of the two-hour recital, leaving visiting professional New York-based organist Lee Erwin to fill in for the second half.
All in all, James describes, “it all went very well — so that began my career as a performing professional organist.”
And it’s all thanks to his teacher. The lessons from MacClain were priceless to his students. He died later that year. During his 68 years on this earth, he inspired his audience to grow as music lovers and musicians.
An obituary in Theatre Organ Bombarde Magazine reads, “His passing is a genuine loss, not only for his many personal friends but for the theatre organ world at large. But ‘Melody Mac’ has left us some superb theatre organ recordings and a long history of accomplishments on behalf of the instrument and the music he knew and loved so well. That he continued his contribution up to the closing hours of his life may be seen”.
Vierne went out the way all organists want to – in a dramatic performance of their art. MacClain didn’t go out exactly as Vierne did, with a powerful roar from the organ keys. Instead, it was much subtler and sweeter by passing on the love of music to his student.