Thursday, June 08, 2006

A Kimball Christmas

When Ernie offered this very album at his blog many months ago, my heart nearly skipped a beat... in 3/4 time!

To quote from Ernie's original post:

"Once upon a time, everyone had a piano in their home. Later, people had organs in their homes. Nowadays, we have CD players and TVs and iPods and Sega.

"But back to the organs for a sec. This LP was designed to help sell those organs. I don't know if this was given away to customers, or sold in the organ stores, or what, but the ultimate goal was to get you to buy an organ from Kimball so that you could play like the artists on this record."

One of my uncles went out and did exactly that one year. He was lured into a local mall outlet where the salesmen, resplendent in their polyester slacks, sat behind desks and occasionally behind a keyboard to show you the ease of playing the organ. After selling you an organ, they ask "can you play?" If not, they would sell you "how to play the organ" accessories, a maintenance plan in case anything went wrong with the organ, etc..

My uncle plunked down a good chunk of change, bought the organ home, fiddled with it for about three days, and gave up on the whole mess. The only time it was used was around Christmas when actual family members with talent came and played on the organ. It stayed in his home near Chicago for more years than I can remember.

Speaking of Chicago, that's where Kimball got it's start (nice segue into the history lesson, no?). In 1857, W.W. Kimball was tired of selling real estate and insurance in Iowa and moved to Chicago to open a piano store. He realized that people were moving west and would soon be setting up homes and families. What better way to establish a home than with a new piano?

For the next one hundred years (100!), Kimball sold and manufactured pianos, then organs, by the thousands and shipped them out from Chicago to all over the world. At its peak, it was making 250 pianos and 150 organs a day!

In 1959, the Kimball company was sold to a cabinet company out of Jasper, Indiana called the Jasper Corporation. It moved its operations from Chicago to the Jasper / West Baden Springs / French Lick area in southern Indiana where the materials for building /assembling pianos and organs were close by.

They continued to prosper - Kimball Electronics was formed in 1961 and purchasing the Austrian piano manufacturer Bosendorfer in 1966. Jasper renamed themselves Kimball International in 1974 and bought the U.S. piano manufacturer Krakauer in 1980.

This album was released in 1982 and features several big shots at Kimball ("Organ Product Coordinator at Kimball International", "Administrative Sales Manager for Recording and Broadcast", "Kimball Director of Musical Evaluation") playing tunes on two of their new organs - The Enterprise model and the Xanadu model - flashes of bad late 1970s movies!

The standout track on this album is Track #1 - Parade Of The Wooden Soldiers. If there was ever a Christmas tune designed for a home organ, this is it. It has never sounded better. Other great tunes included "Mary's Little Boy Chile", "Blue Christmas" done in a country twangy feel (on a Kimball organ?), and a very synthesized "O Holy Night".

Kimball stayed with the piano and organs throughout the 1980s while other piano and organ manufacturers like Hammond and Wurlitzer got into the synthesizer business to compete with Casio, Yamaha, and others. It proved to be a poor decision.

Kimball Electronics quickly put out a synthesizer (the EK-61) but also began dabbling in circuit boards and car electronic parts. The cabinetry that once wrapped around a set of keys began making custom office furniture, quickly branching over into executive office furniture and modular office furniture.

There was no room left to make pianos and organs. In 1996, Kimball announced they would cease production on both and the last keyboards rolled off the assembly lines in 1997. Kimball International continues to produce all of the above and has even gotten into contract manufacturing as well. If you want a peek, click on

I always loved playing with the Kimball whenever I visited my uncle's house. There were white and red pedals above the keyboard that had names like "treble", "swell to choir", and "harmonium" that I pushed incessantly like I was a NASA engineer at Mission Control. I wonder if my uncle would be willing to part with it... My kids would love it!

On to the next new Christmas CD in my collection...


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