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THE UNSUNG HERO OF THE HAMMOND ORGAN
The never been told story of one of the much neglected figure in the early development of British progressive rock begins in London, right after the end of the Second World War, when, as the favourite target of the Luftwaffe and of the pilotless V-1 and V-2 rockets, the national capital was a city in desperate need of large-scale rebuilding. It was in those postwar days where the streets were gap-toothed from the Blitz that Donald John Walsh was born on Saturday, December 15, 1945, in the East London district of West Ham. Don, however, didn't stay there too long to witness the city's rebirth, because six months later, in June 1946, he moved seventy miles away in the port city of Southampton, Hampshire, after he was adopted by the local Shinn family. As many British postwar families, the Walsh struggled to provide their child with all he needed so they were forced to give him up for adoption. Don never saw his birth parents again, and therefore has no memories of them. However, he inherited facial features from his Irish father and an aptitude for the piano from his mother.
He took piano lessons as a child, from 1957 to 1961, as well as blowing the bugle with the local Boys Brigade. Then, in 1961, with an unexpected move, he joined the army, where he played clarinet in his regiment's band. By this time he'd largely eschewed classical music for rock 'n' roll, and upon returning to Southampton in 1963 he began playing the insturment for which he was to become known: the electric organ. Initially he played a Bird Duplex, a two-four octave keyboards that was a sort of poor's man Hammond, on which he practised for some months before seeking a living from music. "In January 1964 I went up to Sheffield to meet a couple of guys from the squadron band, with the aim of forming a group," Don recalls. "It didn't work out and I spent a few nights up there, sofa-surfng and even sleeping rough in freezing temperatures…" By March he was back in Southampton, where he joined one of the top pop bands in town, the Lonely Ones, towards the end of the month. The band current lineup featured Jim Sach on bass, Johnny Keeping on vocals, Tony Good on guitar and harp, and Johnny Baker on drums. "Don is a one-off. A loveable friend and an inspiring and creative musician and composer," reflects Jim Sach. "He was key to our development into the R & B scene and the change of band name to the Soul Agents. He became the heart and soul of the band and a big influence on the music scene. His persona on stage always caught the eye." Part of this was Don's habit of playing his organ's bass pedals in bare feet, thought he explains that it had a practical purpose too: 'Playing the pedals with socks and shoes on would have been like playing guitar with gloves on." As above mentioned by Jim Sach, after Don joined the band, and also after the late Roger Pope replaced Johnny Baker on drums few days later, the music direction of the Lonely Ones was firmly set on the rhythm 'n' blues track and to celebrate it the band was renamed the Soul Agents on April 4. Armed with a new lineup and a new name, the band signed a deal with the now defunct Pye Records and recorded their debut single, 'I Just Want To Make Love To You / Mean Woman Blues', at the company's Marble Arch studio in the late spring of '64. It was produced by Tony Hatch, whom Don found it easy to work with, and was released on June 2nd. It failed to chart, as did its follow-up, 'The Seventh Son / Let's Make It, Pretty Baby,' which appeared on October 15th. Depsite the commercial failure of their singles, the Soul Agents developed a great reputation as a live act (they even backed American blues legends such as Little Walter and Buddy Guy when they toured Britain) and they were so popular around the clubs, earning on average £40 a night, that the renowned Malcolm Nixon Agency asked them to became the backing band of one of their artists, the up-and-coming singer Rod Stewart. 'Rod The Mod', as everyone called him, and the band played their first gig together at the Marquee Club, the jewel of the London clubs, on December 3rd. As well as gigging with Rod, the Soul Agents released a third UK single on February 19th 1965, 'Don't Break It Up / Gospel Train.' The A-side was a gritty pop number by Ken Howard and Alan Blaikley, while the B-side was a classy organ instrumental by the band, showcasing Don at his best so far. It sold disappointingly, but was later used as a signature tune on Radio Caroline. Johnny Keeping quit the band on its day of release, and was followed by Jim Sach on April 10th. Thereafter Tony Good intermittently swapped guitar for bass, while Don - who'd switched from the Bird Duplex to a Hammond L-100 - did the rest with his bass pedals. This line-up proved short-lived, however, because Don was hospitalised with tuberculosis in June 1965, forcing them to split. "TB was quite common at the time, and I suspect I caught it when I was sleeping rough up in Sheffield in early 1964," Don suspects. "I'd already had pleurisy, but because my hair was long the doctor didn't take me seriously and assumed I was just a degenerate drug-taking youth. By the time I was properly diagnosed I was very ill. I had to go into an isolation ward and was unable to work or even play for fouth months, after which I slowly convalesced at home." Don was finally ready to play again in December 1965 and, with his old friend Roger Pope, they put together a new version of the Soul Agents with Dave Glover on bass, and Pete Hunt on vocals and congas, plus Ian Duck of The Classics, a "rival" band, who sit-in on vocals and harp from time to time. "The new band was more based on Graham Bond's sound - jazzier and with less R&B," explains Don. "We played a few originals, and our own arrangements of tracks like 'Wade In The Water'. Our approach was much more duynamic and aggressive than before. There was no guitar, so it was focused on the interplay between me and Roger Pope on drums. It was intense. I was still weak but found some strength in a few spoonfuls of brandy…" The Soul Agents resumed gigging all over the country, with Don's showmanship to the fore. In January of 1966 he was described in The Stage newspaper as a "powerhouse of sound." Much admired by other local acts, he played on 'It's All For You / Ma's Place' by another Southampton R&B band, the MeddyEvils, which appeared on Pye in April 1966.
In the meantime, the band signed a new deal with Polydor and, in May 1966, they released their fourth and last single, 'A-Minor Explosion / Pits Of Darkness', credited to Don Shinn and The Soul Agents. Consisting of two masterful instrumentals written by Don, the single it's a furious pairing that can justly be called ahead of its time. This remarkable disc is the reason why Don is often cited as a progressive rock pioneer; his vicious organ sound on it is the mould from which the likes of Keith Emerson, Jon Lord, Vincent Crane, Rick Wakeman and many other celebrated rock organists would be cast in years to come. "Don Shinn was a weird looking guy, really strange. He had a schoolboy's cap on, round spectacles…," Keith Emerson recalls. "I just happened to be in the Marquee when he was playing… The audience were all in hysterics… And I said, 'Who is this guy?' He'd been drinking whisky out of a teaspoon and all kinds of ridiculous things. He'd play an arrangement of the Grieg Concerto, the Brandenburg and all. So my ears perked up… Playing it really well, and he got a fantastic sound from the L-100. But halfway through it he sort of shook the L-100, and the back of it dropped off. Then he got out a screwdriver trying to repair the Hammond while he was playing. Everyone was roaring their heads off laughing. So I looked and said 'Hang on a minute! That guy has got something'. I realized from watching Don that you could sustain notes on the Hammond organ by sticking things in the keyboard and that I'd like to compile an act from what he did. He and Jimi Hendrix were controlling influences over the way I developed the stage act side of things." Keith Emerson tells the truth and in fact he also played the Hammond with a screwdriver when he was with the Nice! In October 1966, the Soul Agents disbanded for good and sometime later, in January 1967, Don moved to London where he put together a new band. Simply named Shinn, it featured Eddie Lamb on vocals, the late Brian 'Blinky' Davison on drums, and Paul Newton on bass. "At that time I did not really know Don very well, but had seen him with Soul Agents and was very impressed," Paul Newton recalls. "My father, who managed my previous band Rage and also ran a music venue, suggested that Don and myself should maybe work together and form a new band. I met up with Don and we agreed to form a band. The two of us began by just jamming together whilst looking for other suitable musicians. Don became a great inspiration and taught me the rudiments of jazz bass playing by his use of the bass pedals on the Hammond organ… a style I later used on such recordings as Salisbury with Uriah Heep. We found Brian Davison and he knew Eddie Lamb and so Shinn was formed. At the time our music was a little 'avant garde' which did not make it easy to get gigs, but we eventually became quite busy, mainly due to Don, who was just amazing on the Hammond… you never quite knew what he would do next. Keyboard players would come to gigs simply to hear Don play… such a talented guy with a wicked sense of humour. Keith Emerson always spoke very highly of Don and was very much influenced by him… many of Don's ideas were later evident in ELP music. Don was, sadly, never correctly recognised for his great talent. He was a real genius."
In June 1967, after six months of gigs and - contrary to some reports - no recordings, Shinn disbanded after, according to Brian Davison, one day Don said, "I don't want to play anymore," and retired to Southampton. "I don't know what happened to Don after that - he's probably up a tree somewhere, because he was a bit of a strange guy - a total genius but a wee bit strange," Newton reflects. Well, to clear the air, Don never lived up a tree (but he could have been, for sure!) and also he never retired to Southampton. He actually stayed in London where he subsequently joined the Echoes, a band mostly known for doing the backing on many live gigs and studio recordings for famous singers such as Tom Jones, Engelbert Humperdinck, Lulu, Dusty Springfield, Madeline Bell, and Kiki Dee. It was while playing with the Echoes that Don was invited to recorded his first album. The deal came about through Nick Jones, the Melody Maker’s youthful pop correspondent, who’d been blown away by Don’s playing and recommended him to Denis Preston, who was one of the UK’s leading record producers and the co-owner of the now defunct Lansdowne Studios, one of the most famous recording spaces in London where stars such as Acker Bilk, Shirley Bassey, Dave Clark Five, Queen, Bryan Ferry, and John Lennon laid down tracks. The studio was set up by the late recording supervisor Denis Preston with the help of the late sound engineer Adrian Kerridge who ensured that all recordings were state-of-the-art. "I went to meet Denis at Lansdowne," remembers Don. "He seemed very professional and well organised. After he'd made his offer, I thought, 'Who can I ask to play with me who'd good enough?' So I ended up using [the late guitarist] Paul Hodgson and [drummer] Peter Woolf from the Echoes. Denis sorted out the bassist, Eric Ford, who was a session musician. We didn't have much rehearsal time at all - the day before the session Paul, Peter and I met at Dusty's secretary's flat in Tottenham and quickly ran through the chords in her front room - that was all." The album was recorded between November 1st and November 3rd, 1967. Despite their lack of preparation, the quartet laid down powerful new versions of 'Pits Of Darkness' and 'A-Minor Explosion', as well as three atmospheric instrumentals also written by Don and entitled 'Temples With Prophets (Introducing Monophonic Interlude For Pianoforte No. 1),' 'Jolly Dance,' and 'Hearts Of Gladness (Introducing Monophonic Interlude For Pianoforte No. 2).' Don played piano and organ, improvising in the style of Bach on the organ at St. Mark’s Church, Cricklewood for the title track. The album was edited on the 16th November, following which it awaited release. Preston had pioneered the practice of making recordings and licensing them to record companies, typically EMI. This often led to delays, and Don was no exception. With his LP unissued, he continued to play with the Echoes and - somewhat oddly - returned to Lansdowne on May 6th and 7th 1968 to make his second (and last) solo LP, Departures. "There were no rehearsals at all for Departures!" says Don. "I was thrown in the deep end." Smoother and less aggressive than his debut, it features four all-instrumental tracks by Don: 'Space-Wards (Space Odyssey)', 'Bossa-Wards (Bossa)', 'H.VIII-WARDS' and 'Departure IV.' Don played only the organ this time. "On the first album I’d played a Hammond L-100, but after recording it Dusty’s secretary told me about a different one that was for sale. It turned out to belong to Sherry Wagner, who’d been the organist at the London Palladium for years, and it was covered in mother-of-pearl that was peeling off. What I didn’t realise was that its tone-generator was split into two units, one of which had been removed, so its sound was too thin…" He was backed up another powerful trio which featured well known veteran musicians as Barry Morgan on Latin-American percussion and drums, Stan Tracey on piano, celeste, vibraphone, xylophone, marimba, and glockenspiel, and Trevor Tomkins on drums. "It was just a session - occasionally Denis Preston would call up and ask me to play one," explains Tomkins, who was a member of the Rendell-Carr Quintet at the time. "It could be anything - Acker Bilk with strings is one I remember. Departures was enjoyable to make, a bit like working at Ronnie Scott’s. I’d never met Don before, and there were no rehearsals - we just did it straight away. It used to amaze me that pop groups would spend six months making an album - we got one day, two if we were lucky! Don was a good player on the day, but after making the album I never heard from him again." "I think Denis Preston’s idea was to expand the market for his jazz artists," suggests Don. "It was aweinspiring working with Stan Tracey, and the other players were topnotch readers too." Like Don’s debut, Departures was to remain in limbo for over a year, but he was hardly idle in the interim; as well as playing all over Britain with the Echoes, he played gigs including one with the Terry Smith Quartet at The Three Tuns in Beckenham on May 30th. The following week, bassist Louis Cennamo (with whom Don had played in the Echoes) asked if he’d be interested in playing on a new album by an American singer named James Taylor, who was signed to the fledgling Apple label. "They were looking for a pianist to play a link between two song tracks, on harpsichord, and they asked me if I knew someone. Yes I said, Don Shinn," explains Louis. "A short while later there was Don, rubbing shoulders with a Beatle or two, playing a haunting harpsichord piece that bridged the gap between two tracks on the album. We became friends during that time. We shared some enjoyable conversations and insights, played chess and hung out at my flat." Taylor and his musicians mustered in the rehearsal space above the Apple Shop in Baker Street on June 7th 1968. He immediately liked Don, and invited him to stay at his flat in Notting Hill throughout the sessions, which were held between July and October at Trident Studios in Soho, in the London's West End. "He was a great musician and an easy-going guy, but very quiet and withdrawn," says Don. "He only really came alive when he played and sang. He liked wacky-baccy, but I never saw anything stronger." According to the cover of Taylor’s album (which was released in the UK in December and in the US in February 1969), ‘Don Schinn’ - as he was misspelled - played organ and harpsichord on 'Don’t Talk Now,' harpsichord on 'Taking It In' and electric piano on 'Brighten Your Night With My Day.' However, according to Taylor, Don also played electric piano on the most famous song on the album, 'Carolina In My Mind,' alongside Paul McCartney (on bass and backing vocals) and George Harrison (on backing vocals).
In the meantime, between gigging with the Echoes and recording with Taylor, Don occasionally played with an unnamed jazz trio that backed a variety of artists in a late night italian cabaret restaurant called Pipistrello in the London's West End. "I was part of that jazz trio with Tony Chapman. He was the original Rolling Stones' drummer," recalls Louis Cennamo. "For a while I doubled up, playing with James Taylor during the day and backing cabaret artists late night till 2 am. Don sat in when the regular pianist, John Coleman, couldn't make it. Although it was rather deadbeat and quiet most nights, sometimes my friends dropped by to jams with us. Peter Frampton and Andy Bown from The Herd, as well as Terry Smith, and even James Taylor came down once or twice and sang a 12 bar blues there, rubbing shoulders with magicians, belly dancers and other variety performers. Lewis Rich, formerly of The Herd, was compere for the cabaret and also sung with us. I think that was the last time me and Don played together. Not long afterwards we lost touch, as the music of life played on, and swept us along different paths, in different countries, and it's only now in 2019, so many years later, we have spoken again, by telephone, catching up a little on the dream years in between. As we spoke of so many things we had done since last meeting, it was clear that the same passion for the music of life was still as alive and timeless as ever in our hearts, and even in a short phone call, Don's love of life and passion for musich echoed my own, an ever deepening relationship with perhaps the only truly international 'language' that has no borders or boundaries. 'Music is Life - Life is Music'." In February 1969, Don's debut album finally appeared in the UK as part of the renowned 'Lansdowne Series' on the Columbia label. He had originally give it the title 'Don Shinn… Takes A Trip', with accompanying psychedelic artwork, but when Columbia baulked he came up with 'Temples With Prophets', reflecting his interest in esoteric philosophy; Columbia also replaced the intended imagery with a moody shot of him smoking a cigarette.
The only known review appeared in Record Mirror of March 15th, and read "Organist and pianist, herewith introduced, along with guitar, bass and drums backing. A stylist who worked with the Echoes, backing group for several top names, and now in a curious but entirely satisfying mixture of styles. He wrote all the tracks for himself, and they include A-Minor Explosion and a couple of Monophonic Interludes For Pianoforte, no less." By the way, the album was also released in France later that year and there, because, well, you know, they were more liberal than the conservative Great Britain people, it was released under the original title and artwork cover! Far from any Hendrix-style success, thought, Don left the Echoes in the spring of 1969 (bored by being a backing musician) and took a job playing in a cabaret trio in a country club in South Wales from the summer season. Meanwhile, his second album 'Departures' crept out on Columbia that August (and again only in the UK as part of the 'Lansdowne Series'), in a garish sleeve designed by Preston from a photography by Fred Warren.
"An attempt, apparently, to ‘free’ the organ," sniffed Melody Maker on September 6th. "It just goes to show that jazz organ can be dull in any context." Record Retailer was barely more enthusiastic, writing "Shinn makes his kind of music with a little help from his friends, including the fabulous Stan Tracey. This album is strictly for jazz addicts and other musicians, but fans who know will recognise it." The jazz magazine Crescendo gave it the only considered review either of his albums appears to have received at the time: "24-year-old Don is influenced by pop, but only when it is valid. He has a freshness of approach and style that compares more than favourably with his fellow jazz organists. Apart from the ability to create rich sounds and beautiful harmonies from the keyboard, he has nimble feet, prodding the bass pedals with agility and dexterity, picking out some lovely notes. I shall watch out for his next album." Unfortunately, there was to be no next album, and with no momentum from his solo work, Don was involved in the formation of an adventurous nine-piece jazz-rock fusion band called Dada at the end of the year. Other than Don on on keyboards, organ bass and vibes, the lineup also featured Paul Korda on vocals, Jimmy Chambers on vocals and percussion, Pete Gage on guitar and bass, Martin Harryman on drums and percussion, Barry Duggan on alto and baritone saxes and flute, Malcolm Capewell on tenor sax and flute, Ernie Lauchlan on trumpet and flugelhorn, and last but not least, the not-yet famous female singer Elkie Brooks. In 1970, Dada signed with Atco Records (a division of Atlantic Records) and released a self-titled album which included four songs written by Don: 'Seed Of Peace' and 'Tonite Is' in collaboration with Paul Korda, and 'Organ Interlude' and 'Eyes Of The Warren' by himself. By the way, although it was released in the UK (November 20, 1970), US (mid-January 1971), Italy (1971), Canada (1970), France (1971), and Australia (1970), the album was a commercial flop in every countries!
Also in 1970, while he was involved with Dada, Don was again called to give his little precious contribute to an album of another artist, this time for Renaissance, a well known progressive rock band formed by singer Keith Relf and drummer Jim McCarty after the demise of the Yardbirds. So, on August 18, Don entered the Island Studios in London and played electric piano on the song 'Past Orbits of Dust', which was released a year later in the band's second album, 'Illusion' (where Don was misspelled as Don "Shin" on the back cover).
Back with Dada, Don had finally the big chance to play in the United States after the band toured there from March to April 1971, armed with a new lineup that was now co-fronted by another future successful solo singer, the late Robert Palmer. "It was amazing, I’d never been to the US before," says Don. "But once we’d arrived I barely had any time to explore - we were constantly shuttling between gigs, with Canned Heat, Johnny Winter and many others. It was a lot to take in, and there was loads of craziness along the way…” Upon returning to the UK that spring, Dada evolved into another and more successful band called Vinegar Joe, but without Don who was "fired" because their label want to reduce the lineup. Don wasn't unemployed for long: later that year his old mate Pete Hunt invited him to participate in a new brass-rock band named Iguana. Other than Hunt on drums and congas, the band also featured Ronnie Taylor on alto saxophone and tambourine, John Cartwright on bass and finger drums, Bruce Roberts on guitar and vocals, and Chris Gower on trombone and tambourine. Don was never an official member of the band but, nonetheless, he played electric piano for them on several gigs and also in some of the songs of their self-titled album which was released by Polydor Records in April 1972 in the UK (and later that same year also in the US), but sold poorly.
Thereafter things went quiet for Don, who moved to Norway in April 1974 without telling anyone of his former musical partners and friends. He remained there for the next 20 years, playing in hotels, theatres and other venues, both as a solo pinaist and with local bands. He didn't pursue a recording career, though he did pop up as keyboardist on the self-titled album by Hungry Joe and The Blue Shadows in 1991.
In 1995, he returned to Southampton to look after his adoptive mother, leading him into a fulfilling new career as a carer. Music was still his first love, however, so when he had time, he enjoyed playing the pipe organ in churches for weddings and funerals, and also teaching piano, taught chords and reading notes. However, he was, most of all, a recluse until 2016 when he met his lovely partner Patricia ‘Pat’ Othen who made him aware that the music he had made all those decades earlier had become the subject of a cult following, and encouraged him to get back out there. So, Don officialy returned to play live performance, playing in some of the city’s leading venues, where he is quite rightly introduced as "The Legend… Don Shinn!" (Pat has much video footage of Don which can be seen on her personal YouTube channel). Sadly, on Saturday, February 18, 2023, at 6:00am, Don passed away peacefully in a hospital after a very short illness. Rest in peace my friend.