The Williams Family of New Orleans
A Life of Installing Aeolian-Skinner Organs
Interview with Nora Williams
By Lorenz Maycher
March 10; July 1, 2, and 3, 2005
LM: What was Mr. Williams’ (your father-in-law's) full name? I’ve only seen him listed by his initials.
NW: Thomas Jackson Williams. He was from Ripley, Tennessee. He came to New Orleans to install a little Moller pipe organ in Algiers Methodist Church, met Jimmy’s mother, and they married. Jimmy was their first son, and then they had Jack – Thomas Jackson, Jr.
I met Jimmy on March 15, 1947, and we got married on March 28, 1947. (We waited a week because his daddy was out of town.) We knew it was a take from the beginning. I had been singing with a band on a riverboat, had signed to go on tour in a road show, and was supposed to leave town for rehearsals in Mobile on March 23rd. When I met Jimmy, and we fell in love, I told him I had to leave town on the 23rd. He said, “You’re not leaving, even if I have to marry you to keep you here.” I said, “That’s the only way you’ll keep me here.” Sure enough, we got married in the same little Methodist church where his mother and daddy were married.
I knew nothing about pipe organs. I was just the average person who sat in church on Sunday. As a kid, I would look at the front pipes, wondering how they got all those different sounds out of just 27 pipes. I was always curious about that. The first time I ever ventured into an organ chamber, Jimmy’s daddy was at the console. He waited until I was in the middle of it, and then really let go with a big chord. I went running out of it, thinking, “This thing is a beast!”
Jimmy had been in another line of business. For convenience' sake, he started working with his daddy, and I went along with them. On one job, in Gilmer, Texas, I was watching Jimmy splicing some cables. He would take his knife and strip a wire, twist it on, then go to the next one. I said, “That looks like fun. Can I do one?” He had four or five lined up in a row. He said, “Sure, go to it,” and handed me a knife and a pair of cutters. I just went phfft, phfft, phfft, phfft, phfft, and had it done in no time, asking him for another one. He said, “Did you already finish that one?” When I said yes, he said, “Look, I’ll go do something else!” He handed the whole job over to me. That is how I got started. We went from job to job after that.
LM: Were you working for Moller exclusively at that time?
NW: Daddy was his own independent service man, but did a lot of work for Moller, and had always taken care of the organ in Kilgore (*First Presbyterian Church, Kilgore, Texas), which was a Moller at that time. In 1948, Roy Perry (*organist-choirmaster at First Presbyterian Church for 40 years) wanted to make some changes in the organ, and asked Moller to do the work. Moller told him they were too busy to fool with it, so Roy went to Boston and talked to G. Donald Harrison about the changes he had in mind. Mr. Harrison said Aeolian-Skinner would be happy to make the changes. Roy told him he wanted his own organ men to do the installation, and Mr. Harrison agreed, since Aeolian-Skinner always sent out an outside crew to do its installations.
We got on the job, and in no time, had it finished. Mr. Harrison was astonished that it had gone so smoothly, without our ever calling in griping about not having this or that. He was so impressed that he asked us to go to San Antonio to put up an organ at Laurel Heights Methodist. We went down and installed it, and, again, Mr. Harrison was pleased with our work. Meanwhile, Aeolian-Skinner was about to ship the organ out to First Baptist, Longview, Texas, and Mr. Harrison asked us to install that one. He came down on the train during its installation – he loved taking trains. One of the biggest compliments we ever received in our career took place when we were up in the organ chamber. Mr. Harrison said, “Would someone go down and turn on the wind, please?” Jimmy said, “Mr. Harrison, the wind is on.” He looked at the reservoir and said, “Oh, my word, it is.”
And, so, we had a marvelous relationship with the company from the very beginning. Mr. Harrison started requesting us for other installations. Meanwhile, Roy was so carried away with “The Boss,” as he always referred to Mr. Harrison, and with the sound and the product, that if anyone came to him for advice about an organ, he would say, “Aeolian-Skinner.” All Roy had to do was get an organ committee to Kilgore. Once he played the organ for them, they would just cry, it was so beautiful. There was no question who they were signing with, especially when they found out Aeolian-Skinner cost more than anybody else did! They wanted the top of the line.
LM: That Kilgore organ is a special organ among Aeolian-Skinners. Is this because of Roy Perry?
NW: He had a lot to do with the scaling, but it was a collaboration between Harrison and Roy. Roy knew what he wanted to eliminate from the old organ. I know he insisted on keeping the Vox Humana and French Horn, because they were outstanding, among a few other things. People were outgrowing Vox Humanas at that time, but Roy could see beyond this trend, and thought the Kilgore Vox was very effective.
We always called Kilgore “Mecca.” When we heard that Trompette-en-Chamade for the first time, we didn’t know what to think. (*A-S Opus 1173, Kilgore, TX has the first Trompette-en-Chamade installed in the United States.) We thought, “Did we do this right?” Roy was just scared to death. We had never heard such a thing, but knew it had to be spectacular. We thought about putting flags on it, and someone even suggested shooting me out of a cannon over the audience the first time it was played. But, as it turned out, it was more than a success. When Willie Watkins (*William Watkins, organist at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, Washington, D.C., and later organist-choirmaster at Georgetown Presbyterian Church, Washington, D.C., for 40 years) played the Healey Willan “Introduction, Passacaglia and Fugue” on it in 1950, it just knocked everybody over. We knew we had gotten it right.
It wasn’t long before we became representatives for Aeolian-Skinner -- Jimmy, his dad, and Roy. As time went by, the bookkeeping became difficult. With the down payment on the contract price, then splitting the commission three ways every time a check came in, they finally gave Roy all the work in Texas, and we took all the work in Louisiana and Mississippi. But, we all worked together on each installation and on all the tonal finishing. That is the way it was for years.
Roy always came into a job before the pipework was committed, so he could set strengths and work out the scaling. Everywhere we worked, he would bring sample Cs and set them on site in the church, so that by installation time, the pipes were ready to go. This was our way of life for years and years. Occasionally Mr. Harrison would ask us to go out of our own territory for an installation, like St. Luke’s Methodist in Oklahoma City, or First Methodist, in Marlow, Oklahoma.
LM: What was Mr. Harrison like?
NW: Mr. Harrison was a work of art. His hair was snow white, his eyes so blue, and his complexion so red that he looked like the American flag. He was striking and very beautiful - and laid back. We would haul him off to little towns like Georgetown, Texas, and he would love it. There was a restaurant in Georgetown that had wonderful scotch. He was devoted to scotch. He and his wife, Helen, had a little dog that Roy called a “Maggie and Jiggs” dog. It looked like it was made out of sticks. When they got onto the train, she would put this little dog into her knitting bag, and carry it on with them. Don’t ask me the dog’s name. Anyhow, after Mr. Harrison would take a sip of scotch, he would say, “My word, but scotch is good.”
But, Roy was the biggest character of anyone in my life I’ve ever met. He was a man of many moods. The first time I ever met him I was sitting in his office, which also doubled as the choir room. He came walking in, and I said “Good morning, Mr. Perry.” He just growled at me and did not say a word. I thought, “Well, pardon me!” I was petrified. But, after that, it wasn’t long before we became such good friends that he’d call me every night in New Orleans and say, “What are you cooking for dinner?” All of us loved to cook. He always called me a “Dolless,” saying I was a “doll turned inside out.” You work that one out for yourself.
Roy loved to giggle and have fun when he felt relaxed with people, but he could also be very mischievous. Margie and Marvin Hall had the drug store across the street from Roy’s church in Kilgore. Marvin was the druggist, and his wife expanded the store with gift items, traveling all over the country to stock it. Roy never went to the church without stopping by the drugstore to say good morning. One year, Roy’s birthday came along and Margie wanted to take him out to dinner to celebrate. Roy agreed to it, but made it known to her he did not like anyone drawing attention to his birthday in public. He asked her not to have a cake or have anyone sing to him. Sure enough, after dinner, here came the waitress with a birthday cake and candle, singing “Happy Birthday.” Roy did not say a word. He just sat there and gritted his teeth. When he got home, he called a local chicken farmer and had him deliver a truckload of chicken fertilizer to Margie’s house and dump it in her front yard. Not only did it burn the grass, they had to hire someone to come haul it off, and the city fined them a $500 nuisance fee. They never bought Roy another birthday cake!
LM: When you installed an organ, did the church pay you, or did Aeolian-Skinner?
NW: The Company paid us per job. We didn’t have a salary. We received ten percent of the contract price. If we needed incidentals, we would keep a list of our expenditures and Aeolian-Skinner would reimburse us. But, they always sent so much to the job, like friction tape and spools of wire, that we were pretty well set. We used our own tools, like a table saw and drill press, and just set up shop on site.
LM: After that first job in Gilmer, you were relegated to doing the wiring?
NW: Oh yes, from then on. Jimmy hated wiring. The first kind of cable we had was cotton covered, with paraffin on it. I had to get it all straightened out, then “buzz it out” on the other end, meaning each end had to be identified. All the wires were white, so we would set up earphones on one end, using a little doorbell on the other to identify the different groups. The cable was done in groups of ten wires, so you could identify the groups as 1-10, 11-20, and then lay it in neatly going up the spreader strip. If I had a 61-note switch, I would hook that up first, then “ring it out” with the doorbell at the other end, to make sure everything was in order. It was messy. When I would untwist the wires at one end, I would end up with wax all over the floor. But, it was a system that worked. When the company told us they were switching to a new type of color-coded cables, I was sure I would never learn it, having figured out my own system. But, once I saw it, it was a dream. I could hook up one end, keep my own notes on it, and then hook up the other end and solder it without ever having to ring it out. Nothing made me happier in life than to have a switchboard full of wires to work on. I loved it!
When we were installing the organ at First Baptist in Longview, there was a copper shortage, and cable was hard to come by. Roy finagled around and got a roll of cable from somebody at the telephone company, which was disastrous. The wires were wrapped in paper, and I had the time of my life cutting that paper so the wires wouldn’t touch each other. If I’d had to do that on all the jobs, I would’ve headed for the hills.
Mabel Birdsong was organist there at the time. After she retired, they had a man and wife team. He directed the choir, and she played the organ. We still serviced the organ then. The last time we tuned there, the wife came in and played a few notes, and said, “This note isn’t in tune.” I told her to just turn her head slightly, and it would be in tune. She didn’t understand that a note doesn’t sound the same in one area as it does in another. I learned that ages ago! Her husband, the choir director, was so jealous of that big Aeolian-Skinner console that he asked Jimmy to cut off the top of it. He said it “shouldn’t be the focal point of the church.” Later on I found out he had built a set of steps behind the console so he could stand above it and be the focal point himself! The pastor’s wife, Mrs. Ford, told me this, and I asked her if he ever got a nosebleed. Of course, we had worked with the church’s architect in the first place to design that console to match his designs for the building. It suited it perfectly. When that choir director asked Jimmy to cut off the top of the console, Jimmy told him yes, but they’d have to do without the combination action, couplers, and top few rows of drawknobs. That is the last time we ever entered that church. Those people were out of their element.
LM: What was Mrs. Birdsong like?
NW: She was the sweetest thing in the world. Her husband was wonderful. Their son, “Sonny,” is also a wonderful person. When they put parking meters in downtown Longview, Mr. Birdsong, senior, would go to the bank and get a bag full of nickels. He would walk around town, and if he saw an empty parking meter, he’d feed it, staying one step ahead of the law. That was his fun, going all over town feeding parking meters.
Mrs. Birdsong was a sweet, docile Southern lady. Dr. Ford, the minister at First Baptist, would say during the service, if her playing got too ambitious, “Mabel, you’re playing too loud. Tone it down a little.” Honey, this was East Texas! We didn’t like roll tops, and this organ did not have one in its design. So, Mabel brought a tea towel from home and put it over the keyboards, “to protect the little darlings.”
One time we were working at St. Mark’s in Shreveport, and Mabel came by with Sonny. She asked Jimmy to come over to First Baptist in Longview to fix a problem she had with the console. He asked her what it was, and she said, “I’ve got it right here in my hanky.” She pulled her hanky out, unrolled it, and there was the cancel button. Bless her heart. Can’t you just see her walking around with a cancel button in her purse?
They were such sweet people. Mr. Birdsong would catch squirrels in cages and then take them out into the woods to set them loose.
LM: William Watkins told me Roy Perry would borrow the Longview 32’ reed and use it in the Kilgore organ for long periods at a time.
NW: I remember they were making a recording at Kilgore once and there was one note on a reed that sounded just fine in the church, but sounded terrible on the playback tapes. We borrowed the undertaker’s car and borrowed the same pipe from the Longview organ for the recording. For some reason, it worked just fine!
Roy loved going to Boston, and he would run up there at the drop of a hat. He had a name for everyone: Tommy Anderson was “The Leprechaun,” and John Hendricksen was “The Dike Plugger.” One of the fellows in the shop, Bill McKenzie, once asked Roy if they had armadillos in Texas, and Roy said, “You’d better believe it. We’ve got them all over the place. When I get back to Texas, I’m going to send you one.” When he got back to Kilgore he got a bottle of booze, wrapped it up in a box, wrote on the address label, “Caution: One live armadillo,” and shipped it off to Boston. When Bill received it, he was too scared to open the box.
Mary McGaffigan was the secretary who handled all the company’s correspondence and sent out our checks. Roy would call her up and say, “Mary, go rattle your tambourine and see if you can come up with some money for us.” Whenever he wanted money, Roy would say, “Go rattle your tambourine.”
But, Aeolian-Skinner always paid us on time. We had the perfect setup. The company was ideal to work for, and never gave us any problems. However, it was sometimes interesting to arrive on a job to see how the church people would receive us. Some of them saw us as common laborers, and others treated us like master craftsmen. Once, I was walking down the hall in a church in San Antonio in my work clothes. These ladies were having a tea, and insisted I come in and join them. Here I was in my work clothes, sitting in this brocade chair in an elegant parlor, sipping tea, and eating cake. They were very gracious and lovely. Other places were not like that. If they saw me coming down the hall in my work clothes, they would turn their heads to avoid having to acknowledge me. Of course, I can’t be bothered by that. Just the snooty churches acted that way.
LM: In Dallas?
NW: Houston! One minister there would turn his head rather than say hello to me. For recitals, of course, I would get dressed up. That was a different ballgame. He would then say, “Hello! It is so good to see you.” I wanted to say, “I’m the one you turned away from this morning!” So much two-faced phoniness goes on behind the scenes in churches that the average person never sees or realizes. Churches are often very shallow, for what they are supposed to represent.
Jimmy and his daddy were working in a church in Shreveport, pre-Aeolian-Skinner, re-covering some valves. This was before they had discovered my abilities, so I was absolved from doing any work. I was just sitting around. The preacher asked me if I liked poetry, and I said yes. He invited me up to his office, where he had lots of books. We went down the hall and around the baptistry full of flowers – it must have been a Baptist church. As we walked by, just to make conversation, I said, “Oh, these flowers are so beautiful.” He said, “They’re not as lovely as you are.” Red flag! We got to his office and I grabbed a book out of desperation. He had a new wire recorder he wanted to show me, saying they were able to record the services to take to the hospitals for people to hear. As he was demonstrating it, he kept getting closer, and closer, so I backed away behind his desk. I tried the opposite direction, and he followed me. After about three times around his desk, I flew out that office door. If I had told Jimmy’s daddy about it, he would have clobbered that man. I had already learned that.
Old St. Anna’s Church here in New Orleans was condemned, and had to be torn down. It had a pipe organ, so we disassembled it for storage. It had a very nice wainscoting in the choir chamber, and Jimmy’s daddy wanted to save it. We had a big chute going from the organ to send parts down to the main floor. Jimmy’s grandpa was still alive, and he, daddy, and I were on the floor, with Jimmy and some other men up in the organ. We had some sawhorses set up, and I was knocking out nails, while grandpa put them into little bundles. This man walked into the church and watched, and watched, and watched me while we worked. I didn’t realize it, but Jimmy’s daddy was seething. Finally, he had had enough. He looked at that man and shook his hammer, saying, “What’s the matter with you? Haven’t you ever seen a woman work before?” That man’s eyes got big as a saucer and he went tearing out of that church!
The Williams family during the 1966 rebuild of Opus 1173
First Presbyterian Church, Kilgore, Texas
LM: When did Mr. Williams, senior retire from the business?
NW: In the early 1960s. He had a bad fall in an organ chamber in Hattiesburg, and wasn’t able to do heavy work after that. He could still do small jobs, though. He was a good tuner, and used a tuning fork to set the temperament in the middle octave. That is how we tuned in the beginning, too. We didn’t have Peterson tuners then. I was always pulled to be the key holder, and would hold keys with one hand and work crossword puzzles with the other. When they came out with the Peterson tuners, I had to work the tuner with my spare hand. That’s when I started reading magazines and pocket books. I would tear all the pages out and put them onto the music rack. I had to do something or I would fall asleep. Two octaves of tuning will put you out faster than anything! We did have some wonderful adventures along the way, though, and reliving those are the rewards of organ building.
For instance, at St. Luke’s Methodist in Oklahoma City, Catharine Crozier and her husband were doing a symposium once and we were there. It must have been right after we installed the organ. During her recital, someone from the church presented her with an Indian headdress to welcome her to Oklahoma, making her an honorary Indian and giving her the Indian name “Princess Crow’s Ear.” The church did this out of complete sincerity, and it was an honor. Poor Catharine just looked deadpan at her husband, Harold, like “What do I do now?” It was beyond her comprehension. If that had been Marilyn Mason, she would have given them their money’s worth!
Another memorable adventure we had was serving dinner to the Durufles in Houston. They were playing a program at First Methodist, and we invited them over to Charles Moseley’s apartment following the recital. Mrs. Durufle had to do all the translating because he could not speak English. Mr. Durufle became very tired, and she explained it was such a strain on him not knowing the language. We were running late with dinner, and could see he was getting edgy sitting out on the sofa, so Jimmy went out and gave Mr. Durufle the menu. When he heard we were servicing a chateaubriand with Madeira sauce, he perked up. It was something he had been missing on their tours, having been subjected to American cooking. Jimmy prepared a wonderful French dinner from beginning to end, and had carefully chosen the wines, too. The Durufles were very friendly. She played the Liszt “Ad nos” on that recital, and it was just wonderful.
LM: Did you know Claire Coci?
NW: Oh, yes. She was from New Orleans, and was wonderful and unpretentious. She felt at home in any setting. She was a wonderful player, a fancy dresser, and wore a lot of makeup. She used to play in Laurel a lot, and I have a wonderful photo of her seated at the old Austin console there at First Presbyterian Church.
LM: Did you know Nita Akin?
NW: Yes. We installed the big Aeolian-Skinner in her church, First Methodist Church, Wichita Falls. That was a fine installation, except that Nita insisted on retaining a lot of their old Reuter, saying she needed certain stops “to bury babies.” She also insisted on keeping the old organ’s floating string division, available on every manual, so she could use it in the background to accompany prayers.
LM: Did you also know Dora Poteet Barclay?
NW: Yes. Perkins Chapel and Highland Park Methodist, in Dallas, came along right after we started with the company. Did you know that Dora could not reach a full octave? She was so tiny, and her hands so small, that it is a miracle she could play at all. But, she sure could get the job done. She was very nice and easygoing with us, but cracked the knuckles of her students from time-to-time. She wanted everything just right out of them. We also put in the organs Caruth Auditorium, Lover’s Lane Methodist, Fifth Church of Christ, Scientist, Temple Emanuel, and Church of The Incarnation, all in Dallas.
LM: How many employees did you take along for big lifting jobs at installations?
NW: We didn’t have employees, per se, but hired casual labor onsite for our installations. We had our own hoisting ropes, block and tackle. Jimmy wanted to keep everything on our own level, without having to worry about part-time or full-time employees. We did not want that kind of responsibility. When we put in the Aeolian-Skinner at St. Mark’s Church, Beaumont, Texas, we hired a local sheepherder to help with the installation. Right after that installation, we had to start immediately on putting in the organ at Rayne Memorial Church, here in New Orleans. The sheepherder asked if he could come work on it for us, and Jimmy said yes. About two weeks into the job, Jimmy sent him to the hardware store for supplies. On the way back, he wrecked our car. That is why we preferred doing our own work – to avoid such headaches. We did however, have Tom Cotner work part-time for us for several years in the early 60s. He joined us when we were putting in the organ at First Presbyterian Church in Wichita Falls, Texas. He stayed with us until 1965, when he went on his own. He is on my “A” list – is very talented, and I would trust him with anything.
LM: Was there a noticeable change at Aeolian-Skinner after Mr. Harrison’s death?
NW: Yes -- slowly at first. I think organ building was just a hobby for Joe Whiteford. He was a nice man but was a rich playboy. His family had money, and his job at Aeolian-Skinner was prestigious, but he did not sweat to put out organs as Mr. Harrison had. His main interest was opera, and he enjoyed going to all the opening night performances. He had a certain amount of input of value, but not like Harrison’s. After Mr. Harrison died, Joe realized the job was more than he could handle. He eased out of it, and that was the decline of the company. It went slowly down hill from there.
LM: How did you react at the news of Mr. Harrison’s death?
NW: I cried and cried and cried. And, I could do it very easily right now, too.
LM: I’ve heard that you would sometimes rescale some organs as they arrived from the factory after Mr. Harrison died.
NW: Honey! At St. Mark’s in Shreveport I had to cut every mixture pipe in that organ! They locked me in a room! Roy and Jimmy would take a sample pipe and figure out how high they wanted it cut, then would give me the proportional dividers. I would scribe it, go through and get them all marked, then cut them up. This went on for over a week – maybe even two. We would do this and not let the bosses know. It was always, “Don’t tell Whiteford,” or, “Don’t tell Gillett.”
LM: So you did it with other organs, too?
NW: Oh, yes -- First Baptist in Chattanooga was one we messed with a lot. Don Gillett sent down what he thought were the perfect mixture compositions. We had boxes of our own pipes and used them to rescale his mixtures. Nobody ever knew the difference. In fact, Roy had taken Gillett to task when he was setting up the composition for those mixtures in the first place. Gillett would not back down, though, so Roy agreed to it. However, when the organ arrived, Roy had us change the mixture compositions to his own liking. When Gillett came down to try the organ, Roy asked him what he thought of the mixtures. Don played a few notes and said, “See, I told you it would work!” Roy said, “You were right.” We would go behind his back and change all sorts of things and he never knew the difference.
This was just at the time of the death throes of the company. Aeolian-Skinner had hired a man from Canada to oversee all the installations. When we got on the job at First Baptist in Chattanooga, he had us working long hours. He really pushed us, and we would work some nights until midnight. He brought a man and his son from Canada to assist in construction and erection, while we worked on metal and wiring. At the end of each day, we would go back and soak in a hot tub – it was wintertime. Finally, this man from Canada came in and said, “Look, they’re running behind at the factory. Slow down!”
The Chattanooga organ is a nice one, but it was a difficult installation for all of us. Everything was coming down to an intermediate switchboard, so I had double the amount of cables to hook up. One wall of the room where I was working was covered with fiberglass. I didn’t realize it, but I was being covered with fiberglass particles. My arms felt like needles were going through them. And, at some point, Jimmy fell through a floor. Plus, it was cold, cold, cold.
Don Gillett came down to Chattanooga and was out at the motel with us. He always drank something called "Heaven Hills Whiskey." Roy called it “Heaving Hill.” While we were sitting there, having drinks, Don told us about all the changes going on in the company. I looked at him and said, “This is the end, isn’t it? This is the swan song.” He wouldn’t say yes, and wouldn’t say no. I could tell by his silence, though, that the end was near.
LM: Was that your last installation for Aeolian-Skinner?
NW: No. Laurel, Mississippi was our last job with the company, although we rebuilt the Aeolian-Skinner in Columbus, Georgia shortly thereafter. We did the Columbus job independently. Don Gillett had overseen its installation, and it was a disaster. The preacher there, Jim Johnson, who had been in Laurel, Mississippi, was trying to get his former organist, A.G. Bowen, to come from Laurel to take the organ job. A.G. told the preacher he would only take the job if the organ were completely redone. The preacher said fine (he was one of the few preachers on the side of music), so, Jimmy and I went up to see it. I was very apprehensive. It was such a mish-mash that every piece of wood had a different job number on it. Aeolian-Skinner had made the organ out of scraps, and had used anything they had on hand, so that there was no continuity to it. Behind the façade was an enormous drape made out of what must have been the most absorbent material possible. The organ sounded like someone talking with his hand over his mouth. Everything was undercooked, and I had no confidence we could do anything with it. Jimmy was convinced we could, though, and we set up shop. Jimmy set up a voicing room and we had John Hendricksen come down and revoice everything. We tore down acres and acres of cloth, rescaled things, and added an exposed division and a big reed. It turned out to be one of our best installations - First Presbyterian Church, Columbus, Georgia.
Jimmy incorporated the exposed Great into the existing façade, which had gold pipes. On the back of the new chest was a metal flute. This rich lady from the church came in one day and told us she did not like the way that flute looked there, and that her “architect” said its pipes should also be gold. Roy had already programmed one of his famous silver flutes into the design of the rebuilt swell organ, so he said, “Well, we’ll just have to have a ‘gold flute,’ too.” So, First Presbyterian, Columbus, Georgia is the only organ I know of that has a “Flute D’Argent” and a “Flute D’Oro.”
Our last official job for Aeolian-Skinner was First Presbyterian in Laurel, Mississippi. The church’s original organ was an Austin, and we had maintained it for many years, which gave us reason to learn an entirely new vocabulary of curse words. Two attorneys in the church’s choir were the main ramrods for things getting accomplished in the church. They decided the organ needed to be refurbished in the late 1960s, and we did the job for Aeolian-Skinner. Because money was tight, we saved on costs by using some of the old chests, pipework and console, and by carrying out the project in two phases. Roy came down and decided which stops to keep and which ones to discard, and designed the rebuilt organ, which is a real knockout. Roy was fond of “Glockenspiel,” or “Carillon” mixtures, and wanted one in the Laurel organ. He said he needed it for playing what he called “hotchatooty” music. We had installed several of them in other organs. When we received the Carillon pipes from Aeolian-Skinner for the Laurel organ, the breaks were not to Roy and Jimmy’s specifications, so Jimmy called Gillet on it. Jimmy received a letter from Gillet, which said,
“Looking back through the files, I find that I personally set out the Glockenspiel, as I felt what we did with the breaks was more practical and logical than as suggested by you. As you can well understand, there can only be one tonal director in this company at one time. And, since we are not a supply house, I hardly consider my composition of the Glockenspiel to be a ‘goof’ on our part, as you mentioned over the phone several times. Please do let us know how this rebuild turns out on the tonal end.”
You never saw somebody run to the telephone as fast as J. C. Williams did! He called the company and said, “As of this minute, I resign. I am no longer associated with Aeolian-Skinner.” That statement about there only being one tonal director did it. He immediately called two job prospects that were ready to sign contracts with Aeolian-Skinner to let them know he had resigned, and explained the situation – that he would not be involved with the installation. This was 1969. Aeolian-Skinner lost those two contracts as a result.
The Laurel organ did turn out to be a brilliant success, and we eventually replaced all the old Austin chests. Madison Lindsey and Troy Scott carried out the final phase under our supervision, and “The Boys” now maintain it and do an excellent job. Madison and Troy were very good to Jimmy and me, and are good organ men. They were very receptive to learning from Jimmy, too, and they went along with us on many jobs. They do very high quality work, and they back up their work. Towards the end of our career, Jimmy and I had four jobs we were very concerned about – the “stars in our crown,” as it were. “The Boys” were able to take over all four, and that was a great relief to us – knowing the organs were in good hands.
LM: You had your own independent Williams Organ Company, too. Did you build your own Williams organs at the same time you were installing for Aeolian-Skinner?
NW: Yes, we built many organs on our own, separate from the company. That was our arrangement with the company from the very beginning. Jimmy wanted to remain independent, and did not want to limit us with an exclusive association. Aeolian-Skinner furnished most of our pipework in the beginning. Later on, when the company went down hill, we used Organ Supply and others. We built the organs and put our name on them, but never gave them opus numbers, so there isn’t an opus list.
LM: Wasn’t Aeolian-Skinner jealous of your Williams organs?
NW: They couldn’t afford to be. We were helping keep their doors open, so they were perfectly happy to help us. Mr. Harrison always said, “Whatever Williams wants, Williams gets. We want to keep this guy on our side.” Everything worked out smoothly for all of us.
LM: What were some of your Williams organ installations?
One was the one we built for Joseph Bramlett’s house in Malibu, California. Joseph was a close friend of Roy Perry’s, and was from Longview. We built his house organ in our shop in New Orleans, and figured it would take about three weeks to set it up in his home in Malibu. It took three MONTHS! We ended up having to cook and prepare for all of Joseph’s big parties, which were elaborate and full of famous stars, and want-to-be stars. Jerome Lawrence was Joseph’s next-door neighbor. He wrote “Inherit the Wind” and “Auntie Mame.” Anytime Joseph had someone famous coming over for dinner, he would invite Jerry for cocktails and dinner, and Jimmy and I would do all the shopping and cooking for them. Many times Jerry would bring over his star of the evening, too. Jean Arthur came to one of the parties, and so did Hermione Gingold. She enjoyed dinner so much she asked for a doggy bag “to take home for tomorrow.” We later found out that this was her specialty, asking for take-home so she would not have to cook the next day. There were many parties at Joseph’s, and that is why it took us three months, instead of three weeks, to set up the organ. We would be working on the organ, and Joseph would come in and say, “Oh, I’ve done something terrible. I have invited eighteen people over for dinner. What am I going to do?” So, we would have to stop work, go do all the shopping and then cook dinner for eighteen people.
We also built a nice little organ in an Episcopal church in Opelousas, LA. The rector of the church had been an assistant at St. Mark’s in Shreveport. When he took the job in Opelousas, the first thing he did was call Jimmy to say he had this new little church that had to have a pipe organ. J.C. and I stopped by, then went home and worked out a stoplist and layout, then built it – a little organ in its own freestanding case in the back of the church.
We got Bill Teague to come down and dedicate it for us. And, HONEY, we were buttoning up the bottom of the exposed Great chest while people started arriving at the church for the recital! We zipped out of there to get back to the motel, clean up, and change clothes. But, the first thing we had to do was have a drink of scotch to insulate ourselves. We didn’t get back to the church until after the intermission. Afterwards, we said to Bill, “Oh, that was a beautiful recital.” We never told him we had missed the entire first half.
We also built a nice little residence organ for William Teague, and a practice organ for Austin College, in Sherman, Texas. There is also a nice one at Christ Church, Tyler, Texas. Tommy Anderson made the pipes for that one. First Baptist Church in Shreveport is one of our largest organs. Jimmy was so carried away there that he started playing “give away.” He kept saying it would be so much nicer if the organ had this or that stop, so we would go ahead and add the stops to its design, thinking the church might pay for them. Jimmy said, “If my name is going to be on it, I want it to sound the best it can. If we get the money, that is great. If not, at least we can leave the job with a clear conscience.”
One of our biggest jobs was the rebuilding of the Walcker organ at the Cathedral in Merida, Mexico. Someone had donated an electronic organ to the seminary there, and a local Allen representative and a friend went down to install it. While they were there, this darling little priest named Padre Avila, from the Cathedral, showed up at the seminary and told them the organ at the Cathedral needed a lot of work, and asked if they could come repair it. They explained to Padre Avila that they were strictly electronic people and knew nothing about pipe organs, but they knew one of the best pipe organ builders in the United States in New Orleans. They gave Jimmy’s address to Padre Avila, who wrote us to come evaluate the Cathedral’s organ. So, off we went to Merida. We arrived to find all the blocks and key contacts in the console broken, and half the organ unplayable. We put a plan in place, and told the priest we could only work there in January, which is what we did. We ordered new contacts and other parts, and had them shipped down ahead of us, and soon enlisted Tommy Anderson and John Hendriksen to do pipework repair. The first thing you know, we were spending up to two months there at a time. We eventually replaced the console and added a 16’ Principal to the pedal, and now Tom Cotner has done a lot of work replacing the old chests. There is only so much work one can do in installments, and there is no one down there that knows a thing about maintenance. But, the townspeople love the organ, and they really respond to it any time we have a recital on it. They treat us like royalty.
LM: What do you think of the current state of organ building in this country?
NW: I heard a new organ at an AGO regional convention just last week, built by a builder who is all the rage. The façade was beautiful, with several different bays – very impressive visually. But, the organist made the mistake of turning it on. My ears are still ringing.
I know that styles and tastes change through the years, but I am so grateful that my work was in what I consider The Golden Age of organ building in this country. What I learned was the best. I do not appreciate these young twerps coming in and undoing our organs, either. Aeolian-Skinners are being pillaged all over the country, so much so that it is becoming difficult to find one that has not been tinkered with. I have recently learned that one of our installations in Abilene, Texas, is being completely rebuilt as we speak. Some of these organ builders are so jealous of Aeolian-Skinner, or do not understand them in the first place, that they are just waiting in the sidelines for the first opportunity to pounce upon them. They change the organs to fit their own tastes, and this just does not work. They cannot see beyond their own egos. However, whether the organs are rebuilt or not, I can still look back and appreciate the wonderful years and the work we did. I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.
“Published in the May 2006 issue of The Diapason (pp. 24-29). Copyright The Diapason. Reprinted with permission.”