B3 backer: Melvin loves his Hammond

With Charlottesville's diverse music venues– think Scott Stadium, then think the Tea Bazaar– you need only walk the length of the Downtown Mall to hear everything from hard rock to hymn singing.

But to truly sample all of the town's musical offerings, you have to know where to look. Here's a hint: Fellini's No. 9. That's one of the many venues where George Melvin, an R&B pianist and Hammond organist, regularly performs.

Former New Yorker Peter Brooks, who admits to "spending more time than I should seeking out good jazz pianists," first heard Melvin at the Boar's Head Inn. He was hooked.

"My wife and I used to sit there and listen to him play for hours," says Brooks. "He just has such great style."

Although he wasn't born into a musical family, Melvin has been an avid musician for as long as he can remember. He started out playing piano in his father's Pentecostal church in Danville.

"Then I distinctly remember hearing the sound of [B3 Hammond organist] Jimmy Smith in 1960, and I purchased the album right away," the self-taught musician recalls. "I worked as a shoeshine boy and did some cleaning jobs until I was 17 and could afford to buy my own B3. At that time, they went for about $3,600."

Today, at 59, Melvin is still dedicated to the B3. But not everyone shares his organ ardor.

"The popularity of the B3 has decreased in the past few decades because of the influx of synthesized keyboards," Melvin explains. "So in recent years, I've been playing more piano than organ."

One contributing factor is the B3's physical bulk. The average weight of 250 pounds makes transport difficult.

"Money is another inhibitor for people wanting to learn," Melvin says. "I was extremely fortunate to have found a mentor who I worked with, but not a lot of organists have that opportunity.

"There's never been a time since they were invented when B3's haven't been played," he says, "and they've made somewhat of a comeback these past four to six years."

Melvin wants to do his part to keep the instrument alive. He's working on his sixth album, scheduled for release in early 2006.

"I'm trying to spread the word that the B3 is alive and kicking in Charlottesville," he says. "Ideally, what I'd like to do is find a young, energetic person and mentor him or her as an organist, just like my mentor did for me. It's a dying art form, so I want to pass on what I know to someone who shares my love for it."

George Melvin