David Michael Lee
I began playing whatever I could get my hands on at the age of three. At five years I was playing my Mom’s organ lessons by ear. She eventually talked her teacher into taking me as a student in 1968.
This wasn’t just any organ teacher. Phillip Raboin had accompanied silent movies from 1925 to 1933 in many of the well-known theaters of the time, and authored seven books on the organ. In 1945 Phil was asked to bring his Hammond organ into the Washington State Capital rotunda to perform. Governor Walgren created the position of State Organist. Phil performed 12-2pm weekdays - an engagement that lasted until 1978. Raboin played for the radio program ‘Out Of The Night’ from the Capital building broadcast over the United States and Radio Free Europe from 1945 to 1952.
By 1968 I’d been playing for five years. Fortunately, Phil didn’t want to discourage my passion for performing and proceeded to build on it by “filling in the holes” in my technique and introducing notation and theory along side our studies. By ear, I learned silent movie accompaniment and the songs taught to him by Mrs. Koll, who had played piano for silent films in the teens.
Entertaining the general public was the constant objective of our studies. Theatre organists Jessie Crawford, Reginald Foort, Sydney Torch and George Wright were emulated. So too were Fats Waller and Benny Goodman. We covered Operatic Music, Ragtime, and Popular Music from 1900 to present day.
The techniques I learned from Phil at the Hammond organ provided me with a wonderful foundation for improvisation, composition and arranging throughout my career. Surprisingly, the keyboard technique transferred well to piano when I later studied classical piano with Ann Miller at Lewis & Clark College and jazz piano with Gene Confer in Portland, Oregon.
In 1969 Phil introduced me to Andy Crow. Andy owned the Olympic Theater in Olympia, Washington. This would be my first exposure to a real theatre pipe organ. Andy performed the song “High Hat.” I played a few songs, and was hooked. Andy, a world-class organist, became a dear friend and mentor. In 1973 The Organ Grinder was about to open which coincided with the American Theatre Organ Society National Convention in Portland. Andy took me around to the events. One of our stops was Bob Rickett’s house Wurlitzer organ. Jerry Forchuck, one of the owners of the Organ Grinder, was in the room and my performance became a successful audition.
I became one of four staff organists at The Organ Grinder in October at the age of 14. A pretty heady job - KOIN TV did a feature that Walter Cronkite picked up, and I did a live KEX radio talk show. Friday and Saturdays from 5-9pm was my schedule. No one coddled me. Because of the crowds (2000 people each night) we played 15 minute sets. 15 minutes on with a 5 minute break throughout the evening. Each set consisted of a big opening song, a short silent movie accompanied at the organ, a mechanical monkey bit played to The Stars and Stripes Forever, the bubble machine, pop hit songs, lighting effects controlled by the organist, and a big finale.
Everything Phil Raboin taught me went to good use.
In 1976 I produced a solo album recorded at the Organ Grinder. I wanted this album to be accessible to the general public and my high school friends, not just for theatre organ enthusiasts. I brought in a studio session drummer. The first song was piano and drums. “Send in the Clowns” seemed like a song with lasting power (It sure was). Elton John, Paul McCartney and Alice Cooper songs were included, and The Theme from The Exorcist with studio added “Phase Shifter.” The album did pretty well and I got some radio airplay in Seattle and Great Britain.
After High School I moved to the Seattle area and Big Bob’s Pipe Dream Restaurant in Burien where I could perform with my drummer friend John Howard on a 4/34 Wurlitzer and a Steinway concert grand.
In 1979 I helped open Uncle Milt’s Pizza in Vancouver, Washington. I performed at Milt’s off and on through 1994.
I’m currently wading back into theatre pipe organ after decades playing piano exclusively. My 1976 album has been digitally remixed and the CD will be rereleased in December 2019 on iTunes and other sites.
Phil accompanying a silent film at The Liberty Theatre, Hoquiam, Washington.
Phil Raboin at the Washington State Rotunda 1948.
Phil with Governor Walgren and President Harry Truman 1948. Phil played for Harry, Bess and Margaret Truman. President Truman also played the Hammond.
Me, aged 9 at The Olympic Theatre, Olympia WA
Organ Grinder 1973