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Barry Morgan has vivid memories of the first organ he ever heard. “I think it blew my hair back, and it's never recovered. Like, it really did. It was like listening to a whole orchestra in a way.”
It’s a revelation that has stayed with Morgan (the alter-ego of musician and storeowner Stephen Teakle) throughout his life and given rise to the stage persona that has made him an unlikely hit around the country and on TV shows such as Spicks and Specks . But he is outraged when I ask him if the character of Barry Morgan – the safari-suited purveyor of vintage organs with the sparkling grin – is a gimmick. “Oh my goodness! It’s all real: the hair, the moustache, the shop… With Barry, what you see is what you get.”
The king of organ kitsch runs his store, Barry Morgan’s World of Organs, out of Adelaide’s Sunnyside Mall, where he also shops for his ubiquitous safari suits. His obsession with the electric household variety of organ began in childhood, when he was introduced to the Lowery Teenie Genie model. More than three decades later, Morgan’s debut instrumental album The Touch of You, to be launched on the Perambulator label on June 22, is “dedicated to the 1981 Hammond Aurora Classic”.
How did this self-styled “daggy” travelling organ salesman become one of Adelaide’s favourite sons and a celebrity mascot for 1970s shag-carpet retro?
Firstly, he’s not a sleazy car salesman: he’s championing a musical underdog. “It's the ugly-duckling of the instrument world, in a way, really, next to the piano accordion, which I call the ‘devil’s backpack’. In some ways, that's the coal of the fire of the furnace of hell. And the organ is the surrounds, right there, flaming away. But in the hands of those that can operate it, it's pretty cool: the exceptional reggae and rock organists. It's been in everywhere. It's been in all the groovy scenes but at the same time it's in the real tacky scenes.” (Morgan points out that even Adelaide had a local organ hero: the great showman Barry Hall.)
Then there’s the DIY ease of playing his instrument: his organ demos with their disarming one-finger method (“Any finger will do – it’s entirely up to you, and then you’ve got the other hand free for sipping on Campari!”) have become the backbone of his theatre shows and his album, a heady mix of bossa, waltz, two-step and rock ‘n’ roll. “Most of the melodies that I have composed on The Touch of You, you could play with one finger.
“In some ways, the organ is the precursor to the DJ box. Really, like when you look at iPads these days, the different apps and software programs where you push the mouse and click that on and then you turn that off and then you pan that to the left and all that sort of stuff – you can do that on an organ. So, in some ways, it's a step back to a time before those boxes, but that's what the kids are doing these days.”
In fact, since his Spicks and Specks appearances Morgan has become a cult icon for young audiences, leading to performances at the Homebake and Falls festivals, where he attracted an unlikely but very appreciative crowd and a new audience for his old-school Hammond. “The kids have gone crazy for it. It's like they're longing for a period of time before they existed – there's a real yearning for them. People come to me and say, ‘Look, I didn't know anything about it, but my 17-year-old son just thinks you're groovy.’”
Morgan is slightly bemused about his newfound celebrity status. “There are 20-year-old young men professing their love to Barry on Facebook. Barry's been photographed kissing babies like a politician, and he’s had photographs taken with four generations – you know, great-great-grandaughter, grandaughter, daughter, grandmother.
“My biggest problem is taking all the organs on the road. If I could have an ideal scenario, I'd take a 10-tonne truck and I could have the Hammond, the Baldwin, the Lowriey the Farfisa, the Casio. And I’d play a couple tunes on each one and demonstrate that uniqueness and that kitsch.”
They may be cumbersome to travel with, but at least “there’s no arguing with the drummer, and the guitarist never steals your girlfriend. Not that I’ve got a girlfriend…”
Underneath the Barry Morgan shtick, what has captivated audiences worldwide is his unapologetic passion for the instruments. “That smile and all that cheesiness… That's all fantastic and that's what's reeled people in. But for me, I'm quite fascinated by these machines.
“I'm very excited about playing the organ. And I'm constantly surprised at what my fingers can do; what the instrument can do.”