By Gordon Cotton/The Vicksburg Post
VICKSBURG – His favorite song changes from time to time, but if you hear Richard Ahlvin at the organ chances are you’ll hear “Misty.”
“I just love that song,” he said.
About the only time he doesn’t play it is on Sunday mornings when he sticks to the hymn book standards at Lighthouse Baptist Church. On weekends he plays at Jacques’ Cafe in the Park, inside Battlefield Inn.
He picked music up by himself when he was 8 or 9 – “with a bit of guidance from Mrs. Hanley.” He later took lessons from Cordelia Emerson who played piano for the Willie Hoffman School of Dance. She showed him chords, “so I didn’t have to read all the dots on the music. I could play what they now call fake music, or lead sheets.”
On the piano, he said, you can start, stop or play at any speed.
In 1964 – he thinks that’s the date – he bought a Hammond organ, liked it and kept playing it.
One of the major differences between the two instruments, the piano and organ, is that the organ has no sustain, or, “in other words, if you play a key on the organ, it makes a sound, and if you let go, the sound immediately quits.
“A piano has a sustain pedal. You hit a note and it sings for a while. An organ doesn’t work like that. Also a piano has one keyboard, and an organ usually has several. The piano has 88 keys, the organ 61 with five octaves, though there are some exceptions. More than one keyboard provides a variety of sounds that are instantly available.”
There’s a seven-manual keyboard organ in Atlantic City, but the largest Ahlvin has played is a four-manual in the Alabama Theater in Birmingham where he once played it for 30 minutes – “and it sounded great.”
He doesn’t just play organs. Ahlvin has expanded to other areas, mainly the mechanical side. He had to learn to repair them “because you can’t find anyone to work on them, so I learned to repair by trial and error and having to.” As a sideline he makes service calls, working with a friend in Jackson.
Their current project is repairing the 80-year-old organ at the Presbyterian church in Port Gibson. They’ve been at it one day a week for several months, making some parts and only charging for those they have to purchase. The church tried to get someone from the company that made the organ to repair it but had no success. That’s why a lot of pipe organs aren’t used, Ahlvin said. Either there is no one who can play them or no one to repair them.
“We’re just fixing it” – with chewing gum, he said – “not rebuilding. Most of the organ, even the leather, is original.”
He considers the work and results rewarding “because the instrument is in better shape and the organist is happy.”
“We call it having fun,” he said.
His interest in the organ really began by hearing musicians at local restaurants, especially the late Al Marble, who played at Tuminello’s. Ahlvin has also played there and at the original location of the Old Southern Tea Room, at the Rivertown Club, the Holiday Inn, in the restaurant on the Sprague and several times, off and on, at the Magnolia where he got his start in the bar and lounge and graduated to the dining room.
The noises of a restaurant don’t bother him, he said, because “you’re not in concert. You’re providing background music.”
He has also played “in just about every dive and dump around.”
When he played at the Magnolia, he would leave there and ride down the highway to The Sportsman’s Inn, “a real redneck place,” and join the band there. He always wore a tux and fancy shirt – “as kind of a signature” – and fortunately the people there knew him. A beer-truck driver who played the drums moved Ahlvin’s organ for him.
At Jacques’, he plays requests and relies on his repertoire, which is a few hundred songs, and you can expand that number two or three times with those he can pick out by ear – he plays by both ear and music. He has a sheet with song titles, “but if the song gets kind of complicated, has a lot of chords in it, I’ll put the music up there.”
He credits his mother with a lot of his musical taste.
“I’m kind of a product of the ’40s. My mother collected the records of the songs of that day. She came up in Joliet, Ill., in the Chicago area, where they had performers like Glenn Miller for their dances. I took a liking to the music from listening to those records.”
There have been times, he said, when he’s gone blank because he can’t think about one song while playing another.
There have been times when “you start playing along on automatic, and suddenly I don’t know what I’m playing. I don’t know what key I’m in the middle of playing, so I can’t stop. So you either make a mess or recover.”
Ahlvin, 67, was born in Detroit where his father was stationed in World War II and moved to Vicksburg in 1949 when he was 5. He went to school at Bowmar, Halls Ferry, Carr Central, Cooper, then to Mississippi State University. Playing the organ has been a hobby and sideline, he said. His career was in military ground mobility, which is “predicting whether or not a vehicle can go or not. You don’t want to send them out and get stuck in the mud.”
His love, though, is playing the organ. He plays for church, for parties and you can hear him in the dining room at Jacques’ on Friday nights starting or Saturday nights when he plays “until the crowd goes away, or until karaoke in the bar takes over. If it’s too loud, I give up.”