The Musitron

The complete Musitron as it looked in 1961

Max Crook's claim to fame: The infamous Musitron organ. Conceived and developed by Crook himself, Max created this hybrid synthesizer in 1959, two years before having the big hit "Runaway" he co-shared with Del Shannon.

Max developed the Musitron out of a variety of musical instruments and other electronic and electric devices. The initial keyboard is a clavioline, a french organ developed by Constant Martin in 1947. The clavioline is very similar in sound to that of the ondioline, developed by Georges Jenny, also of France. Crook created the Musitron by incorporating the majority of the clavioline, but being an electronics genius, Max was able to further enhance the clavioline by expanding the octave range to infinity (beyond human hearing). He inserted extra resistors, pots, and capacitors. The clavioline also lacked reverb. It was a dry sounding monophonic organ. Crook developed a spring echo reverberation unit custom-built from garden gate springs and other mechanical parts to create an echo chamber which, though crude, produced an amazing and natural echo sound resembing the acoustics of a tile-plated bathroom. As years passed, Crook replaced his garden gate spring echo with a Fisher Spacexpander Reverberation Unit which would become the standard for use in Hammond organs, especially their B-3 units.

The Fisher Dynamic Spacexpander used for echo

Max added many outboard effects to the Musitron. Mechanical vibrato was achieved and an A.D.C. motor driven eccentric cam was included to add a 'vibrating' volume control, most recognized on the Del Shannon "Runaway" B-side, "Jody." This was a forerunner to electronic vibrato circuits which became more common in years to follow.

The Musitron's internal components

Max Crook cannibalized tubes and valves from vacuum cleaners and television sets to further his modifications on what would become the Musitron. Max ripped apart a Viking "85" 1959 reel-ro-reel tape recorder that he had possession of in order to establish a tape delay to enhance the Musitron's sound and range. This tape delay was used to expand the echo and sound on Del Shannon's demonstration recording of "Honey Bee" in 1960 and on the Bigtop Records Top 30 hit "So Long Baby" in 1961. The Viking tape recorder was a multi-head unit that Crook was able to modify into a slapback unit, thus creating a working prototype echophonic tape slap repeat unit that preceded the now-commercial Echoplex and DanEcho units. Crook used an accordian amplifier produced by Gibson Corporation to get the warm tube sound he wanted for the Musitron. Further electronic parts were used from stoves to create pitch-bending devices. Crook used other parts from Viking reel-to-reel tape recorders and inserted into the Musitron's keyboard backing to produce saw-toothed sounds, and a very cool "Bumble Bee Hum" which he demonstrated on a 1959 demo recording of "Bumble Boogie." The humming was very hip and was presented to Berry Gordy before Motown became Motown. Gordy passed on the recording but did like Max's organ.

The Musitron Keyboard in 2001

Max has been very secretive about the Musitron for the past four decades. He's more open to tell about his modifications these days, but in the early 60's contests were held across the country to guess what on earth that instrument was that was playing in the middle of "Runaway" and the follow-up hits. Unfortunately, Max was never able to patent the Musitron, namely because the majority of components used for it's construction were already patented products. But Max has been able to retain the secrets of the Musitron for more than four decades now.

Max Crook's sound became so incredibly influential that Joe Meek toyed with a clavioline. The result, Britain's first #1 Pop hit Stateside with "Telstar," recorded by The Tornados. Crook also influenced The Marvelettes. Berry Gordy was all over the Musitron sound. Give a listen sometime to the Marvelettes album "Please Mr. Postman." It is drenched with the Musitron sound. In 1962, a black doo-wop group called The Chaperones used the Musitron saw-toothed sound for the instrumental break in their "Man From The Moon" recording, released on Jubilee Records. Others included Bill Ramal's MGM album "Reel Favorites," a clavioline-laden album of movie themes of the era, circa 1963. Ennio Morricone, famous for his musical scores on the Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns (including the unforgetable "The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly"), used the Musitron sound for his 1967 film "Grand Slam" - a song titled "Ad Ogni Costo," italian for "At Any Cost." He used the organ sound further for the theme in "A Fistful of Dynamite" (aka "Duck You Sucker") which starred James Coburn.

Max playing the Musitron in his home studio in 2001

Max's recordings continued to inspire many musicians over the years. As "Maximilian," Crook had two instrumental compositions break the Top 40 in Canada in 1962, "The Twistin' Ghost" and "Greyhound" respectfully received heavy airplay in Toronto on radio CHUM Canada. Max's recording of "The Snake" from 1961 was a hit in Argentina of all places, where it still receives airplay on radio stations to this day! Roy Wood of the Electric Light Orchestra (ELO for short) was very influenced in the 70's by Crook's early pioneering synth work. The Euro band 'Kilopop!' had a Top 5 hit with "Sky Men" in France, a cover of the Geoffrey Goddard composition (Goddard played the clavioline on "Telstar"). Although an ondioline was used by 'Kilopop!' for their recording, the influence is most certainly noticable. Britain's Adam Faith ripped off the Musitron sound too in "Don't You Know It" and other songs. John Barry was totally inspired by Max Crook's work on Del Shannon's hits. Barry used a clavioline on his recordings of "Rocco's Theme," "Spinnerree," "Moody River," "Starfire," Rum-Dee-Dum-Dee-Dah," "Watch Your Step," and "Twist It." The latter two songs featured a great trilling work, which Adam Faith adopted soon thereafter. Some found the over-usage of the clavioline annoying, but many considered the work grand. Max Crook paved the way for many instrumental and vocal artists. He was the leader in the synthesized sound. The "Lost In Space" television show also featured lifts resembling Crook's work. The theme song had obvious rip-offs of the "Runaway" solo. Alex North, who composed the score for the motion picture "Spartacus," introduced America to the ondioline, an instrument similar to the clavioline. Kai Winding made "More" (the Theme to Mondo Caine) a huge instrumental smash with Claus Ogerman on the ondioline, but Crook had secured the 'sound' years earlier in "Runaway," "Hats Off To Larry," and so on. Unbelievably, Max Crook also influenced Jean-Jacques Perrey, who became a major composer later on with Moog recordings. Max became one of the first owners of the Moog organ (used for compositions such as "Popcorn" by the group 'Hot Butter').

Max Crook played with some of rocks greatest stars: Del Shannon, Brian Hyland, Liberace, Roy Orbison, Jackie Wilson, Jerry Lee Lewis, etc. He has such diverse recorded compositions, ranging from pop standards a la Lawrence Welk and Henry Mancini songs to rock and roll, R & B, C & W, Christian, Gospel, and more. But Max Crook will always be known for his work in Runaway and for his three legged creature, the Musitron.

Max playing the Musitron on stage in 2001


Copyright 1998-2007 Max Crook, Backdraft Music. All Rights Reserved. The borrowing of verbiage and pictures is permissable provided credit to the source is made and a link to is established.