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Space Age Music Maker

Paul Tanner

  • Born 15 October 1917, Skunk Hollow, Kentucky

Paul Tanner contributed one of the great space age pop musical moments, the climactic point in Brian Wilson's masterpiece, the Beach Boys' legendary hit "Good Vibrations," when that most beloved of all space age pop instruments, the theremin, kicks in with its own other-worldly vibrations.

Oddly enough, Tanner was not really a theremin player and what he played on "Good Vibrations" wasn't even a genuine theremin. Tanner was actually best known as a trombone player, and one of his first jobs was playing in Glenn Miller's band. Miller hired Tanner as one of his first band members, and Tanner played with Miller through his great success prior to World War Two and joined the Army Air Corps in 1942 to stay with Miller. After the war, he remained in the band as it was led by Tex Beneke, playing alongside Henry Mancini, among others.

Like Mancini and many others, the waning of the big bands and too many nights on the road led him to seek the security of studio work. Tanner moved to Los Angeles and was one of the early members of the staff of ABC television. A favorite player of many studio composers, he often played with Mancini, Rugolo, Neal Hefti, and Nelson Riddle for both soundtracks and their more occasional live performances.

Tanner became interested in the theremin in 1958, when he played on Ray Heindorf's re-recording of the score to Hitchcock's film, "Spellbound." Dr. Samuel Hoffmann, then the leading theremin player, performed on the soundtrack (as well as on the original score). Tanner saw the difficulties Hoffmann had with the instrument, which had no set positions from which Hoffman could take his cue. He kept relying on Tanner to provide a note to tune from, and this lead Tanner to consider if there was another way to produce the sounds of the theremin without having to master the subtleties of positioning hands around its two antennas.

He came up with a device about the size of an orange crate, which had a lead that extended out over a series of contacts. This arrangement allowed Tanner to hit a single note precisely, but also to slide it up and down across the contacts to produce the theremin's trademark glissandos. Bob Whitsell designed and built the unit with the assistance of Joe Rozar, based on Tanner's concept.

Technically, the instrument was NOT a theremin, but Tanner didn't get much time to work out a better name, for hours after he finished tinkering with his first machine, he was playing it for an album, Music for Heavenly Bodies, released by the small West Coast label Omega, and the producers dubbed it the "electro-theremin." The Hollywood musician's union local called it a theremin for lack of a better name when they listed it as one of Tanner's instruments, and pretty soon, producers came to associate Tanner with that "woo-ooo-ooo" spacey sound of the theremin. He eventually revised the design from a circular layout to a linear one and Whitsell again built a unit for him.

Over the next few years, Tanner played this second instrument for a variety of sessions. Frank Comstock used it for his score to the television series, "The D.A.'s Man," and for his now highly-collectible album, Project Comstock: Music From Outer Space. He also provided many of the sound effects associated with Ray Walston's title character in the series, "My Favorite Martian."

When Brian Wilson wanted to bring in a theremin player for "Good Vibrations," Tanner got the call, perhaps simply because he was the only one Wilson's musical contractor could think of. Ironically, despite his theremin's place in musical history, Tanner eventually donated it to a Los Angeles area hospital for them to use for hearing tests.

While working for ABC and doing sessions, Tanner became a member of the music faculty at UCLA, where he completed his masters. He went on to receive his PhD in Music from USC. He taught courses in jazz and jazz performance for 23 years, and wrote several academic books on jazz, including Jazz, one of the basic college textbooks on the subject, now in its 8th edition. Tanner has also written several memoirs, including "Every Night Was New Year's Eve," about life in the Miller band, and "Conversations with a Musician," about his experiences as a session player.

For more information about Paul Tanner and the "electro-theremin," check out The Paul Tanner Electro-Theremin Page.


  • Music for Heavenly Bodies, Omega OSL-4

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