Pipe dream! 70 year old has tended to worlds most famous wurlitzer organ in Blackpool tower ballroom of 37 years!

PIC BY IAIN WATTS/MERCURY PRESS 

Meet the 70-year-old who has spent nearly FOUR DECADES tending to one of the world’s most famous instruments – Blackpool Tower Ballroom’s iconic Wurlitzer organ.

Keeping the 89-year-old instrument in top condition has been a labour of love for Blackpool Tower’s pipe organ builder Keith Ledson, who has held the position for the last 37 years.

The married grandad-of-nine knows every one of the legendary instrument’s 1,022 pipes and 154 keys inside out – and claims he can even diagnose problems with the organ without even being present.

These newly-released archive shots show the famous Wurlizter – known throughout the world from the recordings of its designer, former Tower organist Reginald Dixon – over the years.

Dad-of-three Keith, from Greasby, Wirral, said: “I have held this job since 1979 when I was enlisted to help rebuild the Wurlitzer.

“It is 89 years old and it has been played more or less every day since then, which is remarkable. It must be played more than any other Wurlitzer in the world.

“It gets a really good bashing seven hours a day, seven days a week, so the biggest challenge I face maintaining it is time.

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“The best stop on the Wurlitzer is the Tower Ballroom itself. If you were to move this organ and put it somewhere else it would never sound the same, it is very special.

“It is nice to think we have the privilege of looking after this organ because it is probably the most famous Wurlitzer in the world. It makes me proud to know I am looking after it.

“I definitely have a personal affection for it and I feel quite sentimental about it. Now when I get a phone call to say there is a fault, I can normally diagnose what it is before I have even arrived, because I know this instrument that well.”

Blackpool Tower’s first Wurlitzer organ was installed in the Tower Ballroom in 1929 before it was replaced with the current organ in 1935.

The mighty organ‘s iconic white console, houses its 154 keys and 120 speaking stops which are used to control the 14 ranks of pipes which range in size from half an inch to 8ft.

The console is able to rise up onto Blackpool Tower Ballroom’s stage on command and is still played by current resident organist Phil Kelsall almost continuously – for up to seven hours a day, seven days a week.

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In December 1956 the Tower Ballroom was severely damaged in a blaze and the famous sprung dancefloor destroyed, but somehow the Wurlitzer escaped almost unscathed with only the console damaged and the pipework and chambers untouched.

The organ operates on two pipe pressures – 10 and 15 inches – compared to the three inches usually used by a church organ.

Keith said this unusual design gives the organ its rich and distinctive tones which are now known throughout the world.

Each January Keith has two weeks while the ballroom is closed for the end of the season in which to give the instrument some serious TLC and in some cases a complete overhaul.

Every year the organ‘s console is stripped down with the delicate sheepskin and leather internal parts such as motors, rakes and bellows replaced and the instrument has undergone two major restorations over the last three years.

Keith’s wife Anne, 70, taught him to read music and he admits he does enjoy the odd tinkle on the Wurlitzer himself – although he will never play in public.

He said: “I don’t play well and I will never play in public – I am more practical than musical – but I do play to hear it.

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“I play popular music, stuff like The Carpenters. I didn’t use to be able to play but it was part of my job so my wife taught me to read music, she was a good pianist in her time.

“Now we even have an organ at home, given to us by Phil Kelsall.

“The Wurlitzer story started on the Wirral, where I am from. Everyone goes on about the Beatles but the Wurlitzer sound was way before the Beatles, and it all started in Merseyside.

“The only thing the Wurlitzer and a church organ have in similar is that the sound comes out of pipes.”

Keith’s four-decade career has seen him work on organs at famous landmarks including York Minster and Cairo Cathedral.

And he has admitted that despite passing retirement age, the 70-year-old has no plans to put his feet up for retired life just yet.

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Keith said: “I am still working, I am pretty fit and I have no plans to retire but obviously I can’t go on forever. Who knows what the future holds.”

Kenny Mew, general manager at The Blackpool Tower, said: “The Wurlitzer is the ‘pièce de résistance’ of The Blackpool Tower Ballroom. Thousands of people flock from across the country to see it in action every year.

“It is a fundamental part of Blackpool’s history which has led to it being used practically seven days a week for more than 80 years after its first performance.

“As with any object of historical significance, the Wurlitzer requires tender care which we at The Blackpool Tower administer every January to keep this legendary instrument accessible to members of the public. It is our ambition to maintain it for generations to come.”