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The Mighty BurnerCopyright © 1999The Scotsman, 1999
Earland, CharlesCharles Earland started out as a saxophone player, but made his name with his fiery soul-jazz stylings on the Hammond B-3 organ. Earland, who suffered a fatal heart attack after a performance in Kansas City, later turned to jazz-funk fusion and more pop-oriented directions as well, but will be remembered for his powerful contribution to the style pioneered by the likes of Jimmy Smith and Earland's first major employer, Jimmy McGriff.
He began his musical education in high school in Philadelphia, playing alto saxophone in a school band which also featured guitarist Pat Martino, saxophonist Lew Tabackin and the soon to be pop star Frankie Avalon, then an aspiring trumpeter.
He attended Temple University in the city, then joined Jimmy McGriff's band as a saxophonist. He became increasingly enamoured of the leader's Hammond organ sound, and began, in his own words, "to doodle around with his Hammond on the intermissions at gigs". The next step was to teach himself to play the instrument, then to form his own organ trio in 1963 in the classic soul jazz format of the day, with his former schoolmate, Pat Martino, on guitar, and drummer Bobby Durham.
The style was well-established by the early 1960s, and Earland drew on the example of players like McGriff, Jimmy Smith, Les McCann, Jack McDuff, Don Patterson, Larry Young and Richard 'Groove' Holmes. If he was not an innovator, he succeeded in finding his own distinctive sound and direction within the form, distinguished by a swinging but aggressive attack and a fluent, linear approach which was influenced by his background on the saxophone he had set aside, although he would occasionally break out the horn in later years.
He joined saxophonist Lou Donaldson in 1968, and played a crucial role in some of Donaldson's highly respected releases for Blue Note Records. His early recordings as a leader, like Soul Crib for Choice Records in 1969, were cut for small labels, but led to a contract with the better-established Prestige Records. There, he was able to call on musicians like Lee Morgan, Joe Henderson, and Freddie Hubbard, and launched his account with what became his classic album, Black Talk!
The album was a commercial as well as musical success, and brought him a hit single in the shape of a his own adaptation of a pop hit of the day, 'More Today Than Yesterday'. It was a precursor to arrangements of other such tunes, including versions of 'Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head', 'Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?', and 'We've Only Just Begun'.
After cutting eight albums for Prestige, he moved to another notable jazz independent, Muse, then recorded for major labels Columbia and Mercury.
The Hammond slipped from fashion for a time in the 1970s, and Earland switched to synthesizers, and embraced the jazz-funk direction of the day, evident on the more ambitious psychedelic-soul groove of Leaving This Planet in 1973. He also worked with his wife, singer Sheryl Kendrick, in collaborations which moved more into the pop and disco fields, but her death in 1985 from sickle-cell anaemia hit the organist hard, and he gave up music entirely for a time.
He was coaxed out of retirement in 1988, a period which coincided with a renewal of interest in the whole soul jazz field amongst a new young audience in the clubs, and began to record again as well as touring and playing live. He suffered a heart attack in 1991, but bounced back with no perceptible loss of the fire and groove-power which won him his nickname, The Mighty Burner.
He is survived by his second wife, Sheila Earland, and three children.