By Bob Mehr | April 13th, 2016
For Winston Eggleston, his obsession with the Mellotron — the keyboard-based sampling instrument — began with the Beatles.
"As a kid, I was obsessed with the song 'Strawberry Fields.' I knew every part of it, and as soon as I figured out that flute at the beginning was not actually a flute but a Mellotron, I became fascinated by what they were," says Eggleston. "I'd hear other songs and wonder what certain weird sounds were — and it always turned out to be a Mellotron. It's just got that haunting quality that I was drawn to. I'd always fantasize about maybe eventually having my own."
These days, Eggleston — son of the famed photographer William Eggleston, and manager of the Eggleston Artistic Trust — is a collector and builder of Mellotrons, and owns a half-dozen of the instruments. This weekend, part of Eggleston's collection will be used in a concert called "Duets for Mellotron" at Crosstown Arts. Musicians Robby Grant (Big Ass Truck, Vending Machine, Mouserocket) and Memphis Symphony Orchestra cellist Jonathan Kirkscey will perform a set of original compositions and cut a live record as part of the event.
The show — which will also feature visual/video accompaniment from Eggleston and John Markham — sold out its originally planned one-off Saturday performance, resulting in the addition of a second concert Sunday night.
In the late 1940s, Harry Chamberlin invented the first keyboard-style sampling machine using pre-recorded tapes of various musical instruments and effects. These "Chamberlains," which began production a couple of years later, were the forerunners of modern samplers. In the '60s, an associate of Chamberlin took the concept overseas to a British electronics company with the thought of developing the technology further. The resulting Mellotron would soon become a staple of the era's pop music, made famous by the Beatles, The Moody Blues, Pink Floyd, Yes, Genesis and Led Zeppelin, among many others. Locally, Beatles-influenced Ardent Studios owner John Fry became the first to purchase a Mellotron in Memphis, and the instrument was used to notable effect by cult rockers Big Star (and later revived for recordings at the Midtown studio by R.E.M. and others.).
With the arrival of the first digital samplers in the 1980s, like the Fairlight, the Mellotron began to fall out of favor. By the middle of the decade, further technological advances in samplers and synthesizers had effectively put Mellotron makers on both sides of the Atlantic out of business.
After gaining in retro cachet for a couple of decades, Mellotron manufacturing was relaunched in the '00s by a Swedish-Canadian company that acquired the rights to the name, original tape sounds and patents. Eggleston soon ordered one for himself. "They custom make them, so it took a few years to get it," he says. "Then I wanted to get an original one — which I did. From there, I just kept getting deeper into them." His collection would eventually come to include six full-scale analog Mellotrons, both new and vintage, and a pair of smaller digital versions.
"For me, the Mellotron recordings just have this wonderfully bizarre characteristic or quality," Eggleston says. "You can have a recording of someone playing a flute, but when you hear that in a succession of notes, the way it comes out doesn't sound like a flute, it sounds distinctly like a Mellotron."
Though not really a musician himself, Eggleston has long been a musical tinkerer and technician — having built high-end stereo systems for his older brother's former company EgglestonWorks, and developed his own guitar amplifiers. Last year, Eggleston ordered the inner workings of a Mellotron from another British company, Streetly Electronics, with the idea of hand-crafting a singular ebony and Padauk wood keyboard and cabinet.
After completing the project, Eggleston asked his friend Grant to test out his work. "Winston wanted to film a video for the guys in England that sent him the (electronics)," Grant says. "He asked me to come do a demo for him. I went over there and played it, and it was cool. I said, 'Well, you built this beautiful thing, what are you gonna do with it now?'"
The idea for a Mellotron concert was hatched quickly.
"It evolved from me maybe doing house concert at Winston's place to more of a public event," Grant says. "Now we're calling this the world's first Mellotron duet project and Mellotron album. We looked and couldn't come up with anything like this that's been done before. If you search online, there's a lot of Mellotron demos, but nothing quite like the (culture) of records or performances that you have with other instruments, like the Moog synthesizer." (A fine 2008 documentary on the Mellotron, called "Mellodrama," did include a soundtrack featuring some original material.)
Grant has performed similar conceptual concerts in recent years as a member of improvisational multimedia project >mancontrol<, a pairing with Dave Shouse of The Grifters. This time, he and another longtime foil, cellist Kirkscey, will be performing a selection of original, specially composed Mellotron material.
"We've got a couple of longer pieces, some stuff that Jonathan has written for cello that can be recreated easily, and some poppier pieces that I have," Grant says. "Also we've come up with some stuff that's designed to play to the Crosstown space and the (accompanying visual show). The music goes from dark and moody to whimsical and fun. The whole range of sounds that the Mellotron can create."
Tickets for Sunday's "Duets for Mellotron" show are currently available at eventbrite.com. The recording of the concerts will come out in the fall as a vinyl/digital release. Tickets for the show are $15 or $30, which includes a copy of the LP.
Although his Mellotrons are heavy, delicate and cumbersome to move, Eggleston hopes he'll get another opportunity to showcase his passion. "I mean, I've spent all this time getting my hands on these or building them," he says, "so it's great to actually hear them come alive."