Vox Electronic Organs
Vox began life as “The Jennings Organ Company”, producing home and church organs. So despite their huge notoriety as a major amp manufacturer, their roots were actually in organs. They were incorporated as “Jennings Musical Industries”, or JMI in 1957. The “Vox” name was being used on amps at least as early as 1958. Dave Linsell kindly provided the scan at left, of a 1959 Jennings Organ ad in the British publication, “Musical Opinion”. Probably Jennings’ first “portable” keyboard instrument was the Univox (the model J10 is shown here). Usually assumed to be the instrument used on The Tornados’ “Telstar” (although it may actually have been a Clavioline, but that’s another story), it was born in the very early 1950’s. It’s been called the predecessor to the Continental, but the two really have little in common other than their origin.
Contrary to popular belief, the Univox is NOT a Clavioline. Derek Underdown tell it in his own words:
“The Clavioline keyboard was on the UK market before the Univox.. Clavioline originated in France and was imported for the British market by the UK/French company “Selmer” (based in Charing Cross road, London). Their main product were woodwind & brass instrument sales. They were not really into electronic products though the Clavioline was a good product. It was also expensive.
Tom Jennings saw the market potential and already had a good slice of the keyboard sales for accordions etc. Tom found a local electronic engineer, Les. Hills, who studied the Clavioline and designed another circuit different to the existing French patent. Unfortunately the product was not at all reliable, with most units breaking down almost as soon as they got to the end customer. Some of this problem was due to instability in the earlier circuit design but mostly due to choice of suitable components and mechanical shortcomings.
Les had only been employed for the circuit design. The mechanics having been cobbled together by the accordion service men at the time. I was head hunted by Tom to sort out the reliability problems. This took a few months of circuit, component testing plus improvements to the mechanics. This was in 1951 period.
In about 1951/1952 the Univox took off in a big way due to its competitive price and Tom’s country wide marketing program. The first version was the J6, single keyboard model, later followed by the J10 with two rows of Tone & effect tabs. All models were supplied with metal screw-on clips, to fasten it under the right hand side of a piano. Later we designed an adjustable chromed stand that enabled the user to do gigs in other locations with out having to screw on fixing brackets each time. Most customers in those days were either Pub owners or pianists playing Pub gigs.
So, No the Clavioline was not the same as the Univox, only catered for the same market.”
The Continental is born
The Continental was introduced in 1962. It’s unusual and futuristic shape was the invention of a design company (identity unknown) hired by JMI. Derek Underdown and Les Hills were the behind the technical design. The Continental underwent several design changes over the years. JMI produced Continentals for about 3-4 years, after which production was taken over by Thomas Organ and EME. For more details (and there’s a LOT of ‘em), click on the “Single Continentals” link above.
From “The Vox Story”: “A major part of the Jennings Musical Industries business at the time was still electronic organs. Earlier in 1962 the Continental I organ was launched but because of the strong Vox name it was marketed as the Vox Continental I organ.”
The Tornados were then seen playing the Continental, even though it wasn’t used on the recording of “Telstar”
Interesting quote from Dave Linsell about Les Hills: “Les Hill’s produced some really odd things, including a mechanical/electronic ‘Leslie’ simulator comprising a rotating magnet which actuated a ring of reed switches through which the organs signal was passed. The switches had a successive combination of right/left phased circuits, causing the sound to shift around the room when linked to a stereo amplifier system. It sounded good at the time!!”
The Italian Connection
JMI, Thomas and EKO formed a joint venture and spawned a company named EME (Elettronica Musicale Europea, or “European Musical Electronic”). Here is Derek Underdown’s account of the beginnings of this relationship:
“The consortium was first instigated in 1957 when Joe Benaren (Thomas), Ennio Uncini (EKO), together with Tom Jennings, Dick Denney and myself had a special meeting in Porto Fino, Italy, to discuss both the commercial and technical details of setting up the operation. This led to the following—
a. Thomas sent an engineer to stay at and liase with the now formed EME joint factory and I spent several weeks, on and off, liasing with the engineers and purchasing guys at EME to bring them up to speed.
b. Thomas sent their engineer, Stan Cuttler, to our UK factory, to get aquainted with our methods of production etc.
c. Tom Jennings, Reg Clark (sales mgr.) and Dick went to Thomas factory for a joint promotions/show occasion and to see their contribution. Date I think was about 1957/8 by then.”
Derek added this aswell:
“Most of the initial talks between these companies began early November 1957 in Portofino, Italy. There was obviously some time lapse between this date and the finalisation of legal matters and setting up the factories/ marketing/ production/ dealerships/ actual sales to customers. I was not involved after the November talks except to assist with setting up the EME plant/ parts/ quality control systems etc. Earl Wolfe (Thomas organs) took over then and resided in Italy. This could have taken the timing just into the 1960’s but not certain.”
He added later that EME was in full production by 1963.
The date was probably early 1960’s, or at least some significant time passed between certain events. EKO didn’t even exist as a company until 1959. We can assume that Dick and Reg didn’t actually go to America till 1964 or ‘65. The first orders Thomas placed with JMI were in 1964, and Reg wasn’t made Sales Manager until around 1962. According to EKO Directing Manager, Stelvio Lorenzetti, the year was ‘62 or ‘63
EME had a huge manufacturing plant where Vox (and EKO) organs were made. At the time, EME was the largest organ production company in Italy (Eko was also distributing Vox and Marshall through a company called COMUSIK). In addition to Continentals and Super Continentals, EME made the Continental Baroque, one version of the Jaguar, the Continental 300 and the Corinthian. EME production of Vox instruments began in 1965 and continued through 1978.
From Micke Lindgren: “Oliviero Pigini was the president of both EKO and EME until 1967 when he died in a car accident. After that Ennio Uncini was to head EME until around 1969/1970 when he resigned and founded his own company JEN in Pesacara. Ennio had been with EKO since the start in 1959.”
Demand for the Jaguar exceeded EME’s production capacity, so another company, GEM (Generale Elettro Musica), produced one version of that organ (the first version: V304 model), and also the little-known Vox Junior. I believe GEM’s production may actually have preceded EME’s. According to Tersino IIari, JMI was collaborating with GEM even before EME got started, and that they wanted to have at least one model produced by GEM. He thinks this may well have been the V304 Jaguar (the early model). GEM also manufactured the Howard, and the Jaguar is indeed very “Howard-like” internally (see the Jaguar page for details)
Contrary to other reports, I can find no evidence that JEN ever produced any Vox organs. As noted above, JEN didn’t even exist as a company until 1969/1970. They did, however, produce the Vox Piano, and the “String Thing”, both were re-badged versions of JEN production products.
Thomas Organ - US production/distribution
In 1964, with the EME venture underway (or nearly so), Tom Jennings signed a contract with Thomas Organ to distribute Vox amps and organs in the US. They began by importing and selling UK-built equipment. Thomas knew that demand for the equipment in the US would far exceed JMI’s production capacity, so they also began manufacturing their own Continentals in Sepulveda, California for a short time in early 1966. These were the “V301H” models, with wooden keys, White/Red drawbar tips, and incompatible oscillator board design (most Italian and later UK Continental oscillator boards are interchangeable). Production of the V301H models was primarily overseen by Frank Galanti (possibly related to the Galanti family of GEM fame). Shortly thereafter, (once EME was in full production, I presume) Thomas discontinued the V301H and began marketing Italian-built Continentals exclusively.
Vox Sound, Ltd
JMI went through a lot of financial problems in the mid 60’s. According to “The Vox Story”, the Royston Group acquired ownership of JMI in 1964, the name was changed to “Vox Sound, Ltd.”, new production facilities were provided at Vox Works, West Street, Erith, and production of organs was moved there by 1965. Later in the book however, they say the name change happened in 1969.
Following are a few excerpts from the book:
1969 - Royston Industries go into liquidation and are put into the hand of the receiver. After nine mouths of uncertainty the Corinthian Bank becomes the new owner of Vox. The name changes to Vox Sound Ltd…With the Royston Groups take over of Vox and the Thomas Organ Company’s control of Vox’s U.S. operation, Tom Jennings resigns.
1970 - Vox Sound Ltd is sold to a consortium comprising of John Birch and George Stowe of Stolec Electronics and the Schroder Bank. Manufacturing was moved to Hastings where a few organs and the AC30 were made….
1972 - CBS Arbiter, the UK Fender importer make an offer to buy Vox Sound Ltd. Accepted by George Stowe, Vox has a new owner for the forth time. Production moved to the Dallas Arbiter factory in Shoeburyness…
Arbiter reintroduces the Vox organs with the re-issue of the Continental I and Continental 300.
Much of this is probably correct, but I do want to correct one point, based on discussions with Derek Underdown and Dave Linsell: Tom Jennings did not resign. He and Derek were both laid off (i.e., “fired”) within a week of each other, after the buyout. This happened around 1967.
Dave Linsell offered this recollection of the dealings: “Not much was recorded about this, but during 1970 Vox Sound Ltd. came under the ownership of Michael Birch, CEO of the Birch Stowlec group, which had part ownership of Stow Electronics. The operation in Erith was closed, and a new facility was set-up in Hastings, East Sussex . This lasted until the eventual sale to CBS-Arbiter two years later.”
Tom Jennings may have been out of the Vox picture, but he certainly wasn’t out of the organ business. Here’s what Dave Linsell has to say about the new venture:
“Around 1968 the Jennings name again emerged under the banner Jennings Electronic Industries (JEI), located at the same site in Dartford. They went on to produce a range of amplifiers and organs such as the J-series, … Similarities to the Continentals were more than a co-incidence, incidentally.”
More information is available on the Jennings page.
And finally, Here’s an odd tidbit from a VERY reliable source!: JMI distributed Farfisa organs in the UK - Whoa! Let’s not even get into that!
Some notes about organ identification:
Identifying the manufacturer and country of origin of Vox organs has always been problematic, especially when it comes to the various Italian models. According to Derek (and this is a second-hand “quote”), once JMI were taken over, the new company continued to put Jennings badges on their organs as well as Vox Sound badges [or Thomas Organ badges, I presume], it didn’t matter to them, as they owned JMI. In fact, Derek is confident that the Italian factory would have been supplied with a quantity of JMI badges which would have been slapped onto Jaguars and Italian made Continentals in Italy! This would explain the existence of “imposter “organs - those with name badges indicating JMI/UK origin, but clearly constructed in Italy.
Dave Linsell offers some insight on this topic:
“The badging of organs is something that was a little inconsistent. Again, in later years (from Vox Sound days, rather than the earlier JMI period) UK badges were only put on UK-manufactured instruments. They were made in Erith , Kent, not Dartford . Thus you can deduce that any Vox Sound labeled instrument is a true UK model, but the Jennings badge may appear on Italian-made models”
used source: http://www.combo-organ.com/