Obituary: Paul Tanner / Musician-of-all-trades had 'good vibrations'

Oct. 15, 1917 - Feb. 5, 2013

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Paul Tanner, a former trombonist for the Glenn Miller Orchestra who played an unlikely role in the history of rock 'n' roll when, using a device he helped invent, he performed the famous electronic accompaniment on the Beach Boys' signature recording "Good Vibrations," died last Tuesday in Carlsbad, Calif. He was 95.

His stepson Douglas Darnall confirmed the death.

Mr. Tanner's path to the Beach Boys was both circuitous and serendipitous. He played and recorded with Glenn Miller from 1938 until 1942.

In the early 1950s, Mr. Tanner went to California to play on soundtracks and in live performances for ABC Television. He became something of a musician-of-all-trades, taking up a variety of oddball instruments and performing on them when a quirky score called for it, according to Dan Del Fiorentino, a friend and music industry historian. Thus came about Mr. Tanner's interest in the theremin, an electronic instrument invented by Leon Theremin, a Russian, around 1920.

The device, consisting of two audio oscillators and an amplifier inside a wooden or metal housing, was played by waving one's hands in proximity to -- but not touching -- two antennas, one controlling volume and the other controlling pitch.

By moving the hands closer to or farther from the antennas, an expert player could make the theremin sound like one orchestral instrument or another. With its otherworldly timbre, the theremin became associated with spookiness and the supernatural. Mr. Tanner knew of it from its use on the soundtracks for "The Day the Earth Stood Still" and Alfred Hitchcock's "Spellbound."

But while recording a film soundtrack one day and watching a theremin player struggle with the device, his hands unable to locate specific pitches, Mr. Tanner, who had no electronics expertise, had an idea.

He contacted an actor friend, Bob Whitsell, who also ran a television repair business, and asked him if he could build an instrument that would replicate the sound of a theremin but with hands-on mechanical controls for volume and pitch rather than antennas. After a false start or two, they produced what became known as the electro-theremin.

Mr. Tanner played it for several years for musical recordings, movie soundtracks (including "Strait-Jacket," a 1964 thriller with Joan Crawford), television shows (including "My Favorite Martian") and commercials. He never reproduced or tried to market the device.

How Mr. Tanner ended up playing with the Beach Boys is uncertain. On "Good Vibrations," the instrument created a delirious, rising-in-pitch backdrop to the song's chorus. The song reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Mr. Tanner also played on two other Beach Boys tracks, "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times" and "Wild Honey."

"Strange group to work with," Mr. Tanner said in a 2001 interview. "The only one who seemed to have any idea of music at all was Brian Wilson."

Paul O.W. Tanner was born in Kentucky on Oct. 15, 1917. When he was 6 he moved with his family to Wilmington, Del., where his father was superintendent of a juvenile detention facility. Paul studied piano and took up the trombone at 13.

Mr. Tanner was also a composer who wrote several pieces for featured trombone. He wrote numerous books about jazz, including a well-known textbook, "A Study of Jazz." He graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1958, and taught there for the next 23 years. He earned his master's degree and Ph.D. from UCLA as well.

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