Zero to 180 – Three Minute Magic

Discoveries of a Pop Music Archaeologist

Paul Tanner: Musician-of-All-Trades & Oddball Instrumentalist

Paul Tanner, who just recently passed, lived to the ripe old age of 95.  I was delighted to learn that this one-time trombonist for The Glenn Miller Orchestra went on to play the pivotal theremin part on the Beach Boys’ worldwide 1966 hit, “Good Vibrations” – as well as on “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” from 1965’s Pet Sounds plus the title track from 1967’s Wild Honey.

According to The New York TimesBruce Weber, Tanner went to California in the early 1950s to do film soundtracks, as well as live musical performances on ABC TV, and it was during this period in which 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 them.”

Tanner became interested in the theremin — Leon Theremin‘s self-named futuristic 1920s electronic musical instrument — as a result of having witnessed its effective implementation in the soundtracks of such 1950s science fiction films as The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Thing (From Another World) click here to hear a theremin recording session for The Day the Earth Stood Still.

Tanner, after noticing theremin performers struggling with the instrument to obtain correct intonation and dynamics, contracted with a TV repair shop owner and friend, Bob Whitsell, to construct for him an instrument that would replicate the sound of a theremin but include manual levers that would allow the player to have greater control over volume and pitch.  Thus was born the electro-theremin (also known as the Tannerin) and first employed on Tanner’s 1958 “ambient” album, Music for Heavenly Bodies.

Heavenly Bodies - Paul Tanner

Here is an early work-up of “Good Vibrations” that features Paul Tanner’s electro-theremin part more prominently in the mix than the 45 version released in October 1966:

Alternate Vibrations – The Beach Boys

[Pssst:  Click on triangle above to hear an early theremin mix of “Good Vibrations” by The Beach Boys]

Incredibly, Tanner donated/sold his one-and-only prototype of the electro-theremin in the late 60s “to a hospital to use for audiology work, because he believed that newer keyboard synthesizers made it obsolete.”


Extra Credit

Memorize the chart listings for “Good Vibrations” for various countries outside the United States.

National Chart + Peak Position
Australia      2
Belgium      6
Canada    2
Netherlands      4
Germany      8
Italy    12
Malaysia      1
New Zealand     1
Norway      2
Rhodesia      1
UK      1
US      1


LINK to Sunshine Pop 

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One Response

  1. I found one of Paul Tanner’s books-“Every Night was New Years Eve” in one of my late husbands book trucks before moving . I stopped to read it and now realize my husbands long fascination with the Glenn Miller music…of course, he was the music of his youth,as he and Paul were same age. I had no idea about his other interests but did know Tanner was a great educator but the “Beach Boys-no idea! The swing/big band era must have been something indeed. Makes one sorry to have missed it…too bad Tanner didn’t invent a way to time travel. Am glad he wrote some of it down, tho..and we have the recordings.

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