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Korla Pandit (1922-1998)

Early television entertainer and 50s icon Korla Pandit died October 1, 1998.

Mr. Pandit appeared on KGO-TV in 1957, and many older San Franciscans recall how the camera slowly moved in for a closeup of his jeweled turban. He played what is now defined as "lounge music." Many songs ended with a full-screen shot of his seductive eyebrows and the diamond- and topaz-like jewels.

In an amazing conjunction of musical styles, Korla Pandit played organ with Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers, for the record "Stampede," waxed by RCA Victor, December 1, 1949, in Los Angeles, and released as Victor 21-0154. In 1993, Mr. Pandit recorded with the Los Angeles punk-rock group The Muffs. He also appeared in the 1994 motion picture "Ed Wood," directed by Tim Burton.

A sampling of Korla Pandit's musical artistry can be heard in RealAudio from online music store.

Korla Pandit's early career is not clearly understood. His obituary, provided to the newspapers by his family living in Santa Rosa, indicates that he was a native of New Delhi, and his father was a member of the ruling Brahman class which allowed him private musical tutoring in London and the United States.

The obituary said he began his career in Chicago radio, and then moved to Hollywood. He was on several early television broadcasts on KTLA, including his sensational "Adventures in Music," which established his West Coast stardom.

He is survived by his wife of 50 years, Beryl, and two sons, all of Santa Rosa.

Mr. Pandit recorded 14 albums for Fantasy Records in the 1950s, and recorded his last album in the late 1990s, shortly before his death.

Roy Trumbull is a West Coast broadcasting veteran who began in radio in the 1950s, and is currently the assistant chief engineer at KRON-TV, San Francisco. Trumbull and Larry Broomfield present a somewhat different version of the early days of Korla Pandit.

By Larry Bloomfield and Roy Trumbull

Born John Red in Arizona and having recorded under the name of Juan Rolando, he was better known as Korla Pandit, the bejeweled turbaned organist who graced the airwaves with his unique musical style. Dating back to the early days of Los Angeles television, Klaus Landsburg, television engineering pioneer and founder of KTLA, needed a filler between some of his programming.

In 1947, television didn't sign on until the late afternoons and was off by midnight, in those days and nearly everything was live. At a chance meeting on the Paramount lot in Hollywood, Landsburg asked Pandit if he'd be interested in performing on the new media, but Landsburg wanted him to come up with a gimmick. Pandit showed the next day up with a turban from the Paramount wardrobe department and the rest is history.

He never spoke; he just played his Hammond B-2, logging more hours on live television than most other performers achieve in a lifetime. Remember the early "Time for Bennie Show," when it was hand puppets? Pandit was the music. As television grew, the tastes of the viewers changed and so did the performers. Pandit moved to the Bay area and also lived for a time in British Columbia.

As Roy Trumbull recounts: "Korla Pandit was one of the TV originals. With his jeweled turban and his haunting good looks, he made many hearts throb. In my DJ days I interviewed him. Off the record, he told me that a certain record company's royalty statements weren't to be believed. He personally had sold more of each recording that his statement indicated. One day a moving truck came to his house with a grand piano. It was a gift from a woman who'd been on the verge of committing suicide, but his eyes had told her not to do it. Those were the days."

Pandit became well known for his performances at many of the American Theater Oregon Society meetings and similar occasions. Those who really knew him would always form a big smile when the announcer told the audience that Mr. Pandit would now play his theme song from his native land, "The Song of India."

Provided to the Museum by Roy Trumbull, October 1999

Los Angeles producer, recording artist and Moog synthesizer enthusiast Brian Kehew, met Korla Pandit while recording an album for a punk-pop group.

I first met Korla in 1993 when working on a Warner Bros. album for the Los Angeles group, The Muffs. The band and I loved Korla and had seen his films and recent concerts. We needed an organ track for a particular song, and sought out Korla for his help. He accepted and added organ to two songs on the record. We had a great time working together and also became friends with his two talented sons. It was a very special honor to have him "reappear" on record for the first time in many years.

Later, Korla's sons mentioned that he would like to record again and put out a "modern" album. We hoped to accomplish a few things - to make a better fidelity version of his old classics, and to stave off the bootleg recordings and videos that had surfaced. I arranged for some time at a studio, and we began recording three albums simultaneously: (1) "classic" Korla Pandit music played only on Hammond organ and grand piano (2) A Christmas album, using a variety of keyboard instruments (3) An album of "standards" with Korla playing only grand piano. Quite a bit of work was done on the records, but the tapes were never finished (not enough material was recorded to complete the records, and it made a VERY strange mix to put them into one album). However, his playing was incredibly musical and beautiful; it was very emotional to listen to him playing in such an intimate setting, and we felt that the magic was captured on tape.

As it was, Korla later put out a quickly done album of his traditional styles, called Exotica 2000. It will likely be his last recorded work released. His older music has become very collectable and may yet see the light of day on more reissues. Those who knew him will recall his innumerable stories (he could talk a LOT for someone who never spoke on TV) and his charming manner. He was drastically unique and I think his presence will be felt through the enduring music.

Brian Kehew
Los Angeles 1999

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