That Korla Pandit hadn't been seen around town recently seemed little cause for worry; those who knew and loved him just assumed he was off traveling somewhere on his flying carpet. In reality, the keyboardist par excellence was residing in a Bay Area convalescent home, where he died on October 2 of natural causes.
Like most aspects of his life, Korla's age at the time of death is a mystery; in several recent interviews, Korla claimed to be anywhere from 2,028 to 2,039 years old. What is certain is that Korla Pandit was a musician of dazzling inventiveness and dexterity. Long before synthesizers stalked the land, Korla figured out how to coax all manner of previously unheard percussion, brass and string sounds out of the Hammond B-3 organ; on record and in concert, he often sounded like several musicians performing simultaneously. He was also one of L.A.'s first TV stars; his 1950s show on KTLA, which featured a turbaned Korla staring penetratingly into the camera while playing hypnotic originals like “Tales of the Underwater Worshippers,” was a huge favorite with area housewives.
Korla released several recordings of originals and popular standards on his own India label before moving to Berkeley's Fantasy label in the late '50s. He recorded roughly a dozen LPs for Fantasy before frustration with the label's accounting procedures caused him to retire from the music biz in the mid-'60s. He performed sporadically over the next two decades, devoting most of his time to lecturing on his favorite subjects: music as the “Universal Language of Love,” and the role of music in meditation and healing.
Korla remained in obscurity until the middle of the 1980s, when the resurgence of interest in 1950s easy-listening made his music ripe for rediscovery. In 1987, an Amok Books-sponsored Korla concert at L.A.'s Park Plaza Hotel set the comeback ball rolling; thereafter, Korla regularly performed to adoring crowds at local watering holes like Kelbo's and the old Jacks Sugar Shack.
In 1995, shortly after playing himself in Tim Burton's Ed Wood, Korla went back into the studio to record EXOTICA 2000, his first release in the exotica-genre bin in three decades. Produced by Joey Sehee and Patrick Tierney, the record (released on Sympathy for the Record Industry) revealed Korla still at the top of his form. He made his final concert appearance in January 1996, at Bimbo's in San Francisco.
Like Kelbo's, Tiny Naylor's and the Brown Derby, Korla Pandit was a vestige of an older, cooler L.A. that has drifted into the sunset. May his music – and his message of universal love – live on forever.
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