Major Morgan’s strapline was ‘Let’s Make Music’. I, personally, would argue that whether that held water or not would very much depend on your definition of ‘music’…It was never going to become an instrument favoured by pop bands or orchestras but Major Morgan was pretty good for a slightly abrasive version of ‘Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star’ or ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat’. Or a slightly abrasive freestyle jazz riff of your own composition, of course.
First manufactured by Playskool in 1979, Major M (I had one as a child so I think I’m familiar enough with him to shorten his name) was a hand-held musical toy. It was chunky, hard-wearing, able to withstand being dropped or thrown about and cheerfully decorated in bright colours. Not to be confused with the other funky hi-tech kit of the time like Texas Instruments’ Speak ‘n’ Spell and Little Professor or the other Playskool hand-held, Maximus.
Major M was designed to look like a drum major from a marching band; he sported a blue outfit with yellow epaulettes and sleeve stripes and a red hat with yellow decoration. I have also seen another model, which I think, given the spelling of ‘color’ on the box, was the U.S. version, where the red and blue was reversed. He had blond hair, blue eyes which looked disconcertingly off to the side (as if he was eyeing up another child who he thought might be more fun to play with than you), a smiley mouth with no lips and only a top row of teeth. I realised I may have just made him sound incredibly creepy: he was actually fairly friendly looking. I never had nightmares about him anyway.
The unit had a speaker in the back so to get the best sound out of it you had to hold it up, rather than laying it on the floor; it used a 9 volt battery which, from memory, was pretty long-lasting. The sound became distorted when the battery started going which gave you the opportunity to pretend Major Morgan had been drinking on duty.
On the UK box it was suggested that he was suitable for three to nine year olds which seems to be a slightly strange cut off (cue lots of disappointed 10 year olds); in the U.S. it just said ‘Ages 3 & up’.
Major Morgan’s torso was made up of a touch screen (this was 1979 remember, so when I say touch screen I mean that if you pressed it you would get a basic reaction, rather than anything as sophisticated as today’s touch screens) divided into two parts with a slot at the bottom. Before you inserted one of the cards that came with him the top screen displayed his name in capital letters while the bottom one showed 16 letters (A to G twice) which, when pressed, played the corresponding musical note, both high and low. A quick press resulted in a short note and, surprise surprise, holding it down for longer gave you a continuous note. Annoying children (i.e. me) may have used this ability to follow their parents around the house playing one single rasping sound until Major Morgan was taken away from them.
The cards that accompanied the Major were plastic and double-sided and featured well-known nursery rhymes and songs, such as the aforementioned ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star’ and others: ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’, ‘Old McDonald’ etc. A quick internet search shows that the U.S. version could have actually had proper songs (i.e. tunes that may have featured in the charts) as well.
Once inserted into the unit the top section of the card showed a series of symbols which could either be coloured shapes or squares either with or without numbers. The bottom section had the same symbols replicated over the notes they represented. You followed the top section and pressed the corresponding symbol below to play the aforementioned melodies.
There was also a blank card for you to compose your own tunes; it was wipe-clean so you could be as much as a perfectionist as you wanted.
According to the television advert Major Morgan was also a way to make your shy, socially-awkward child more popular in the playground…In it, a mum sees her daughter hovering on the edge of the action, unable to join in and, in that way only a mother can do, she draws out from the depths of her handbag a Major Morgan that she just happened to be carrying in there for this very occasion.
Once the child has got MM in her hands, all she needs to do is bang out a creaky version of ‘Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush’ and she soon has a procession of eager-to-play kids skipping round after her. Aaah, there’s their new strapline: ‘Major Morgan: helping lonely children start conga lines since 1979’.