Dr. Lonnie Smith Biography
Jazz organist and pianist
A turban-wearing jazz institution, and one of the few jazz players to specialize in the difficult Hammond B-3 electric organ, Dr. Lonnie Smith has had a long musical career that may be divided into three distinct sections. In the first, shortly after his discovery, Smith played as a sideman in jazz bands led by others, most notably guitarist George Benson. In the second, Smith led his own band in the late 1960s and early 1970s, at the height of the movement known as soul-jazz. Finally, after a long hiatus from recording, Smith returned in the 1990s with fresh, experimental takes on his earlier styles.
Lonnie Smith—not to be confused with keyboardist Lonnie Liston Smith—was born in Buffalo, New York, on July 3, 1942. His mother sang around the house and introduced him to a potent mix of gospel, jazz, and classical music. Members of his extended family came by to play gospel music as well. "That was all in my bones," Smith told the University of Idaho Argonaut. "It was in my heart and soul in the beginning." By the time he was old enough to get on stage, Smith was singing in a group called the Teen Kings for a salary of six dollars a night. The group, which for a time included Buffalo sax player Grover Washington Jr., later changed its name to the Supremes—no relation to Diana Ross's group in Detroit.
Smith didn't really play an instrument at the time, but he dreamed of a career in music. He started spending time at a music store owned by Art Kubera, who finally asked him what he was doing there. "If I had an instrument, I could play," Smith said (as he recalled in a Palm Beach Post interview). "If I could play, I could make a living." The store owner took Smith into a back room and showed him a new Hammond B-3 organ, an instrument worth several thousand dollars. "If you can get it out of here, you can have it," the merchant said. "He did it for me," Smith told the Post. "I really owe everything to him."
About 20 at the time, he learned to play the organ quickly by ear. His biggest influence was organist Jimmy Smith, whom he met a few months after he started playing. "I liked everything that I heard when he played," he told Down Beat. "Jimmy has a flare, he has fire, and he has warmth. And he generates a beautiful sense of humor. He definitely has great technique, and he knows just what to play." Before long, Smith had enough keyboard skills to accompany traveling Motown-label vocalists when they came to town needing a pickup band.
About a year after he started playing, Smith rented his organ for a week to Brother Jack McDuff, another of the reigning organ players of the time, for a $25 fee. While McDuff was performing with alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson (probably at Buffalo's Pine Grill club), friends of Smith's in the audience called out to McDuff, encouraging him to let Smith play. The organist complied, and Smith had a ready-made audience of influential jazz people that included guitarist George Benson, a major pop star a decade later.
Smith made the most of the opportunity. Jazz promoter Jimmy Boyd arranged for Smith to join a recording session with guitarist Grant Green, but the young organist, feeling he wasn't ready, didn't show for the session. It didn't matter—those who had heard Smith had become well aware of his talent. Benson at the time was forming a band of his own and offered Smith a place in it. After a quick rehearsal at Benson's mother's house, Smith became a touring jazz musician. Times were hard for the little-known group, and Smith recalled at one point having to grab waitresses' tips from restaurant tables in order to get by.
But things improved fast. Working with Benson for several years, Smith began his recording career on Benson's albums on the Columbia label. He sometimes played piano as well as organ, but the organ was his central focus. "Well, it's a passion for me," he told All About Jazz. "Right from the beginning I was able to play and I didn't even know how. I learned how to work the stops and that was it; everything else came naturally. It's a difficult instrument because you have two keyboards and the bass pedal, so you are the orchestra." Once the instrument was in place for a gig it couldn't be moved easily, so Smith often showed up early at the club to practice in an empty room.
Smith moved to New York and worked with Lou Donaldson later in the 1960s, contributing organ grooves to Donaldson's modestly successful commercial hit "Alligator Boogaloo." Around the same time, Smith formed a band of his own and recorded his Finger Lickin' Good album for Columbia. In the late 1960s, one branch of jazz moved away from modernist experimentation and toward a closer relationship with the rhythms and harmonies of commercial soul music. The resulting "soul-jazz" was just the ticket for Smith, whose Hammond organ had a long background in the African-American church music from which soul was originally derived.
Moving to the Blue Note label, Smith recorded the best-known music of his career. Such albums as Think! (1968) and Lonnie Smith Drives (1970) fit the basic soul-jazz pattern but showed Smith's tremendous talents as a sheer improviser with massive ten- or fifteen-minute jams built on a composition of Smith's own, another jazz piece of the time, or even on "Three Blind Mice" (as heard on Think!). Joining Smith in his band and on records were several noted jazz players of the1970s, including trumpeter Lee Morgan and saxophonist David "Fathead" Newman. In 1969, Smith was named top organist of the year by Down Beat magazine.
Smith recorded for a variety of smaller labels throughout the 1970s, slowing down somewhat as soul-jazz lost its appeal but never falling out of favor with his fellow musicians. During the period of his Blue Note albums he was still simply Lonnie Smith, but later he became Dr. Lonnie Smith—a title bestowed not by any academic institution but by musicians who called on Smith to "doctor" pieces they were struggling with. Smith also began wearing a turban. It didn't have any religious connotation, but it added to the already rather mystical feel of his music.
During the 1980s, Smith was mostly absent from the recording scene. He continued to perform, occasionally making appearances with rhythm-and-blues singers like Etta James as well as with jazz groups. He developed a reputation in Europe, having recorded his Lenox and Seventh Avenue album in Paris in 1985, and he continued to perform there, planning a continent-wide tour in late 2004 and 2005. He appeared as a sideman on albums by other artists, and in 1990 he reunited with Lou Donaldson for the latter's Play the Right Thing album.
By the 1990s Smith, who had six children, had moved to Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He recorded several more albums with Donaldson, and the new exposure for his playing led Blue Note to reissue some of his classic albums of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Younger organists had always named Smith as a strong influence, and now they were joined by musicians who were resurrecting all kinds of classic soul and rock sounds. Musicians in the acid jazz movement, which merged jazz with electronic sounds, took an interest in Smith's music.
What they found when they attended one of Smith's concerts, which took place on a regular basis at O'Hara's Pub in Fort Lauderdale and the Jazz Showcase in West Palm Beach, was a unique atmospheric conception that fit well with the sonic experimentation of acid jazz. Smith's style was still rooted in soul-jazz and its underlying blues harmonies, but he stretched the style out to cosmic lengths, offering 20-minute-long improvisations that might begin with almost formless quiet sounds and gradually build to a high pitch of intensity. Often Smith performed as part of a trio: organ, guitar, and drums.
Smith kept things fresh with innovative new album releases, including a Jimi Hendrix tribute album and another, 2003's Boogaloo to Beck, devoted to the eclectic and unclassifiable alternative musician Beck Hansen. Smith hadn't heard of Beck before agreeing to record the album, which was suggested by a guitarist friend, but he made Beck's diverse music his own. "It's sampling without the sampler. Beck will be thoroughly amused," noted San Francisco Chronicle critic James Sullivan, and other publications also registered positive reviews. The All Music Guide called his next album, the soul-jazz Too Damn Hot, "Smith's best record of the decade so far," and the organist showed no signs of pulling back the throttle on his free-spirited jazz life. Asked by the Miami New Times whether he planned to incorporate Beck's music into his live shows, Smith answered, "I feel that I'm going to do something a little different. That's what I have plans to do. Something quite different. Yeah."
Finger Lickin' Good, Columbia, 1966.
Think!, Blue Note, 1968.
Turning Point, Blue Note, 1969.
Move Your Hand (live), Blue Note, 1969.
Lonnie Smith Drives, Blue Note, 1970.
Live at Club Mozambique, Blue Note, 1970.
Mama Wailer, Blue Note, 1971.
When the Night Is Right!, Chiaroscuro, 1975.
Lenox and Seventh Avenue, 1985.
Afro Blue, Music Masters, 1993.
Purple Haze: A Tribute to Jimi Hendrix, Music Masters, 1995.
The Turbanator, 32 Jazz, 2000.
Boogaloo to Beck: A Tribute, Scufflin', 2003.
Too Damn Hot, Palmetto, 2004.
Feather, Leonard, and Ira Gitler, The Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz, Oxford, 1999.
Down Beat, July 2004, p. 70.
Financial Times (London, England), April 29, 2004, p. 15.
Miami New Times, September 18, 2003.
Palm Beach Post, April 13, 1997, p. J4.
San Francisco Chronicle, May 25, 2003, p. 28.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 7, 2003, p. C8.
University of Idaho Argonaut, September 3, 2004.
Dr. Lonnie Smith, www.drlonniesmith.net (December 1, 2004).
"Dr. Lonnie Smith," All Music Guide, www.allmusic.com (December 1, 2004).
"Dr. Lonnie Smith: The Doctor Is In…," All About Jazz, www.allaboutjazz.com/php/article.php?id=908 (December 1, 2004).
—James M. Manheim
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