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Dr. Lonnie Smith: Organ Guru

By Published: January 7, 2008
So I started playing in the band the first week. It was strange. So I played trumpet, or cornet. Another friend of mine, he played trombone. And I played his trombone, and [the band teacher] heard me. He said 'If someone's missing, you just come in and play their instrument.' So I could pick it up real fast."

Stop here for a minute, and think about that. Lonnie Smith was obviously a musical prodigy with the ability to excel on whatever instrument he chose. How different would the history of jazz be today if Lonnie Smith had decided to stay with vocals and brass instruments? It boggles the mind! Eventually, though, he managed to obtain an organ.

Smith grew up with sax sensation Grover Washington, Jr. "He was playing in our group as a saxophonist and I was singing. I used to go over to his house and his mom had an organ. But you know I didn't know how to mess with it. Just a little bit, you know, just pickin' with the instrument. But anyway, my brothers and I used to sing, and they played.

So one day I went to this music store. I used to go in there all the time. But I stayed in there everyday until closing time. And Art Kubera owned the music store and he said 'Can I ask you a question, son?' And I said 'Yes sir.' He said 'Why do you come in everyday until closing time?' I looked him straight in the eye and said 'Sir, if I had an instrument, I could work. If I could work, I could make a living.' And everyday I would go in there, and one day I went in and ...he closed the store up and he told me to come with him. And I went with him to his house [in the back of the store], and ... there was an organ! And, my eyes lit up, and he said 'If you can get this out of here.... it's yours!' I got it, and I haven't looked back since!"

This was a turning point in Lonnie Smith's life. He had found his instrument And, in the process, had also found his "calling." He rapidly began to learn and grow as an organist, quickly gaining local notoriety and fans. Smith was soon playing at The Pine Grill in Buffalo, where he was noticed by a number of jazz greats including Jack McDuff, Lou Donaldson, and agent Jimmy Boyd. In 1966, he joined with a talented young guitarist who was a member of Jack McDuff's band. That guitarist's name was George Benson. Together, the two formed The George Benson Quartet featuring Lonnie Smith, and both were quickly signed to recording contracts with Columbia Records. Shortly afterward, Smith and Benson recorded a tune with Lou Donaldson for Blue Note Records entitled "Alligator Boogaloo." Smith recalls that "the song did so well ...that they wanted me over there. So I went to Blue Note Records."

Dr. Lonnie Smith

Since 1969, when Down Beat Magazine named him "Top Organist" of the year, Smith has consistently been a leading force in jazz. He has been recorded on more than seventy albums and has played with nearly everyone that comes to mind including Dizzy Gillespie, Grover Washington Jr., King Curtis, Joe Lovano, Lou Donaldson, David "Fathead" Newman, Bennie Maupin, George Benson, Randy Brecker, Kenny Garrett, Jimmy McGriff. And the list goes on and on. And as evidence of his continuing prowess on the keyboards, he was named 'Organ Keyboardist of the Year' in 2003, 2004, and 2005 by the Jazz Journalists Association.

Dr. Smith briefly discussed his album Jungle Soul. "When I started on that particular CD know you usually start out with one song, and when you play that song, it kind of sets the mood for other songs. And, we had a "feel" with the producer and the fellas, and we came up with the rest of the CD. The producer's a guitarist himself, Matt Balitsaris, over at Palmetto Records. ...I stuck close to the theme."

The album features distinctive African rhythms and instruments on several songs, but also delivers a strong dose of funky soul on such classics as Marvin Gaye's "Trouble Man." And for those readers whose jazz experience may not yet include an appreciation for the organ as a jazz instrument, please listen to "Witch Doctor" from this same album. You'll hear jazz as only Dr. Lonnie Smith and the Hammond B-3 can deliver it.

You might think that after putting together another album, touring Europe, and playing the renowned Village Vanguard and other U.S. venues, there would necessarily be some down-time squeezed into Dr. Smith's schedule. Not a chance. Smith is very intent on giving back and helping others, through the Jazz Foundation of America and other charities. On this topic, he commented, "I've done some things in New Orleans for that, and it helps. And, it's a great thing.

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