Dr. Lonnie Smith: But Beautiful
DLS: Coming up, I was crazy about a young fellow named Nat "King" Cole. Yeah, he was a little young kid and I was crazy about Nat. Dinah Washington. I played behind Brook Benton. I had so many great people to listen to and hear and it was beautiful: Sarah Vaughan and Carmen McRae and so many great people, Mahalia Jackson, and I just loved them all. And I also played every now and then behind a fellow named Little Jimmy Scott. I'm talking about many years ago.
AAJ: We interviewed him just last year, right before he did a few dates in the UK.
DLS: No, you did not!
AAJ: Yes sir! He played a few dates in London last October and he got on the phone with us during the summer. What a great experience that was.
DLS: You bet. And the thing about it is, if you notice, he travels like a young man. I am serious. You know, a lot of young people today, they complain all the time: "Oh, no, a ten-hour ride, a twelve-hour ride." Not Jimmy Scott. He just goes and goes and he's not a young kid. He doesn't let anything bother him. That's one of the fellows I enjoyed, one of the people I enjoyed playing behind and also learning from. Playing some of my stuff, the way I play, is like that. It's beautiful.
AAJ: He absolutely ruined "You Don't Know What Love Is" for every other singer.
DLS: I'm telling you: Nancy Wilson, Etta Jones, all of them-it was Jimmy Scott. Here's something that a lot of people probably don't know: You could play the song in any key. You'll ask most singers what key they want you to play in and they'll say, "I'll take this in B-flat"-you know, they have a key that they want it done in. He'd say, "Well, whatever key you know it in."
Andy Bey is an unsung hero, also. Horn players, trumpet players, there are so many people that I really enjoyed-Art Tatum and Phineas Newborn and Ahmad Jamal, there's just so many people that play a part in my sound. And don't forget Thelonious Monk.
AAJ: In what ways did Monk influence your playing?
DLS: I've written some songs and even recorded one with Buster Williams on bass: It was called "Slightly Monkish," and it went (Sings a jumpy but swinging melody). You can hear it. Do you hear it? I was crazy about Monk, oh my goodness. I played opposite him a few times in concerts and in a little place called the Village Vanguard, many years ago. They used to sometimes have two bands play and Monk was on the bill.
AAJ: What is the biggest mistake most people make when they think of or hear Thelonious Monk's music?
DLS: I think what happens is that they're really not listening because he swung. He swung, and they must have missed that whole thing. He really swung. Oh my goodness-it was simple, you could hum his melodies, and it would swing, but they were missing it. It's just as plain as day, right? But they're missing it. It swung, and it was there, and that's why I loved playing those songs. I used to play all of them. "Ruby, My Dear," that's a beautiful song.
AAJ: You got to play with some of the funkiest musicians of the time in and around the time you recorded your own sessions and on other peoples' sessions for Blue Note Records. We'd love to ask you about three musicians from that period. What do you like to remember most about guitarist Melvin Sparks?
DLS: Melvin Sparks was originally from Texas. I was playing at Minton's Playhouse, George Benson and myself. We were playing at Minton's and one night a friend of ours brought this skinny young fellow by. He was really skinny. You've got small people, and you've got skinny people-he was skinny. And our friend said, "Hey, this fellow has just come to town, would it be okay for him to sit in?" He got up there and played and when I heard him I said, "That little fellow can play!" He used to play with The Upsetters. So he played and when he got done he said, "If you ever need a guitarist, I'm your man." I said okay and took his number, and he had my number. Weeks passed, and he asked me, "Don't forget me now, if you're ready." Months passed and he was still asking me.
So one day he called and said, "Hey, Jack McDuff called me and he wants me to work with him. You're not ready, are you?" I said that I was not ready and he asked me if it would be alright, and I told him to go ahead. Just go, I'll let you know. Then when I called him, he said, "I'll be there." That was it. Just like that. You're talking about a beautiful combination. A beautiful combination. Melvin Sparks.
AAJ: Melvin Sparks recently passed.
DLS: Yeah, and it's so sad because a lot of my friends are going to another place right now. But they're playing there also. He had beautiful rhythm and he gave one hundred and fifty percent, two hundred percent. You know, some guys would play but they wouldn't give you that. They would play so much into themselves: When you're accompanying someone, are you accompanying them to help make them play better, to give them something that they can play off of, or are you worried about somebody listening to you? Melvin played for you-with you and for you-and it was beautiful.