Dr. Lonnie Smith, a pillar in the jazz pantheon, is one of the most influential organists to ever man the helm of the Hammond B-3, an instrument he refers to paradoxically as both "the monster" and "the love of my life". His dynamic playing and prolific composing is featured on over 70 recordings, and he has played with such luminaries as George Benson, David "Fathead" Newman and Lou Donaldson. His latest CD, Boogaloo to Beck, seamlessly translates the music of rock superstar Beck [Hansen] into the jazz idiom. Dr. Smith wears his trademark turban when he plays, and with his large, probing eyes and flowing gray beard, he bears a strong resemblance to civil rights activist Dick Gregory. Those eyes can light up when he's excited, or express deep sadness when something upsets him.
Born in Buffalo, Dr. Smith was raised in a musical atmosphere. "My mother and I used to sing around the house," he recalled. "And my aunts and uncles and cousins, we'd sit around playing gospel music. The joy was always there. It was always in my blood." At 16 he joined a singing group named the Supremes that played sockhops in the area, but the desire to play an instrument overwhelmed him.
"I used to sit in Art Kubera's music store in Buffalo every day until closing time. One day he said 'Son, why do you sit here until closing time every day?' I said 'Sir, if I had an instrument I could make a living.' One day he closed the store and took me in the back, and there was a Hammond B-3 organ. My eyes lit up. He said 'If you can get this out of here, it's yours.' I didn't know how to play it. This man took a chance on me. Whatever he saw, he saw it. And I had this brand new Hammond which cost thousands of dollars then. And I was doing all of this by ear, 'cause I didn't read. I just picked up the instrument naturally."
This natural talent came to the attention of several jazzmen who would play at Buffalo's premier club, the Pine Grill, including Jack McDuff, Lou Donaldson and George Benson. Dr. Smith also came to the attention of Jimmy Boyd, who had originally signed Benson. "He came by where I was playing one day and said that Grant Green was out at Rudy Van Gelder's studio doing an album, and they wanted me out there at one o' clock the next day. Now you've got to imagine: Grant Green! I wouldn't go!
"The next day Green came by the club. He said 'What happened? Everybody was waiting for you!' I said 'I'm not ready.' I had only been playing a little time. The guys in the band said 'You're crazy. That was Grant Green!' I said 'I know!' "
Fortunately for Dr. Smith, Boyd didn't give up and offered Smith the gig that would change his life. George Benson had left Jack McDuff's band and was forming his own, and wanted Smith to join him. "I played my last gig in Buffalo and we went to his mother's house," Smith said. "We practiced two songs, 'Clockwise' and 'Secret Love', and we were off." And so was his career.
As is the case with so many jazz musicians today, Dr. Smith's latest CD has a kind of 15-minute focus to it which may or may not have been the artist's choice. The title sounds like both an order to dance and a description of Dr. Smith's musical range. As he explains, "Doug Munro [the guitarist, producer and arranger on the disc] called me about the project, then he called my partner David Newman, and we did it. Then I got a call to talk about the album and the guy asked me 'How do you know about Beck?' I said 'I've known Beck for many years. Beck and I used to play together. You're talking about [guitarist] Joe Beck, right? Jeff Beck?' I had no idea who Beck was! But it was nice."
Dr. Smith insists that the organ is a tough instrument to play, but a listener wouldn't know it based on the complete effortlessness with which he plays. "Well, it's a passion for me," he said. "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. You have so much to do but you don't want to get in anybody's way because it's such a powerful instrument. Just because you have muscle you don't have to show it off."
The latest breed of B-3 players often cite Dr. Smith as their primary influence, an honor which he grudgingly accepts. But you won't get the answer you expect if you ask him who he admires among the new lions. "Believe it or not, I love 'em all! Why? Because they're family. And to see them playing this hard instrument is great. Seeing piano players changing over to the organ makes me feel fantastic, and I'll try to help every last one of 'em."
Many of the grooves Dr. Smith laid down on vinyl back in the day have been rediscovered in the CD format, which has led to him gaining status today as a sort of accidental forefather in the acid jazz movement. But while he doesn't believe the concept is new, he doesn't dismiss it, either. "I did what you call acid jazz records when I did 'Psychedelic Pi' with Blue Note," he says with some weariness. "And now they're using these songs that we did years ago and they're coming up with some pretty nice things. Some of them. I won't say all of them. My hat's off as long as people are halfway musical. 'Cause a lot of them don't play instruments - they use drum machines and computers."
After spending just a short time with Dr. Smith, it's clear that he's a passionate, caring man who loves his music and the other musicians who play it. One of his long-term goals is to help build a retirement home for jazz musicians. "Most musicians don't have health insurance, and it's sad. We're always doing benefits because they're in the hospital or they can't afford a funeral. I've been there and I know what it's like to be in the hospital unable to play. So why not have a place for jazz musicians to live? Because for a lot of us, it's not going to be long. If I have to pass, what a lovely way to pass with my friends near me, and we're talking about old times. I have to see this through. It would be so beautiful. And I know it's going to happen because I will not stop until it does."
When Dr. Smith gives advice to young musicians, he emphasizes that they do it because they love it, and if they're seeking fame and fortune they should switch venues. "I had one job my entire life," he remembers. "On the bus home one night I asked myself 'What is it you want to do?' And I said 'I don't care if I make five dollars, (playing music) is what I want to do'." So I did. And believe it or not, I was making less than five dollars a gig when I started!" Dr.Smith laughed heartily at the memory, those wide eyes igniting. Then he became reflective. "But I didn't do it to be popular, or to be rich. You're already rich when you play. It's a gift from God. I was blessed, and you never forget that."