Johnny "Hammond" Smith was part of the golden age of jazz organ that flourished for about 15 years, beginning in the mid-1950s. His own record label alone, Prestige, boasted such top organists as Shirley Scott, Brother Jack McDuff, Don Patterson, and Charles Earland. And looming over the entire crowded field of B-3 pilots was Jimmy Smith (no relation).
Born John Robert Smith in Louisville, Kentucky, December 16, 1933, he has a mildly musical background: “My mother sang in the choir, my sister and others in the family were musical, but I’m the only one who became a professional.”
“My influences were Charlie Parker, Dizzy, Bud Powell, Art Tatum, all the people who were really happening in the mid-1940s. I guess you could say I made my professional debut at 15. I had a buddy who also played piano, and we’d both slip into a little club down the street and take turns playing for whatever they’d put in the kitty.”
Smith was 18 when he left Louisville. For a while, he lived in Cleveland, playing with groups led by saxophonist Jimmy Hinsley and guitarist Willie Lewis.Around the time he came of age, his ears were captivated by the sound of Wild Bill Davis, who had just begun to show the possibilities of transferring modern jazz sounds to the electric organ. Inspired by Davis, and also to some extent by Bill Doggett, Johnny gradually made the changeover from piano to organ himself.
“I was the first jazz organist in Cleveland, or to put it another way, the first jazz musician in Cleveland even to own an organ. I began working around in small combos.Believe it or not, I was playing from the very start pretty much the way I’m playing now. I played single lines then, then built up to shout out-choruses with big chords and so forth, just the way I do today. The only difference at first was that I hadn’t turned the vibrato off the organ, whereas Jimmy Smith had. Later, around 1957, I began turning it off.”
Shortly after Hammond’s acquisition of an organ, Wild Bill Davis left the Chris Columbus group in which he had been working. Johnny got the job with Columbus and went almost immediately to New York. From that point on, he shuttled between New York and Cleveland as alternate homes.
In 1958, he had his first opportunity to extend his popularity through records. “I was working in Columbus, Ohio, with Nancy Wilson who was more or less unknown at that time. Some man came in, heard the group and offered us a contract. He said, ‘I’ll give that girl a deal, too.’ But Nancy said, ‘No, when I sign a contract, I’m going to sign with a big company.’ She was smart. Only a year later, she had a contract with Capitol.”