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In his own words… Dr. Lonnie Smith

Dr. Lonnie Smith is an unparalleled musician, composer, performer and recording artist. An authentic master and guru of the Hammond B3 organ for over five decades, he has been featured on over seventy albums, and has recorded and performed with a virtual Who’s Who of the greatest jazz, blues and R&B giants in the industry. Consequently, he has often been hailed as a “legend,” a “living musical icon,” and as the most creative jazz organist by a slew of music publications. “Jazz Times” describes him as “a riddle wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a turban!” Always ahead of the curve, it is no surprise Dr. Smith’s fan-base is truly worldwide.

Dr Lonnie Smith photo by Mathieu Bitton

Born in Buffalo, New York, Lonnie was blessed with the gift of music. Through his mother, he was immersed in gospel, blues and jazz at an early age. In his teens, he sang in several vocal groups including his own––the Supremes––formed long before Motown’s eventual iconic act of the same name. Lonnie also played trumpet and other instruments at school and was a featured soloist. In the late fifties––with the encouragement of Art Kubera, who owned a local music store that he would visit daily––young Lonnie was given the opportunity to learn how to play a Hammond organ. By completely immersing himself in the records of organists such as Wild Bill Davis, Bill Doggett and Jimmy Smith, as well as paying rapt attention to the church organ, a young Lonnie began to find his musical voice. Because of Kubera’s kindness, Dr. Lonnie often refers to him as his “angel.”

The Doctor’s first gigs were at Buffalo’s hottest jazz club, the Pine Grill, where he rapidly garnered the attention of folks like Jack McDuff, Lou Donaldson, George Benson and the booking agent, Jimmy Boyd. George Benson was looking for an organist for his quartet and enlisted Lonnie. The group soon relocated to New York City, where they quickly established a reputation as innovators in Harlem clubs and throughout the area. After appearing on several Benson albums, Lonnie went on to make his first recording as a leader—Finger Lickin’ Good, for Columbia Records in 1966. Shortly thereafter, Smith was scooped up to record by saxophonist Lou Donaldson, for whom Lonnie would appear on several epic Blue Note LPs, including the million-seller, Alligator Boogaloo. Blue Note clearly liked what they heard and inked the organist to his own recording contract, a deal which would produce the soul jazz classics “Think!,” “Turning Point,” “Move Your Hand,” “Drives” and “Live at Club Mozambique” (released many years later).

Since leaving the Blue Note stable in the seventies, Dr. Smith has recorded for a number of record labels, including Kudu, Groove Merchant, T.K., Scufflin’, Criss Cross and Palmetto, ascending the charts many times. His unpredictable, insatiable musical taste illustrates that no genre is safe, as Lonnie has recorded everything from covers of the Beatles, the Stylistics and the Eurythmics, to tribute albums of Jimi Hendrix, John Coltrane and Beck––all by employing ensembles ranging from a trio to a fifteen-piece big band. Moreover, many of Doc’s recent compositions reflect dramatic ethereal qualities and orchestration that elicit movie scores or soundtracks. Dr. Smith has been amused to find himself sampled in rap, dance and house grooves while being credited as a forefather of acid jazz. When questioned about his consistent interest in music some consider outside the jazz “mainstream,” Lonnie shrugs: “Jazz is American Classical,” he proclaims. “And this music is a reflection of what’s happening at the time… The organ is like the sunlight, rain and thunder…it’s all the worldly sounds to me!” In 2012, Dr. Smith launched his own record label Pilgrimage Inc., and in 2015, resigned with the iconic Blue Note Records label.

Many awards have followed since 1969, when “DownBeat” named Dr. Lonnie Smith “Top Organist” of the year. From 2003 to 2017 he has been awarded “Organist/Keyboardist of the Year” by the Jazz Journalist Association. The Buffalo Music Hall of Fame and Jazz Organ Fellowship have also inducted Dr. Lonnie, and in 2015 he received the Village Music Legends Award. He received the NEA Jazz Masters Award, the highest honor in jazz, on April 3, 2017.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: You were born in upstate New York, to a musical mother.

Dr. Lonnie Smith: Oh yes. She had been wanted be a professional singer, but my father didn’t like that, so he said, “No, you’re a housewife.”

Chicago Jazz Magazine: Early on in your career didn’t you used to sing as well?

Smith: Oh yeah, I tried my hand at it. We had a group called the Supremes, and we had made a record. I was on a radio show one day not too long ago, and a fellow played it for me. I hadn’t heard it since I was a kid.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: How did he get ahold of it?

Smith: I think he went online or something. I don’t know how he got it. Computers, you know––you can find anything you want. It was for Mark Records. We recorded out of Utica, New York.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: So you had a band called the Supremes way before Diana Ross?

Smith: That’s true. When she came out, they were so big… We were doing sock hops and things around town. I don’t know if you remember a fella by the name of Fabian. Not the one with the long hair that’s on TV a lot. Not him.

Photo by Mathieu Bitton

Chicago Jazz Magazine: That’s Fabio. Fabian was the teen heartthrob.

Smith: There you go! The record labels were looking for another Frankie Avalon so my band did sock hops, opening up for Fabian while they were trying to make him a big star. They’d have pictures trying to build him up and so on.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: So when did you start playing organ?

Smith: I started late, believe it or not. I was about twenty-two, something like that.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: What prompted that move?

Smith: My angel. I had an angel by the name of Art Kubera. Everyone has angels, but basically, a lot of people don’t pay attention to them. They don’t believe in them, I guess. I didn’t have any money back then. Organs would go for over three grand back then—they were expensive! I would go into this music store every day and sit. The store didn’t sell organs––they sold accordions and things like that––but I would go everyday. Then one day Art Kubera, the store owner, asked me, “Why do you come in here every day until closing time?” and I said, “Well, sir, if I had an instrument, then I can learn how to play it; and if I can learn how to play it, then I can work and I can make a living.” One day, when he closed the place up, he said, “Come with me.” So we went to his house and he opened the door and there it was! He had a B3 organ in his house. I don’t know if you believe in heaven or not, but I’ll tell you what happened. I lit up and I went over to the organ that was sitting right there in front of me. It was like we found each other. I went in there and saw that organ and the gates of heaven opened up. I could see the light. You know, the light they have in the Bible that beams out. He said, “If you can get this out of here, it’s yours.” I was poor and I couldn’t buy anything, but thanks to Art Kubera I got an organ.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: He saw how passionate you were about music and he gave you the opportunity.

Smith: Isn’t that amazing? He watched my career. He passed about two or three years ago. Someone wanted to do a documentary on me, and they wanted to talk to him. They went to Buffalo to film him, and he passed the day before they were going to do it. He was something, I’ll tell you. I was so sad, so sad.

Smith: Oh that… you don’t want to hear that! [laughs] I messed with the organ and it looked like it was too big for me. I did not know how to even turn it on or how it worked. I finally got it on and looked at it––it had so many stops, buttons, and things that I didn’t know what to do. I kept pushing buttons and I knew that wasn’t the sound that I was looking for, because the organ was sounding like the kind of music that I used to hear on soap operas [laughs]. I didn’t like the way the organ sounded. A friend told me that he knew how to play the organ, so I got him to come over and show me. He started playing and told me, “this works this, this works that.” He played the organ till he got tired. Meanwhile, I still didn’t

Photo by Mathieu Bitton

know how to work the organ. He finally left, and I still didn’t know how to work the organ. Not only did I not know how to play the organ, I didn’t know how to even work it. Another friend of mine played in church, and he came over and showed me––“this works this, this works that”––and he showed me really slowly. Like recently, when I was trying to learn the computer: I felt like a kid, because I don’t know about that stuff. Someone has to show you, and do it slowly so you can see what they are doing, and then have me do it slowly. Someone can’t say, This works this, this works that… I can’t keep up. I can’t follow that stuff that quickly. When he was showing me the organ, he would do something and then let me do it until I got it. Then my brother found us a job at a club that had an organ so I wouldn’t have to take my pretty, brand new B3 out of the house. It was one of those spinet organs. I played that and left mine at home. But then a friend of mine called me and came by the club I was working at. It was Jack McDuff.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: “Brother” Jack McDuff.

Smith: Yes. He’d been playing in town and he said, “Hey, I heard you have an organ and I want to borrow it.” I said, “I don’t think so.” He told me, “Man, maybe one day I’ll be able to help you.” I said, “I don’t lend my organ out,” but he talked me into lending it out. Then, I found out it wasn’t for him; it was for someone else. Wait until you hear this. I stopped in the club where Jack was playing to see my organ. I went up to see who was playing my organ, I thought, Maybe someone’s having fun up there. I went to see the group and it was Lou Donaldson’s group. Guess how much I lent my organ out for? You won’t believe it. Twenty-five dollars! Gee, I wish I had a manager then. From that day on, every time I’ve seen Lou, I laugh and joke and say, “Lou, you still owe me money!” So now I had a rapport with Lou. Also at that time, George Benson was playing with Jack McDuff. I’d go up and sit in, and one day George said, “Hey man, let’s get a group.” He asked for my number, and I gave it to him. I had been playing at a club in Harlem, called Smalls Paradise, and I met another angel: Jimmy Sibly, an agent for Sammy Bryant, a saxophone player, who wanted me to leave my brothers and join their group, because he needed an organ player. I was finally playing well enough, so I left my gig to play with them. Now that group was out of Ohio––we were playing behind a lot of Motown groups. At that same time McDuff and George Benson were playing together, and I would sometimes go and sit in when they would come through. I was going back and forth from Buffalo to Cleveland, because we were booking out of Cleveland. Guess how much I was making? This is embarrassing. Big money. Big money. Six dollars a night! [laughs]

Chicago Jazz Magazine: This was in the mid-sixties?

Smith: Yes, you got it. I had made it to the big times.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: How were you able to survive on that?

Smith: Well, my brothers and I had it down, because we put all our money together. And people who didn’t have money would get food from the government, like cheese and flour. And then there were these burgers called White Castle, and they were cheap. You don’t remember that, do you?

Chicago Jazz Magazine: Sliders.

Smith: That’s what we called them––sliders! I didn’t particularly like them, but they had them, and they were cheap, so we made it pretty good with no money. Photo by Francis Wolff

Chicago Jazz Magazine: So the guys you were working with, were they literally your brothers or were they your musical brothers?

Smith: Musical brothers. Then they married my sisters, so they were my brother-in-laws, a couple of them. So it was neat how that happened.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: Were there hard feelings when you left the band?

Smith: When I went with that group in Ohio, I really didn’t want to leave them. I talked to them and told them, “If I can make it, I can help you out.” And sure enough, I started doing well, and got them out there on the road. But they didn’t stay, so I kept on, and that’s when George and I hooked up. Now I had one angel that gotten me into the band in Ohio––his name was Jimmy Sibley, with the Sammy Bryant Group. About that time, another angel came, by the name of Jimmy Boyd. Jimmy Boyd had heard me, and this was the kicker: he wanted me to record with… Grant Green. Now come on. Come on! You see how everything just fell into place? Everything is connected. He said, “Be there tomorrow at one o’clock,” and I said, “Okay.” The next day… I wasn’t there.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: You didn’t show up to the recording the next day?

Smith: No, I didn’t.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: Because?

Smith: I’m going to tell you why, smarty, since you want to know this. [laughs] Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a man of my word. It doesn’t sound like it, does it? I didn’t show, and that was pretty bad. We were young, but we knew who Grant Green was. We knew who these people were. The guys in the band said, “Why didn’t you record with Grant Green?” and I said, “I’ve only been playing a year.” All this happened within a year.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: It happened too fast.

Smith: It happened within a year. But, it’s good for young people to understand how things really go. It wasn’t how great I was on organ; they heard something within me that they loved. And that’s what happened. So I didn’t show. Now Jimmy Boyd, the other angel, like I said, wanted me to record with Grant. Jimmy Boyd was goin