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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 going to handle George Benson. Now George Benson needed an organist. And Jimmy Boyd said, “I know just the guy.” He mentioned my name to George, who said, “That’s who I was looking for. I lost his number!”

Chicago Jazz Magazine: So this is what you’re talking about with angels, and how the good Lord is looking down on you.

Smith: Exactly! They are there. I am serious! Out of all the musicians in the world, how can this happen? So that group in Ohio with Jimmy Sibley the manager, I called and gave them a two-week notice. The group was sad that I was leaving. Jimmy Sibley asked me if I wanted my own group. He went and got me a brand new car. He said, “Look out the window. That’s yours.” And I wouldn’t accept it. I said, “I have to go.” So I left, and George came to Buffalo and picked me up on my last night. We went to his Mom’s house in Pittsburgh––that’s where George is from––and learned two songs. Guess what those songs were? “Clockwise” and “Secret Love.” Now watch this––keep up with me. He said, “Grant Green is playing tonight in the city. You want to catch him?” I said yes. He said, “If we leave now we can catch him.” So we put the organ on the trailer and went to New York from Pittsburgh, where he was playing on 125th and 7th Avenue, at the Palm Café. We got there, and it was Grant Green on guitar, Candy Fence on drums and Larry Young on organ. So he called us up to play. George and I went up and played, and that was it. And he said, “Don’t you go nowhere, you stay right there!” [laughs] So we played and he was in seventh heaven. Now Jimmy Boyd was handling Grant Green and all the big stars, like Art Blakey––he was booking all these people. And Grant Green kept asking, “Come on man, join my group.” And Jimmy Boyd said, “No, he’s in with George, and it’s you and Larry Young.” So Jimmy Boyd knew what he was doing.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: So Grant Green didn’t harbor a grudge that you didn’t show up to that recording session earlier on?

Smith: No, Grant Green loved me! That’s why––again, I say––it’s not how you play. You don’t have to be what you think in your mind. It’s the feeling that others feel that you have that works with them. And that’s what he heard, even though I’d only been playing for a little more than a year. One day I was playing somewhere and a club owner asked me to play a gig without George, and I needed to find a guitar player. I asked Grant if he knew anyone that I could use. He said, “You don’t need anybody else. I’m right here.” I said, “Get out of here––I can’t afford you.” And he said, “You don’t have to pay me.” Isn’t that something?

Chicago Jazz Magazine: So you became good friends.

Smith: Oh yes, isn’t that beautiful? And it tells you how it’s all connected. Now George and I were playing at the Palm Café, the same place where we saw Grant Green. Record companies kept coming by. Okay, here we go, we’re off and running. What happened next was Lou Donaldson, who was with Blue Note, went into the studio. He said they needed a guitarist and an organist. Well, guess who they called? They called us. So now I’m going with another big act: it was Idris Muhammad on drums, there was George Benson, and myself. The record was a big hit: Alligator Boogaloo. That was it. Now, who called me? Frank Wolf at Blue Note Records; him and Duke Peterson. They want me to come over there. Now, I had already signed with another company, and guess who that company was? Columbia Records. We were playing at that Palm Café, and guess who comes in? John Hammond at Columbia Records. John Hammond was a big deal at Columbia Records. He was doing the big stuff, and he wanted to sign us right then in the club, on a paper napkin.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: All the best deals are done on cocktail napkins.

Smith: Johnny wanted to sign us. He signed George and he signed me at the same time.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: Together, or separate contracts?

Smith: Separate contracts. Now I have a contract with Columbia and so did George. So when we recorded with Lou, and Blue Note called me, I told them I was with Columbia. They wanted me, so they got me on loan from Columbia Records. Now I had made one record with Columbia and one with Blue Note, and the record took off.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: So your Columbia Record was Finger Lickin’Good and your Blue Note Record was Alligator Boogaloo. Is that right?

Smith: Yeah, I made Alligator Boogaloo with Lou and I made the other one for myself. So now I’m playing with George, but my record starts taking off, so the promoter is trying to get me to play concerts, but I don’t have a crew. So George came out with me and helped me out. My stuff started going well, and now I felt bad because George and I were really close. I played with George, but once my records were taking off I had to get another guitarist, so I got Melvin Sparks.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: The reason George Benson didn’t continue playing with you was that he, along with the record company, wanted him to make his own mark. Is that right?

Smith: Yes, he was trying to do his thing. Jimmy Boyd was the manager for both of us, and when we signed with Columbia they almost had a bet that I was going to do well and that George was going to do well. And that’s what happened. But at that time, I thought, Oh my goodness, this is terrible, because I love George. We were like close, close, close family. It really hurt me. And I know it must have hurt him too, because he loved me too. But then George’s music started taking off and he asked me to come back, so I went back with George.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: So those hard feelings weren’t too deep, because you got back together.

Smith: Oh, yes, we love each other. So I got back with George and then I left again. It’s really strange. Then, it seems like the next day, Lou Donaldson and I started to play together. It was really crazy. Isn’t it something? It’s amazing how it all just fits like a glove.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: Now this back and forth that you had with George and Columbia, it was late sixties and early seventies?

Smith: You got it!

Chicago Jazz Magazine: Hard to believe that’s fifty years ago. So you were still pretty young at the time––in your mid-twenties.

Smith: Yes.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: And was your playing getting better?

Smith: Oh, my playing didn’t get any better. I just enjoyed playing it. [laughs]

Chicago Jazz Magazine: As you were developing your organ chops, who did you look to? Who were the guys you tried to emulate?

Smith: All of them. You know, people like Milt Buckner and Wild Bill Davis. One day, my neighbor says, “Hey man, my brother’s got this album.” So he let me hear it, and it was Jimmy Smith. When I heard that album, I just loved the sound, even on the “church” setting! [laughs] I love the organ. The organ is an extension of me; it’s like a part of me. So that was it. But I also loved vocals––I was drawn to vocalists and musicians.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: Which vocalists most influenced you?

Smith: Nat “King” Cole, Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan, all of them. And the thing about it, you have to imagine: I had no idea that I would be playing with all these people that I loved. I played with Brooke Benton. I played with Nancy Wilson and all of these people. It was just beautiful.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: You don’t seem to worry about staying in one particular genre; you’ll record Beatles covers and Jimmy Hendrix, and then you’ll go back to Coltrane. You do such a wide variety of material. For you, it’s all just music, isn’t it?

Smith: It’s all music. And you know what I think about when I hear a person playing country-western, or hard rock or heavy metal or whatever? That they are just as important as we are. I mean, they are as great as we are––or greater––at what they do. Even though we don’t play the same styles, they have something to say too. I say, “Oh, that’s a beautiful song.” I hear the beauty and I understand where they’re coming from, because we’re a family. When I write a song, it’s like a newborn baby––a child, a flower that is blooming. It blooms right in front of you and you watch it grow. I hear in somebody’s music the passion that have and what they had to go through––I hear all of that––and that is what I love about the music. You know, some people will try to knock a certain style of music: “Oh, I don’t like that,” or “he sold out.” They never told me that, because they can’t. My music is true, I just love it. I love it. I love it. And maybe a fan will come up to you and tell you, “I’m a fan of yours”; and actors and actresses will come up, and you can’t believe they listen to your music. And that’s the beauty in it: you have touched people around the world in different continents. People who can’t speak your language, but can feel and understand what you’re saying. When you’re touching people like that, you can’t play that, so how can you knock someone else for what they do? Oh, that’s blues. Oh, that’s folk. Man, they play the heck out of that!

Chicago Jazz Magazine: You’re all just trying to express yourselves, each in your own way.

Smith: In your own way, that’s all it is. You have something to say.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: When it comes to rap music, for example, what do you think they are trying to say?

Smith: Well, that’s their way of expressing themselves. They hear something in the music. It’s something that touched them in a way that’s new for them––a big feeling. You know, I don’t curse, and I’m not going to talk about somebody’s mother––that’s not my thing. Back then if somebody talked about my mother like they do, we’d get into a fight! We rapped in the earlier days, but it was a different kind of rap.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: Somebody once said that Muhammad Ali was the first rapper.

Smith: No, he was not the first rapper. You know they were rapping many, many, many years ago. They’re trying to tell you a story by rapping, but they don’t know it’s been done before. Actually you’ve heard it too, a long time ago. “Sound Off,” you know? “Sound off; one, two; Sound off; three, four…”

Chicago Jazz Magazine: In the army.

Smith: Yeah, they have been doing it for years, but now rap is the main thing. The rap, instead of just the music. Disc jockeys were doing that on the radio: [in a deejay voice] Hello, this is Dr. Lonnie Smith on WXPJ, with some piano playing in the background. All they’re doing is telling a story. It’s how you tell the story. That’s what I tell all the young guys when they’re doing the new classes or something. I tell them, “The problem is, you’re playing, but you’re not really getting it.” I say, “You have a story to tell, now tell your story. Don’t just play notes.” They want to play because they have the facilities or the chops––they want to show everything that they know. No, no, no, no, no, no–– you’ve got a story to tell. We all have stories!

Chicago Jazz Magazine: That’s where the connection with blues and jazz comes in, is that the best storytellers can improvise that story. They can do it on the spot.