With the passing of Dr. Lonnie Smith on 28 September 2021 at his home in Fort Lauderdale, FL, the jazz world bade farewell to a true legend. The cause of death is reported as pulmonary fibrosis. Smith was 79.
With his large, soulful eyes, long white beard and distinctive turban headwear, he cut a striking figure. His playing was equally remarkable. Observers have noted his mastery of dynamics. He could play softer than a whisper, then turn around and command that organ to scream, strut, bop or groove hard as mood and music dictated. Adept with the pedals, he needed no bassist, a feat not every organist has mastered. He was the total package.
Lonnie was just about the last of the classic organ masters from those years when the Hammond B3 dominated African-American jazz joints throughout the land, wherever enough black folks congregated. Jimmy Smith ignited that tradition when he burst onto the scene, fully formed, in 1956. The Hammond had been used in jazz prior to that, of course, but Smith (no relation to Lonnie) introduced a whole new sound and approach, one that depended on modern harmony, phrasing and rhythm, and that also utilised blinding speed and strong blues and gospel sensibilities. He was followed in quick succession by Brother Jack McDuff, Jimmy McGriff, Richard “Groove” Holmes, Shirley Scott, Don Patterson, Larry Young and many others. Dr. Lonnie built a successful career, extending the innovations of these players.
Born 3 July 1942 in Lackawanna, New York, Lonnie credited his mother as an important early influence. After some instruction on trumpet, he began performing in his teens, as a vocalist. Lonnie’s love affair with the B3 began at a music shop in Buffalo where he used to spend many hours. One day, the proprietor, Art Kubera, said he wanted to show him something. He took the young man to the back, and there sat a brand new Hammond B3. Kubera told him if he could manage to get the organ out of the store, it was his. “You’ve seen how ants pick things up and carry them,” Smith used to tell interviewers. This unexpected and generous gift changed his life.
Around 20 or 21 at the time, Lonnie heard Jimmy Smith and realised he had some woodshedding to do. A period of learning by doing followed. Smith provided backup for numerous soul and R&B acts. He worked with everybody, developing his skills by playing. He was basically self-taught, and never learned to read music.
By the mid-60s, he was ready for prime time and ended up in the band of a hot young guitarist named George Benson. Through Benson’s association with Columbia Records, Smith appeared on such album classics as It’s Uptown and The George Benson Cookbook. He recorded his own Columbia album as well, called Finger Lickin’ Good. These records reveal Lonnie as a formidable player at 24, rhythmically agile, harmonically astute, swinging and funky by turns. He also revealed a passionately tender ballad sound. He had arrived.
He played a lot of straightahead jazz with Benson, but his experience with R&B outfits informed his sound as well. In Bob Belden’s liners to a live date from 1970, Smith related how his association with Lou Donaldson came about: “Lou was at Rudy’s (Van Gelder Studios) working on a Blue Note date and he just couldn’t get the ‘thing’ he was looking for from the guys on the session. So George Benson and I were called in by Duke Pearson, and that was the Alligator Bogaloo record.” Enlivened and funkified by the presence of Smith and Benson, the 1967 album was a resounding success and has endured as an early classic of the soul-jazz genre. It has remained in print and still sounds fresh today, all these years after it appeared.
One thing often leads to another in the music biz, and as a result of the Donaldson date, Blue Note co-founder Francis Wolff offered Smith his own contract with the label, the most prestigious in jazz then. Lonnie was thrilled. “Blue Note was the best at that time,” he recalled, “the best sound, covers, and musicians. I was proud to be a part of the label.” The Blue Note association led to four released albums, three studio-generated and one live date. The first studio date, called Think! appeared in 1968, and featured some of the best, including Lee Morgan, David “Fathead” Newman, and Melvin Sparks.
His leader albums allowed Lonnie to continue developing an individual approach, and also provided him an outlet for his original compositions that further burnished his credentials. There were unreleased recordings as well, some of which appeared later. Live At Club Mozambique wasn’t released until the 1990s. It consisted largely of Lonnie originals, and Belden had this to say about it: “The music . . . is still as fresh and funky today as it was on May 21, 1970. It sounds like a happy reunion between old friends, no competition, just an air of fun and good times.”
Over a long and distinguished career, he recorded numerous albums for a variety of labels, and entertained audiences worldwide. He also did his share to encourage younger, up-and-coming players. Two talented Osaka ladies he befriended and jammed with are Midori Ono and Atsuko Hashimoto. Midori supplied the above photo showing Chester Thompson (left), herself and Lonnie in San José, CA in 2017. It’s clear from Midori’s smile how she thought about Lonnie. He was very generous with his time and talent, and those lucky enough to have met him fell under the spell of a gentle, self-aware, spiritual soul. He will be sorely missed.
An incident I witnessed at a jazz club in Osaka some years ago stands as testimony to the measure of the man. He had come there to hear the featured act, local B3 Queen Atsuko Hashimoto. It was an informal jam, and a few of Atsuko’s students were there to sit in. While one of the students played, two hotshot sax players got into an extended duel. They were basically showing off, totally into their own bag, not even playing on the chord changes anymore, and the poor student didn’t know what to do. Lonnie says: “She should just stop playing.” Finally, he can’t stand to watch her flail around anymore, so he gets up, walks over to the organ, places his hands on the girl’s and tells her to stop, which she does. The two hotshots, oblivious, are still showing off, playing as loud and fast as they can, while the girl sits there, looking down. Then tears well up in her eyes, and she starts crying, noticeably, humiliated in public by her failure to perform for the master. Lonnie is like, “Oh, man . . . ” At the break, the girl is still distraught, and Lonnie goes over, takes her by the hand, and they disappear in the back of the club for 15 minutes.
They came back, the girl all smiles. “What did you tell her?” I ask him. “I told her it wasn’t her fault, and that she should get back up there and play again.” She did. Finally, the Good Doctor got up to play himself, and, no disrespect to Hashimoto, a fine player, that B3 sounded like a whole ’nuther organ! That was the only time I ever saw Atsuko dancing around the room. It was quite a night.
In preparing this article I emailed Lonnie’s good friend in San José, Pete Fallico, and he sent me this glowing tribute:
“Lonnie was like a brother to me . . . He was a kind man who possessed a warm and comforting personality. His sense of humor was original and it became an integral part of his personae. He was known for his catch phrases when he met you and/or greeted you. Phrases like: ‘It’s Your Fault’ or ‘Where’s My Money?’ always brought smiles to his listeners’ faces. Lonnie did not drink or smoke or even curse . . . he was that gentle of a man. I never heard him say a disparaging word about anyone or anything. He preferred saying ‘yes’ to people who requested favors from him rather than turning his back. His attributes were many but his contributions to the world of jazz organ and jazz itself were magnanimous.
“I can remember attending numerous festivals with Lonnie where other famous jazz musicians were also featured but only one, Dr. Lonnie Smith, was represented in the press the following day. His aura was undeniable and the manner in which he captivated an audience was uncompromising. Wearing Indian attire with colorful turbans and accessories was brilliant. His style of playing – so demonstrative and animated, pushed him to the forefront of any music event. Lonnie believed in the lineage of jazz organ and he made it his life. He carried with him the traditions of Jimmy Smith and yet he forged an addendum to the jazz organ story with his inventiveness and pure genius at the instrument. His love for the Hammond organ and Leslie speaker as the vehicles with which he could react to life and express himself was unmatched.”
Incidentally, Lonnie adopted the “Dr.” honorific himself, for reasons perhaps only he knew. He held no advanced degrees, and the turbans he wore had no particular religious significance. Dr. Lonnie Smith is survived by his manager and partner, Holly Case; by four daughters, Lani Chambers, Chandra Thomas, Charisse Partridge and Vonnie Smith; and by several grandchildren.