Dr. Lonnie Smith remembers vividly that he experienced what can only be called a life-changing epiphany when he first sat down at a Hammond B3 organ. It was in a music shop owned by a man called Art Kubera. Smith was in his early twenties. “You know when you open up a Bible, and you see that they have a picture sometimes with the rays coming from the sky?,” the organist asks me. “That’s what it was like for me. I was sitting at the organ and then everything hit me, and I could hear the voices and everything.”
For Smith, it was confirmation that playing the Hammond organ was going to be his manifest destiny. He started going to Mr Kubera’s shop everyday to practice on the keyboard from opening to closing time. The proprietor didn’t seem to mind but one day, intrigued by Smith’s perseverance, asked him about his fascination with the big, chunky piece of musical equipment in his shop. Recalls Dr. Smith: “He said, ‘can I ask you a question, son?’ I said ‘yes, sir,’ and he said, ‘why do you come in every day and just sit until closing time?’ I said ‘well, sir, I want to learn to play the instrument and if I can go out and play it, I can make a living.'” Smith recalls that seemed to make a deep impression with Mr Kubera who a few days later, closed up the shop early, beckoned the young organ grinder to the back of the store where “he opened a door and the organ was looking dead at me. He said, ‘if you get this out of here, it’s yours.'”
Smith, who was born in the city of Lackawanna, New York, was incredulous at Art Kubera’s generosity. “I didn’t pay anything for it, and they were like over three grand back then,” he says. “I call Art Kubera my angel. He watched my whole career. He just passed, a little over a year ago. We were doing a documentary on me and he died the next day before he even got to tell a story.”
Before the organ swept him off his feet in his early twenties – “I started late” – Lonnie Smith dabbled with the trumpet. “I messed around in school trying to play trumpet but it was by ear,” he remembers. “I would hear a song and would pick the trumpet up and play the melody. I was playing that in the school band the first week that I picked it up. So I had a natural talent, which was God’s gift.”
Smith could also sing, and in the late ’50s sang harmonies in a group called the Teen Kings, which featured a young Grover Washington Jr on saxophone. But it was the Hammond organ that was his true calling, and once he had one in his possession – thanks to the generous Art Kubera – he never looked back. His meeting with a young guitarist in the early ’60s was another momentous moment in the career of the young organist. “I went down to hear Jack McDuff play and he let me sit in and play with him. George Benson was Jack’s guitar player and he said to me afterwards, let’s get a group together.” Both musicians exchanged telephone numbers but then lost contact with each other as their gigs took them to different parts of the United States. Smith ended up playing with the Sammy Bryant group in Ohio. “We were also playing behind a lot of Motown groups that would come through,” he remembers. Meanwhile, George Benson, a rising star of the jazz scene, was also out on the road but he needed an organist. His manager, Jimmy Boyd, recommended Lonnie Smith. Remembers the organist: “George said, that’s who I was looking for. I had his number but I lost it.” Smith gave two weeks notice to the Sammy Bryant group and a fortnight later, George Benson drove to Ohio to pick him up.
“We took off to New York with just two songs,” laughs Smith. Even so, they made quite an impression playing in a quartet together. “We both got signed with Columbia Records by a young fellow by the name of John Hammond. He was a legend and signed us right there on the spot.” Hammond was the gifted A&R man who had discovered Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan, and Aretha Franklin. He produced Smith’s debut LP, ‘Finger Lickin’ Good Soul Organ,’ released by Columbia in 1967.
But Smith was soon courted by another label – Blue Note Records. Blue Note became aware of him through his work alongside alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson. Both he and George Benson did a session at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio for Donaldson. “That was ‘Alligator Bogaloo,'” recalls Smith. “We had such a groove going. As soon as we had it, we had a connection there. That was it. It made a hit. Then Blue Note called me and said (A&R man/arranger) ‘Duke Pearson and (label boss) Frank Wolff want you over here,’ so they got me from Columbia records.”
At Blue Note, Lonnie Smith launched the second phase of his career with the album ‘Think!’ released in 1968 which was basically a quintet studio session featuring David Newman on tenor sax/flute and trumpeter, Lee Morgan. Smith has fond memories of working with the horn blower, who was tragically shot and killed by his own girlfriend four years later. “He was beautiful,” says Smith. “He had a lot of fire and a lot of life and he laughed and liked to joke. He was a really nice guy.”
‘Think!’ with its funky, soul-jazz grooves, made #46 in the US R&B charts, and Lonnie Smith followed it up with three more LPs for Blue Note up until 1970. The biggest was a live album called ‘Move Your Hand,’ recorded at Club Harlem in 1969. The infectious title song was a jukebox hit and the parent album became Smith’s best-selling project on Blue Note, peaking at #24 in the US R&B albums chart during a 16-week chart run.
In 1972, Smith joined producer Creed Taylor’s Kudu label, an imprint of its parent company, C.T.I. With Taylor at the helm, he recorded ‘Mama Wailer,’ sadly his only studio date for the company. It’s now regarded as a cult classic. “He was easy to work with,” recalls Smith of Creed Taylor. “A very nice guy. He knew the business and knew what he wanted. What he wanted was a roster, like Blue Note had, of all the top, top musicians, so we all played on each other’s records. Some would play on mine and then I’d play on theirs. He kept changing the guys but he knew what he was doing. And then he took it on the road. It was a wonderful label.”
Creed Taylor also liked to record at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio like Blue Note had. Smith says that Van Gelder – a secretive, fastidious studio boffin who wore white gloves in the studio – was one of the few engineers to capture his organ sound accurately. “I remember recording with different people and they didn’t get my sound,” he says. “They made the organ sound like it was a kazoo or something. It sounded thin and light. They didn’t get my sound that you hear when I’m playing live but Rudy Van Gelder did.”
As the ’70s progressed, Lonnie Smith joined the Groove Merchant album for several albums which featured him singing and playing various keyboards in addition to his beloved Hammond organ. Sonny Lester produced some of his albums. “He was a nice fellow but he wanted me to write a lot of songs for all the other artists too,” recalls the organ doctor, who says he was reluctant to provide songs for other people. “I didn’t do it. Because I write in a lot of different ways I could have written for a lot of different people but I didn’t.”
By this time, Lonnie Smith had started to wear his signature item of clothing – the turban. The 1980s was a lean time for him in terms of recordings (he released a solitary album in that decade) but in the 1990s, he began to recorded more frequently and by the 2000s – a decade when he was now prefixing his name with the title ‘Dr’ – he was back in the groove, recording tribute albums to Beck and Jimi Hendrix.
In 2015, Dr. Smith re-signed to Blue Note and under the aegis of producer and label president, Don Was, released ‘Evolution,’ his first album for the company in 45 years. “Number one, I felt like I hadn’t left,” laughs the genial organ guru reflecting on his being reunited with the iconic jazz label that celebrates its 80th anniversary next year. “It’s like family. Even if I didn’t do another record with them, Blue Note is always there. Once you’ve been with them, you’re always stamped as a Blue Note artist. After all those years away I feel I’m back at home. It feels great to me.”
‘Evolution’ featured cameos from other artists signed to the label. One of them was tenor saxophonist, Joe Lovano, who recorded with Smith in the 1970s. “I took him on when he was a young pup and he used to play with me,” remembers the organist. Fellow keyboardist, Robert Glasper, also contributed to Smith’s first album back with Blue Note. “It was like playing with an old soul,” remarks Smith.”He heard exactly what I wanted when I started playing so it fit. He was young but he still understood what I was trying to do without me having to explain. When you have to explain music, that’s not the way. I don’t want to explain anything. I want you to feel.”
Dr. Lonnie’s new album for Blue Note, ‘All In My Mind’ is a live recording, capturing him and his trio at the Jazz Standard last year when the keyboardist was celebrating his 75th birthday. It features seven tracks, which range from soul-jazz finger snappers (‘Up Jumped Spring’) to modal vamps (Wayne Shorter’s ‘Juju’) to more expansive, exotic pieces like the sultry, atmospheric number ‘Alhambra.’ Sat in the production chair on the project again was Don Was. Dr. Lonnie says he has a great relationship with the ex-Was Not Was man who has become in recent years one of the most respected record producers in the USA (his credits include the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and Bonnie Raitt). “What I love about him, he’s not fighting me,” he laughs. “When I’m in the studio, he wants me to play me and to do what I feel and what I hear. He gives me the freedom and the go-ahead to play and be myself.”
The album’s title track was a song that Lonnie Smith originally wrote and recorded in the late ’70s as an uptempo tune. He’s slowed it right down on the album and transformed it into a vocal duet between himself and a new singing sensation from America – a young lady called Alicia Alatuja. Some people might recall her from her solo she did accompanied by a choir at the second inauguration of President Barack Obama in 2013. “She lives in New York, in Jersey,” explains Dr. Smith. “She’s a heck of a singer. She’s been singing with me when normally I use a larger group, but I decided to let her sing that song with the trio ‘cos I thought it would be great for her. It worked out fine. She did a beautiful job. It was almost like she’d written the song herself, she did such a wonderful job.”
Lonnie Smith has been playing the Hammond organ now for well over fifty years. I wondered if he ever got tired of it and wanted to use a different keyboard? He answers in the negative. “Uh-uh. It expresses the way I feel. To me, it has all the elements that you could think of in the universe. It has the rain and the floods, but also the sunshine, the rainbows, the snow, and the stars. It’s got everything.”
As for future projects, Dr Smith says that he’s always brimming with new ideas. “There’s always more work to be done,” he states. ” I’d like to make the music that touches the world in a deeper form and in a deeper way. Maybe using strings or an orchestra. I would love that. I have done a big band thing in Europe but it’s not out yet… It’s beautiful.”
Dr Lonnie Smith is evidently a musician who spreads benign, uplifting cosmic vibes. In conversation, he’s softy-spoken, yet extremely self-effacing, and peppers his reminisces with humorous asides. He seems content with himself and is touched with genuine humility. He calls those that have helped him in his career ‘angels.’ They include his long-time friends, George Benson and Lou Donaldson (with whom he’s still in contact) and the man that started it all – music shop owner, the late Art Kubera.
He ponders the impact his music has had on people around the world. “Could you imagine that, making people happy everywhere you go? “ he asks me with a tinge of wonderment in his voice. “You’ve never seen them before but they’ve heard of you and you’re making them happy. Wow. That’s better than money and anything. And you start talking to them and they say ‘I’ve never liked jazz before but I love the way you’re playing.’ Oh, wow, you can’t beat that.”
DR LONNIE SMITH’S ‘ALL IN MY MIND’ IS OUT NOW VIA BLUE NOTE RECORDS