Dr. Lonnie Smith wasn’t an actual doctor, and didn’t play one on TV. But when he manipulated the keys, pedals and drawbars of his Hammond B-3 organ, as he did publicly and on more than 70 albums from the early 1960s through the late 2010s, he was a soulful jazz surgeon.
Smith died Sept. 28, at age 79, at his home in Fort Lauderdale after a long battle with pulmonary fibrosis. He’d started splitting his time between New York City and South Florida in the 1990s when, despite his stardom in the Big Apple, he became part of the house band at a popular Fort Lauderdale nightclub called O’Hara’s.
JazzTimes once described Smith as “a riddle wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a turban.” And he was all of that, but so much more. He adopted his trademark headgear in the mid-1970s, seemingly (and successfully) to make people wonder why, since he was often questioned about it but consistently sidestepped an answer. And the honorary doctorate Smith eventually bestowed upon himself was actually to avoid confusion with another popular Hammond organist who’d started out in the 1960s, Lonnie Liston Smith.
As for his enigmatic tendencies, there were many. Any interview with Smith became a case of expecting only the unexpected. “It’s your fault,” he once replied when I told him he deserved wider recognition. “That’s a fallacy,” he told jazz journalist Michael J. West when the writer wished him a happy recent 70th birthday and accurately recalled the date. “Doc” enjoyed keeping people guessing and on their toes in conversation, even if it meant that he could appear to be, well, a little out there.
“Yeah, but Doc’s the good kind of out there,” said Jonathan Kreisberg, the longtime guitarist within Smith’s self-titled trio. That group’s final release, Breathe, was released this year on the Blue Note recording label. The same label had released Smith’s second solo effort, Think!, 53 years earlier in 1968.
“Doc was a musical genius who possessed a deep, funky groove and a wry, playful spirit,” said Don Was, president of Blue Note. “His mastery of the drawbars was equaled only by the warmth of his heart.”
Lonnie Smith was born on July 3, 1942, in Lackawanna, N.Y., just south of Buffalo. Raised in a household filled with the strains of jazz, gospel, and classical music, he learned to play by ear as a pianist, brass instrumentalist, and vocalist. At age 20, he frequented a local music store owned by Art Kubera often enough that the proprietor gifted him with a Hammond B-3 organ.
“It’s an extension of my being,” Smith said about the instrument. “It’s a part of my lens. It breathes for me. It speaks for me.”
A year later, he rented the organ to Brother Jack McDuff when that Hammond icon was performing with alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson and guitarist George Benson at the popular Pine Grill in Buffalo. When McDuff invited Smith to sit in to return the favor, Benson’s ears perked up. Little could he have known, but Smith was sharing the stage with the musicians who would help shape his ascending career for the next several years.
The Benson albums It’s Uptown (1966) and The George Benson Cookbook (1967) started the young guitarist’s arc toward stardom, with Smith as part of his quartet. Also in 1967, Smith released his debut Finger Lickin’ Good Soul Organ on Columbia Records, and recorded on Donaldson’s breakthrough release, Alligator Bogaloo, for Blue Note.
“Lou’s record went crazy,” Smith recalled, “and he’s telling me that his label wants me, too. I’d only been playing for a little while, and it all happened so fast.”
Blue Note became Smith’s recording label through 1970. For the remainder of that decade, the organist augmented his jazz appearances and recordings by performing with soul, blues, and pop artists as diverse as Marvin Gaye, Etta James, and Gladys Knight. He laid low through the 1980s, releasing only a handful of albums within a vapid decade filled with music videos, synthesizers, electronic drums, and programming, before he relocated to Fort Lauderdale and found steady work at O’Hara’s.
“I’d decided that I didn’t really want to travel,” Smith said. “I was tired of being on the road, so once I started getting work in Florida, I didn’t really need to go anywhere else.”
His music, however, certainly did. Smith’s trio with guitarist John Abercrombie and drummer Marvin “Smitty” Smith released explorative tributes to John Coltrane (Afro Blue) and Jimi Hendrix (Purple Haze) in 1993 and 1994. At the same time, the organist unwittingly became a much-sampled hero within the rise of both England’s acid jazz scene and American hip-hop (A Tribe Called Quest, Wu-Tang Clan).
The ever open-minded Smith’s 2003 nod to alt-pop star Beck, Boogaloo To Beck, featured a remake of his hit single “Loser.” Smith signed to Palmetto Records for his subsequent 2004 release, Too Damn Hot!, and formed his latest trio starting with the 2010 Palmetto release Spiral, featuring Kreisberg and drummer Jamire Williams. Before his final Blue Note efforts, some of his releases from the 2010s were also on the recording label he’d formed, Pilgrimage Records.
Kreisberg was a rising star while a music student at the University of Miami in the mid-1990s, and often visited O’Hara’s to witness Smith’s surgical prowess. The guitarist remained within Smith’s trio for a decade while a series of even younger drummers (Williams, Joe Dyson, Johnathan Blake) made the group a three-generation triad that proved capable of playing anything from Smith’s originals to jazz standards to pop hits. At the Arts Garage in Delray Beach in late 2016, the keyboardist called out a memorable cover of Paul Simon’s hit “Fifty Ways To Leave Your Lover” with Kreisberg and Dyson.
“That was ‘Fiddy Ways To Leave Your Lover,’“ Smith announced afterward to laughs. “Not fifty, but fiddy.”
Such was the ever-present sense of humor of the good Doc, who received a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Fellowship in 2017. His 2021 Blue Note finale, Breathe, expectedly features guitarist Kreisberg and drummer Blake, plus a horn section, yet also a guest that no one could’ve possibly expected. Seventy-four-year-old singer Iggy Pop had risen to fame as front man for 1960s Detroit proto-punk band The Stooges, and had forever since been known for his over-the-top vocals and outrageous stage antics.
Yet on Breathe, Pop delivers understated performances on evocative studio cover versions of pop hits from the 1960s (Donovan’s closing “Sunshine Superman”) and 1970s (Timmy Thomas’ opening “Why Can’t We Live Together”). In-between, the expanded lineup performs live cuts at Smith’s 75th birthday celebration at the Jazz Standard in New York City in 2017. But both studio tracks feature only the singer, the core trio, and percussionist Richard Bravo.
In letting Pop have the last word, the Doc got the last laugh. As always, and in every way, well-played.