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Dr. Lonnie Smith, Master Of The Hammond Organ, Dies At 79

Dr. Lonnie Smith.
Dr. Lonnie Smith.

Dr. Lonnie Smith, an NEA Jazz Master known for his dynamism and wizardry on the Hammond B3 organ, died Tuesday. He was 79 years old.

His death was confirmed on Twitter by Blue Note Records. A spokesperson for the label said the cause of death was pulmonary fibrosis, a form of lung disease.

Smith was one of the most unique Hammond stylists to emerge from the golden era of 1960s organ ensembles, a scene that had its roots in Black American neighborhood venues. Early in his career, he was lauded for his work in guitarist George Benson's first quartet and subsequently for his involvement with saxophonist Lou Donaldson's groups.

Musically, Smith wove an other-worldly and soulful tapestry that joined relentlessly grooving bass lines with stirring melodies and harmonies. As a band leader and performer, Smith had a spirited and visceral performance style that allowed him to garner fans around the world.

Offstage, Smith was affable and engaging with a healthy sense of humor. At concerts, the turban and tunic clad organist would unassumingly stroll onto the stage with one of his signature canes and waste no time. Almost immediately, all four of Smith's limbs would begin dancing, almost magically, at the Hammond organ's console.

Smith was born in Lackawanna, N.Y., a suburb of Buffalo, on July 3, 1942. His mother introduced him to gospel, blues, jazz and early rhythm and blues. As a teenager in the 1950s, Smith began learning music by ear and played trumpet and other brass instruments in school. He also began singing at local venues throughout Buffalo in a doo wop group known as The Supremes, an ensemble that predated the award-winning Motown all-female group that followed.

After a brief stint in the Air Force, Smith returned home to Buffalo in the early 1960s, at which point he began listening closely to Blue Note star organist Jimmy Smith. The pull to become a musician became stronger, but he had not decided on an instrument. Around that same time, he began frequenting a music store owned by local accordion player Art Kubera, who would have a catalyzing effect on Smith's career.

"One day the owner [Kubera] said 'Son, why do you sit here every day until closing time?'" Smith recalled in conversation with the National Endowment for The Arts. "I told him, 'Sir, if I had an instrument I could work, and if I could work, I could make a living.' One day I went there, and he closed the place. We went to his house in the back, and there was a brand-new Hammond organ. He told me, 'If you can get this out of here, then it's yours.' It was snowing in Buffalo, but I did. Art was my angel."

After a neighbor taught him how to power up the organ and navigate its stops and drawbars, Smith began playing and his growth on the instrument was uncannily rapid. Barely a year into his development, he began playing in house bands in the Midwest, New York City and in Buffalo. Many of the groups Smith performed in were backing bands for soul singers and instrumentalists on the touring circuit. In 1964, Smith broke onto the international jazz scene when organist Jack McDuff's young guitarist, George Benson, resigned his position and formed a group of his own. Benson secured Smith for the organ chair in his new quartet. After their residencies at Harlem's Palm Cafe and Minton's Playhouse that same year, both Benson and Smith were signed by Columbia Records and made albums as leaders. They established a new style that joined blistering bebop with new rhythm and blues. The music was danceable, yet it contained the language of the jazz tradition. When saxophonist Lou Donaldson hired Smith and Benson for 1967's Blue Note smash Alligator Boogaloo, the result was a surprise jukebox hit whose title track landed on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

This success set the stage for Smith to be signed by Blue Note as a band leader in 1968. Within two years, the organist cut five albums for the label. He earned honors as Downbeat's "Top Jazz Organist" and his albums Think (1968) and Drives (1970) both earned spots on Billboard's R&B albums chart.

Smith left Blue Note records in 1971 and recorded albums for producers Creed Taylor and Sonny Lester off and on during the 1970s. He began to fade from the spotlight as the sound of popular music changed and Hammond organ-based music waned in popularity. During this time, he began to don his signature turbans. Though not explicitly religious, he wore them as a symbol of universal spirituality, love and respect. Smith also adopted the moniker "Dr." not as an indication of formal training, but to highlight his ability to serve as a unique practitioner of the music. (It also helped to create a distinction between him and fellow keyboardist Lonnie Liston Smith.) He worked briefly with Marvin Gaye, reconnected with George Benson and, by the mid 1980s, he rekindled his unique brand of swing on the Hammond organ with guitarists Richie Hart, Jimmy Ponder and Melvin Sparks, vocalist Etta James and drummer Alvin Queen.

By the 1990s, the groove-based acid jazz movement broke out in London, England, and in the United States, hip-hop rejuvenated the beat-driven jazz of the late 1960s and early 1970s through sampling. As a result, Smith was again in demand as a featured guest artist and as a leader. He released a string of four critically acclaimed albums for Palmetto Records in the early 2000s that paired him with guitarists Peter Bernstein and Jonathan Kriesberg and drummers Gregory Hutchinson, Allison Miller, Herlin Riley and Jamire Williams.

Smith self-released two fiery albums in 2013 and 2014 before returning to the Blue Note fold in 2016. Over the next year, Smith was named as an NEA Jazz Master and made notable, cross-genre collaborations with Norah Jones and The Roots. Smith's final albums, All In My Mind and Breathe, were released in 2018 and 2021, respectively, and featured studio collaborations with Iggy Pop, along with magical in-concert explorations with his working band of Kriesberg, drummers Johnathan Blake or Joe Dyson, and horns.

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