Dr. Lonnie Smith Wove the Funk for Seven Decades

The Hammond organ virtuoso left our world last month, but his spirit lives on wherever there’s a groove


Walking a Harlem block with Dr. Lonnie Smith was always—like his stage show—a predictably unpredictable cadenza of zigs and zags, a herky-jerky check-in with the pulse of the people. Particularly if the master musician had just gobbled down his customary spread of two scrambled eggs, American cheese, turkey bacon, grits, pancakes, and grape jelly, the post-meal stroll—punctuated with carved cane, doo-rag (he saved the Korla Pandit–esque turban for sundown), Father Time beard, and radiant grit-eating grin—was a Looney Tunes trip down the block. Smith’s helium-tinged voice offered non-sequitur greetings like “It’s all your fault,” “You owe me money,” or “I’ll be white Black” to friends, strangers, and street raconteurs passing by, and was just as likely to elicit bewilderment as laughter. And if you had somewhere else to be while this charismatic cartoon character freely entertained, that was, indeed, all your fault.

Once in a while during this constitutional, a fellow ol’ timer might shout, “Hey, Lonnie,” then proceed to recount the times back in the day when a pre–Doc (self-ordained) Smith as sideman in pre-pop-star George Benson’s nascent quartet had given them a memorable night at Count Basie’s, Club Baron, the Palm Café, or the legendary Small’s Paradise (now an IHOP, where we just might’ve brunched up)—“New York was Harlem!” Nostalgic reverie followed, vamping about all the lost bars and clubs which once upon a time regularly housed a Hammond B3 organ—popular music’s first “portable” synthesizer, invented by a white tone-deaf clockmaker during the Great Depression, who never imagined (or intended) that it would escape the church confines and become woven into the funky fabric of mid-century African American urban nightlife—and all the giants who had tried to tame that 400-pound electromagnetic beast of an instrument. Names synonymous with mastery of the Hammond organ’s drawbars, bass pedals, and tone-wheeled presets would be bandied about, like Jack McDuff, Bill Doggett, Richard “Groove” Holmes, Jimmy McGriff, Shirley Scott, and the greatest of them all: James Oscar Smith.

Jimmy Smith (no relation to the younger Lonnie) used to transport his Hammond in a Cadillac hearse, and a week after he died, on February 8, 2005, alto saxophonist, bandleader, and indefatigable smack-talker Lou Donaldson lamented the loss of his musical peer from an East Coast stage. His seasoned quartet had just burned through Charlie Parker’s “Wee,” propulsed by his longtime on-again-off-again erumpent beturbaned sideman. Earlier in the evening, Donaldson had informed the audience, “Tonight we have straight-ahead jazz—no fusion, no confusion.” Later, he introduced the band members, deadpanning when he got to Lonnie, “On the organ, this fella needs no introduction, so the hell with it. They call him the organ doctor….” But then he added, “With the passing of the great James Smith, I think Dr. Smith is the next man to take it over.”

Many listeners would’ve said the Turbanator takeover had already been in effect for years at that point, as evidenced by Dr. Smith’s significant recorded output. But if ever there were an authority, it was veteran bebopper Donaldson, having first recorded with Jimmy Smith in the ’50s while Lonnie was but a hungry wee lad busy trying to add his voice to a few obscure R&B 45s in a teenaged group called the Supremes (not the Motown mega-group) up yonder in his native Buffalo. By the ’60s, “Papa” Lou’s groups had become the unofficial Happy Hammond Funk & Soul School, an organist incubator for a slew of Hammond B-3 youngbloods smearing the groove grease of “soul jazz”—a fusion of popular R&B and jazz sensibilities pushed by the likes of Blue Note, Verve, Prestige, and Atlantic—over airwaves and into earholes. The people (generally Black) lovingly bought LPs; the critics (generally white) scornfully scribbled “sellout.”

As luck would have it, the self-taught 25-year-old Lonnie Smith found himself in the Hammond cockpit of Rudy Van Gelder’s Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, studio, for Donaldson’s “Alligator Boogaloo,” a hip tune that’d sell plenty on its way to eventually becoming a staple of dance floors, hip hop samples, and Donaldson’s encore showstopper. It also nestled Smith into Blue Note’s iconic fold, truly launching what would be a simmering half-century deep-in-the-pocket run as bandleader, composer, and enigmatic keyboardist extraordinaire, taking him far from his childhood poverty and to studios and stages uptown, downtown, midtown, and all over the world. After a lengthy struggle with pulmonary fibrosis, that rich tour came to an end this past September 28, when Dr. Lonnie Smith died, at the age of 79.

Rare is the musician who continues to improve and explore well into their seventh decade. This is particularly true of drummers and jazz organists, whose instruments demand the nonstop aerobic coordination of all four limbs, a feat that can leave both musician and observer winded. But Lonnie Smith’s sonic sandbox often required more. Live on stage—clad in flowing fabrics and glimmering rings, like a magician—he’d throw in shoulders, mouth, tongue, eyebrows, and lids in addition to swinging arms, legs, feet, and jackhammering fingertips as points and counterpoints to his melodies, bass lines, and choruses, to such a degree you’d be afraid if he didn’t self-combust, you just might. Only the natural laws of time and space seemed to—barely—keep things in one piece. “The organ is just so forceful,” he once told me. “It has all the elements of the earth—the sun, the clouds, the water, the rain, the thunder … But the organ is just a piece of wood until the spirit goes in there. So you play the way you are—I’m more of a free spirit.”

It was a spirit that, as reflected in song titles from his two-dozen albums, could “Move Your Hand,” instill some “Peace of Mind,” or cause a “Funk Reaction.” A mischievous spirit that could turn the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams” into bluesy dirge, the Beatles’ “Come Together” into disco stomp, Harold Mabern’s “The Beehive” into symphonic psychedelia, or land Keith Emerson’s prog-rock pyrotechnics inside Sly Stone’s “Stand.” Jimi Hendrix, Sun Ra, Thelonius Monk, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Bootsy Collins, and Bernie Worrell were kindred spirits—eager to groove and fuse that confusing (to some) musical mess. “Some people cannot enjoy jazz, or say they don’t like jazz,” Smith once told me. “Well, most people when they do hear me say, ‘I didn’t think I would like jazz, but you’re not so, uh, stiff or stuck up’—it’s spiritual and loose, and that’s what they’re gonna get.”

For Smith, this also meant messing around with the latest synth, talking drum, or musically modified walking stick, but he would always be drawn back to the funky wooden furniture, that Hammond orchestra-in-a-box. True, like said show biz spirits, he could be a diva, but he was no prima donna, despite racking up inductions to the Buffalo Music and Jazz Organ Fellowship Halls of Fame and being knighted—like Jimmy Smith before him—an NEA Jazz Master. He filled many hearts, and broke a few, along the way. “I always wanted the people to feel my music,” he said. “The pocket is like unity—everyone is at the same place at that time, and there’s one heartbeat. That’s what a groove feels like: It’s a heartbeat.”   ❖

From the Voice October 2021 print edition.

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