Dr. Lonnie Smith, the Hammond organist who pushed musical boundaries and was recognized by fans and peers as one of the finest to ever play the instrument, died Tuesday (Sept. 28) at home in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. He was 79.
Born in Buffalo, New York on July 3, 1942, Smith was turned on to gospel, blues and jazz, thanks to the guidance of his mom.
As a teen, he tried his hand at the Hammond organ, an instrument he would soon master.
Smith consumed the music of Wild Bill Davis, Bill Doggett, and Jimmy Smith, and took his talents to the Pine Grill, a local venue, where he caught the attention of Lou Donaldson, Jack McDuff, and George Benson.
With Benson, he would cut his teeth and collaborate on such albums as It’s Uptown and The George Benson Cookbook.
“He took it to another level. He played things nobody else even thought of,” enthused Benson in Dr. B3; The Soul of the Music, a 2019 documentary on Smith’s life and career.
Smith would make an immediate impression with the Blue Note label, initially with Lou Donaldson’s band, on the saxophonist’s album Alligator Boogaloo from 1967.
It was the just the start of big things for Smith, who landed his own Blue Note deal and cut the album Think! in 1968, produced by Blue Note co-founder Francis Wolff.
Smith hit a rich vein of form, recording Turning Point, Move Your Hand, Drives and Live at Club Mozambique all in the space of two years, albums that are, to this day, considered classics of soul jazz.
Over time, Smith would record for many labels including Kudu, Groove Merchant, T.K., Scufflin’, Criss Cross, Palmetto, and his own label Pilgrimage, and he’d stage a return to Blue Note in 2016.
The honors would flow too, with DownBeat awarding Smith top organist of the year, he would be feted by the Jazz Journalists Association, Buffalo Music Hall of Fame, and, in 2017, Smith was appointed a NEA Jazz Master.
Smith would inspire generations to come. His works would be sampled across dance and hip-hop, and would appear in recordings by the likes of A Tribe Called Quest and Wu-Tang Clan. His prodigious talents and ability to weave styles earned him the moniker as a grandfather of acid jazz.
“Jazz is American Classical,” he’s quoted as saying on his official biog. “And this music is a reflection of what’s happening at the time… The organ is like the sunlight, rain and thunder…it’s all the worldly sounds to me.”
Blue Note remembered Smith as “one of the funkiest and most inventive organists to ever walk the earth.” Paying tribute, Blue Note president Don Was said: “Doc was a musical genius who possessed a deep, funky groove and a wry, playful spirit.” The late artist’s “mastery of the drawbars was equaled only by the warmth in his heart. He was a beautiful guy and all of us at Blue Note Records loved him a lot.”
Earlier in 2021, Smith released what turned out be his final studio album, Breathe. Was produced the collection, Smith’s third since his return to Blue Note.
The cause of death was attributed to pulmonary fibrosis, a lung disease that occurs when lung tissue becomes damaged and scarred.
We're deeply saddened to announce that Hammond B3 organ legend Dr. Lonnie Smith passed away today at 79 years old. Doc was one of the funkiest & most inventive organists to ever walk the earth & we were proud to bring this remarkable man's joyous music to fans all over the world. pic.twitter.com/6NgejJsXpW
— Blue Note Records (@bluenoterecords) September 29, 2021