Dr. Lonnie Smith (309068)
Credit: Ron Scott photo

Dr. Lonnie Smith whose deliberate cross genres of gospel melodies, R&B, blues, and jazz added a distinct voice to the Hammond B-3 organ, died Sept. 28, at his home in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He was 79.

His death was confirmed by his longtime partner and manager Holly Case, who was by his side, the cause was pulmonary fibrosis.

Early in the 1970s Smith added the “Dr.” title to his name. He noted to the Amsterdam News “I am not a medical doctor, but I can sure operate when it comes to this music and I know how to make an audience feel good.”  

Smith was named a 2017 NEA Jazz Masters Fellows, the nation’s highest honor in jazz. The Jazz Journalists Association voted him Organist/Keyboardist of the Year for nine years. In 2012, Dr. Smith started his own record label Pilgrimage Inc. and in 2015 he made a historic decision to resign with Blue Note Records after 45 years. The label released “Evolution” in 2016. His 75th birthday celebration at New York City’s jazz club Jazz Standard was a live recording of his second Blue Note album “All in My Mind” with his longtime contributors guitarist Jonathan Kreisberg and drummer Jonathan Blake. This year Blue Note, released “Breathe” the last album before his death which featured the surprise presence of pioneer punk-rocker Iggy Pop, who appeared on the two vocal tracks “Why Can’t We Live Together” and Donovan’s “Sunshine Superman.”

Lonnie Smith was born July 3, 1942, in Lackawanna, New York, a suburb of Buffalo. He was raised by his mother, Beulah Mae Early, and his stepfather, Charles Smith. He originally sang in the church choir and during the doo-wop days of the 1950s he was singing with the Teen Kings which became the Supremes (that included Jerry Bledsoe, who later became a top radio personality in NYC). The group recorded a song “Snap, Crackle and Pop.” The group earned quite a reputation and became the opening act for then teen idol Fabian. During an earlier interview with the Amsterdam News Dr. Smith recalled, “I really liked singing but I had to wait to go on stage after the band and then sit down again, so I figured playing an instrument was the way to go.” He had hopes of playing the saxophone but ended up with “a beat-up coronet.”

Although he didn’t know how to play piano, he took the gig anyway. He recalls, “the only thing that got me through was my singing. I would pick at the piano and no one really noticed my inadequate playing skills.” After being introduced to his new instrument, he concluded the organ was his destined choice, it was the only instrument he actually knew and sang to every Sunday in church.

While playing piano at one club he also played in downtown Buffalo at the Little Paris during his breaks. He eventually quit the piano gig when the owner refused to give him anymore breaks because he never returned on time. Young Smith’s many days of hanging out and practicing at Art Kubera’s music store paid off when the owner offered him a Hammond B-3 organ at no charge.

His career didn’t take off until the early ’60’s when he met manager and agent Jimmy Sibling who booked him in studio sessions with Motown stars Dionne Warwick, Gladys Knight, Charlie and Inez Fox and the Impressions. He later played a gig at Small’s in Harlem where he met George Benson who had joined McDuff and Lou Donaldson. Benson’s manager Jimmy Boyd set-up a recording session for Dr. Smith with guitarist Grant Green. Unfortunately, Smith never showed up for the date stating during an interview with this writer, “I had only been playing for a year and still practicing and didn’t feel I was ready to play with a great musician like Grant Green.” A few years later Smith and Benson sat-in with Green at Harlem’s Palm Café.

Later when Benson started his own band, he asked Smith to join him. During his stint with Benson, they recorded five albums on Columbia Records (John Hammond signed both). During their Columbia sessions Lou Donaldson asked both musicians to join him on his “Alligator Boogaloo” Blue Note session. The recording became one of Donaldson’s greatest hits which also played a major part in Smith leaving Columbia after only one year to accept a contract with Blue Note Records in 1967 as a sideman with alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson. After four years, he became a leader recording four albums for the label including his debut classic “Think!” (1968) and ending with “Drives” (1970).

“Dr. Lonnie was a genius, a very consistent organist for many years,” said alto saxophonist and composer Lou Donaldson. “He played on my first album ‘Alligator Boogaloo,’ we played together for 10 years. He was a good friend.”

The accomplished composer and Hammond B-3 master, who inspired five generations never took formal music lessons and couldn’t read music. During our interview some years ago Smith noted, “When I was young playing was all that mattered, reading music was secondary and I just never took the time to study. I’ve been blessed with a great ear and I’ve always been able to convey my musical thoughts to any band.”

Smith never stopped performing live, but he did take a studio hiatus until 1993 when he returned to the studio with a tribute to John Coltrane “Afro Blue” released on the MusicMasters label. The same trio with guitarist John Abercrombie, and drummer Marvin Smith went on to record two Jimi Hendrix tribute albums, Foxy Lady (1994) and Purple Haze (1995). Smith’s music was noticed in the hip hop community when A Tribe Called Quest sampled his music leading to a trend among rappers.

Smith has been featured on over 100 albums, with 30 as a leader and eight with Donaldson. “When Lou [Donaldson] and I were going in the studio we never thought young people would be playing our music.”

“Music is something from my heart, I’m enjoying God’s gift.”

In addition to Case, Smith is survived by four daughters, Lani Chambers, Chandra Thomas, Charisse Partridge and Vonnie Smith, and several grandchildren.

A memorial will be held in New York City time and date to be announced.