Dr. Lonnie Smith is a world renowned jazz icon and an undisputed master of the Hammond B3 organ. Smith has shared the stage and the studio with some of the greatest names in jazz. At age 73 Smith's performances retain the same passion and precision that have propelled his legendary fifty-plus year career in music.
I recently talked hip-hop, Wes Montgomery and musical healing with Smith via phone in advance of his Friday, September 11th appearance at the Jazz Kitchen as part of Indy Jazz Fest 2015.
NUVO: I read an interview where you described your first encounter with the Hammond B3 organ. You stated that the sound of the organ engulfed you with a physical presence comparable to air or water. That must be an incredible way to experience music.
Dr. Lonnie Smith: The organ is part of me. It's part of my being. You know when you meet your first love and you feel like this is someone who has been missing in your life? That's what it felt like. Electricity overcame my body. It's like a flame going through my body when I touch and play an organ. I am at one with the organ.
NUVO: You rose to fame in the mid 1960s providing organ accompaniment for guitarist George Benson's group. During the late 1950s Indianapolis organist Melvin Rhyne helped to popularize that organ and guitar combo sound in his work with Wes Montgomery. Being based in Indianapolis I'm curious if the records Mel Rhyne and Wes Montgomery recorded together influenced you.
Smith: Oh yes, I remember that! I don't remember the song but I was on my way somewhere to play. It was night time and we were driving. A song came on the radio with Wes playing. I'd been nodding off because it was late, but when he came on and started playing I woke up and and said, "Who is that?" I fell in love with his playing right from the beginning. From the very, very start.
Those records back in the day were like gems because they inspired so many musicians. To this day we still remember those records. I wish it was like that today musically. The feeling and spirit that came out of the music was something else. It wasn't just playing the notes. It came from their heart.
NUVO: Did you ever get to see Wes Montgomery perform live?
Smith: Where did I see him once? Was it in Buffalo? He used to come to our gigs when I was playing with George Benson.
NUVO: Did you have a chance to interact with Wes at all?
Smith: No I didn't. Back then I would not have talked to anyone. [laughs] I'm serious. I was a loner. I'd go off to the side hoping not to be seen.
NUVO: In 1967 Columbia Records released your debut LP as a leader Finger Lickin' Good. The album was produced by John Hammond, who also signed you to Columbia. John Hammond is credited for signing and helping to launch the careers of musicians like Bob Dylan, Billie Holiday, Bruce Springsteen, Aretha Franklin, Leonard Cohen, Count Basie and so many others. What do you remember about your first encounter with John Hammond?
Smith: John Hammond had a lot of great things in mind for us when he came to watch us play. I wasn't even thinking I was going to get signed to Columbia. We were in a club called Bon-Ton I think. He came in with his wife and heard us. We were playing behind some dancers. Right away John Hammond wanted to sign us. Right there on the spot he wanted to sign us. He didn't care if he had to write the contract on a napkin.
When I signed with Columbia Records I didn't even have a group together. I'd just been playing with George Benson. Grant Green and all these people had started asking me to record with them but I didn't want to do it because I'd just started playing. I said, "Wow, everything is happening so fast."
I made one album for Columbia. After that I started playing with Lou Donaldson. He was on Blue Note and we made "Alligator Boogaloo" together. That record took off and then Francis Wolff called me over to Blue Note and he wanted to sign me.
It was really a great thing. I didn't know all this was going to happen. [laughs] But it happened. You know what I do believe in is that we all have angels. Some people do not recognize those angels. A lot of these people I'm talking about are angels. I just got off the phone with Lou Donaldson before you called me. We still keep in touch. He's one of those angels too.
Dr. Lonnie Smith
NUVO: When you make reference to "angels" are you using the word figuratively? Or are you suggesting that these people exerted a supernatural influence on your life and work?
Smith: Exactly! Art Kubera was an angel. He gave me my first organ. He owned a music store. He didn't sell organs, he sold accordions and things like that. I used to be in that store everyday until closing time. One day he said, "Can I talk to you?" I said, "Yes sir." He said, "Why do you come into the store every day until closing time?" I said, "Sir, if I had an instrument I could learn how to play it and make a living." That stuck with him and he took me into the back of the shop and there was a Hammond B3 there. My eyes lit up. He said, "If you can get this out of here it's yours."
See? That's an angel. I didn't have any money and that organ was selling for three-grand then! I didn't have any money. [laughs] That was the beginning of a lot of good things.
NUVO: From 1968 to 1970 you released a series of LPs for Blue Note Records. In some ways these LPs have defined your career and reputation in jazz music. What are your thoughts on those recordings today?
Smith: I think that was a big part of my life and history and it is still part of me. I play all over the world in Europe and Asia and the people remember all those Blue Note records. Not only that — I've returned home to Blue Note. I have an album coming out next year on Blue Note called Evolution. It's a wonderful thing. We're a family no matter what happens. You can't beat that. It's a beautiful history. Blue Note is a legend. I've been out playing for a long time and the people say I'm a legend. We belong together.
NUVO: One of your biggest recordings for Blue Note was "Move Your Hand" which features enigmatic vocals and lyrics from you. Do you want to fill us in on the story behind that tune?
Smith: You really want to hear about that? It was a joke! It came from a joke about a preacher at church during Sunday service and "move your hand" was the punchline. I was playing a gig in Detroit, Michigan. I'll never forget this. I was playing a groove and I started singing "move your hand" and the guys in the band knew the joke. They started laughing and joining in with me. The people in the audience kept asking me what is the name of that song and telling me they wanted that song. I couldn't believe it. So I tried it again in Atlantic City. [note: this Atlantic City date was recorded by Blue Note and released as the live LP Move Your Hand] I was doing it as a joke but the song made a hit.
I remember Francis Wolff from Blue Note called me and he said, "I think we got a hit." I said, "Oh, you mean 'Seven Steps To Heaven' ?" He said, "No, 'Move Your Hand." I said "oh no!"
This is something young musicians should know about. Make sure you're doing what you really want to do in life. Because if you make a hit you're going to have to play that song all the time. I had to play that song sometimes four or five times a night. I had to play it over and over again every night. The audience never got tired of it. But I got tired of it because it was just a joke. I didn't even want to play it. [laughs]
So I said, "How can I get out of this?" I had to get away from that song. I love to play music, but I never liked the business side of music. I wanted to get away from it. I wanted to get away from everything and guess where I hid at? Indianapolis.
I hid in Indianapolis! I stayed there for awhile. I think I was living out on College Avenue. I played around there and I changed my name to The Buffalonian. I wore a cowboy hat and called myself The Buffalonian. But I'd be playing the organ and people would recognize my sound. They'd say "we know who you are." I was trying to hide.
NUVO: You were playing in groups with local musicians here in Indy during that time?
Smith: Yeah, I played with a drummer by the name of Jozelle Carter. He has since passed.
NUVO: You mentioned that you wanted to get away from the sound of "Move Your Hand." Later on in the '70s you pushed your style beyond the organ jazz sound you established during your time with Blue Note and moved toward a spacier funk sound. It seems like you were really trying to get far away from that "Move Your Hand" era sound.
Smith: Yeah, I was. I want pretty far away from that didn't I? [laughs] When I first left home and started playing music I joined up with the Sammy Bryant group and we played behind a lot of the Motown acts. So I'd started playing a little greasy stuff back then. When I got with George Benson I got him into playing "Ain't That Peculiar" because I used to play that song. When I went to Blue Note I had a funky style that was like a slow and easy groove. That's what Blue Note liked. It was a real slow and easy funky groove. It felt good and the people liked that feeling. I wanted to make an album playing other kinds of music and Francis Wolff kept saying "well, maybe after this one." That easy style jazz groove is what I really got known for. You could dance to it easy without straining yourself. [laughs]
NUVO: As I mentioned during the mid to late '70s on albums like Afrodesia and Funk Reaction you embraced a heavy spiritual and spacey funk style. Those records aren't appreciated by many jazz purists, but I really love those albums. How do you feel about that period of your work today?
Smith: That was a good time. The music captured the feeling of that time so it worked. When I hear those albums I enjoy them.
NUVO: I first encountered your music through hip-hop. Your work has been sampled by hip-hop artists like A Tribe Called Quest who used elements of your recording of "Spinning Wheel" in their track "Can I Kick It?" for example. How do you feel hearing your music sampled in hip-hop productions?
Smith: I'm always open to new things. New things inspire me. What they did with the music was great. It worked. I remember hearing one of my daughters rapping off one of my songs and it was perfect. I couldn't believe that the music fit like that. It's perfect for them to sample and play the music. I enjoy that very much.
I saw a picture yesterday. What was it called… [pauses] something out of Compton. [Editor's note: We're guessing Dr. Smith is talking about Straight Out Of Compton. Read NUVO's review here.] They were rapping and stuff. They were telling their life story and history in their music. It's good because they're telling their history. Sometimes people misunderstand that kind of music because of the way the stories are told or because of the profanity. I don't use profanity, so that's hard. But you've still got to understand where they're coming from.
NUVO: There are some really talented young artists like Kamasi Washington and Thundercat who are making music that draws from that period of heavy, funky spiritual jazz that artists like you were creating during the 1970s. Any thoughts on these artists that you'd like to share?
Smith: I think all the music that's been handed down to us should be handed down to them so that it keeps on going. That's the beauty in it. You know I finally met one of the fellows from that Quest group you were asking me about. I met one of them and we talked and laughed. It was a beautiful thing. We are still connected. The old with the new and the new with the old. It's beautiful. They're like my family. It goes on and on and on and it connects. You can't beat that.
NUVO: I'm interested to know specifically if you've heard the saxophone player I mentioned Kamasi Washington.
Smith: Not yet. I want to hear him now though. I'll be glad to hear him.
NUVO: Your most recently issued LP was the 2012 release The Healer. For you does that title reflect a belief that music is a healing force?
Smith: That's exactly what it is. I'm going to say something here. A friend of mine named Bucky Thorpe had diabetes. He played trumpet. He ended up losing a limb. He was on crutches but he'd still go out and play. Eventually he got real ill and went into a coma. We'd go up to see him and try to talk to him. But when you're in a coma you don't know what's going on. We decided to take him a radio. He was laying in bed in a coma, but when we would play music you'd see him moving his fingers. Isn't that something? When we were talking we didn't know if he could hear us. But when we played music we saw him reacting. He'd move his fingers just like he was playing a horn. It was unbelievable.
Music is a healer. How do I know? I got ill one time and I could not walk. I could not play. I could not speak. Jack McDuff took my job because I couldn't play. I was very ill. I could not play my keyboard or sit at my keyboard because I didn't have enough energy. But I would touch the keyboard every day and believe it or not I came back even stronger. I really have a connection with that. Music gives you energy. Music is like electricity moving through the body.
NUVO: You are playing the Jazz Kitchen on Friday, September 11 as part of Indy Jazz Fest. What sort of band will you be bringing with you?
Smith: I'll be playing with a trio. Jonathan Kreisberg on guitar. He's a young, dynamite guitarist and he has a lot to offer. Johnathan Blake is on drums. He's a dynamite percussionist. His dad John Blake used to play violin with McCoy Tyner. There's a lot of energy when they play with me. It's beautiful.
NUVO: Dr. Smith thank you so much for taking time to speak with me. I'm a huge fan of all your work and it's an honor to have some time with you.
Smith: Well, it's your fault. That's the reason why I'm talking to you. [laughs]
I just want to encourage musicians to keep on going and to keep on playing. But I want them to keep one thing in mind: play life. That is the key. In other words, I had a musician playing with me and he wasn't giving me what I wanted. He had bad feet, so I said "play like your foot hurts" and he did. You see? If you're sad, play that. If you're happy, play that. Don't force it. I want the real sound. I want the real you. It don't have to be perfect all the time. Sometimes you can't reach the note you're going for. Now what? That's the beauty in music to me. Play life. Play life. Play life. You've got all those feelings in your life. Sometimes it's not going to come out the way you want. That happens with everyone. Life is not correct all the time. But you've got to go with the flow and make something happen. Play life and you'll get a better sound. You've got to play life.