Blue Note Records has announced the passing of Hammond B3 organ legend and NEA Jazz Master Dr. Lonnie Smith. Smith died today of at his home in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. He was 79 years old. His death was confirmed by his manager Holly Case. The cause was pulmonary fibrosis. A celebration of his life and music will be planned in New York City.
“Doc was a musical genius who possessed a deep, funky groove and a wry, playful spirit,” says Blue Note President Don Was. “His 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.”
One of the funkiest and most inventive organists to ever walk the earth, Smith made his name on Blue Note in the late-1960s and returned home to the label in 2016. Smith was born in Buffalo, New York on July 3, 1942 and had an early musical influence in his mother who sparked a love of gospel, blues, and jazz music. As a teenager he was introduced to the Hammond organ and began immersing himself in the records of Wild Bill Davis, Bill Doggett, and Jimmy Smith, as well as paying rapt attention to the church organ. Smith’s first gigs were at the Pine Grill, a Buffalo club where he came to the attention of Lou Donaldson, Jack McDuff, and George Benson, eventually joining Benson’s quartet and moving to New York City.
After appearing on Benson’s albums It’s Uptown and The George Benson Cookbook, Smith released his debut album Finger Lickin’ Good for Columbia. He then joined Lou Donaldson’s band and made his first Blue Note appearance on the saxophonist’s hit 1967 album Alligator Boogaloo. Two more Donaldson dates followed (Mr. Shing-A-Ling and Midnight Creeper) before Smith was offered his own Blue Note deal and made his label debut with Think! in 1968 produced by Blue Note co-founder Francis Wolff. Smith went on to record another four Blue Note albums over the next two years (Turning Point, Move Your Hand, Drives and Live at Club Mozambique) all of which are regarded as soul jazz classics. Many tracks from Smith’s catalog have been sampled widely in Hip-Hop by artists including A Tribe Called Quest, Wu-Tang Clan, and others.
After his first run of Blue Note albums Smith recorded for many labels including Groove Merchant, Palmetto, and his own label Pilgrimage, and his wide-ranging musical tastes found him covering everyone from John Coltrane to Jimi Hendrix to Beck. Many awards have followed since 1969 when DownBeat named Smith the “Top Organist” of the year, including honors from the Jazz Journalists Association, Buffalo Music Hall of Fame, and Smith was named an NEA Jazz Master in 2017.
“It’s an extension of my being,” Smith once said about the organ. “It’s a part of my lens. It breathes for me. It speaks for me. I feel every bit of the organ. It’s like electricity—a fire that goes through my body. You can feel it vibrate. There’s nothing like it. It lifts me up, it crawls through the pores of the room.”
Earlier this year, Smith released his final album Breathe, the third new album since his 2016 return to Blue Note. Produced by Don Was, Breathe was a dynamic eight-song set, six tracks of which were recorded during Smith’s 75th birthday celebration at the Jazz Standard in New York City in 2017 with his steady trio of guitarist Jonathan Kreisberg and drummer Johnathan Blake, as well as an expanded septet featuring John Ellis on tenor saxophone, Jason Marshall on baritone saxophone, Sean Jones on trumpet, and Robin Eubanks on trombone, plus guest vocalist Alicia Olatuja.