• Fri. Oct 22nd, 2021

Lonnie Smith, Soulful Jazz Organist, Is Dead at 79

Sep 30, 2021

Lonnie Smith, a master of the Hammond B3 organ and a leading exponent of the infectiously rhythmic genre known as soul jazz, died on Tuesday at his home in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He was 79.

His manager and partner, Holly Case, said the cause was pulmonary fibrosis.

Mr. Smith, who began billing himself as Dr. Lonnie Smith in the mid-1970s, could draw an audience’s attention with his appearance alone: He had a long white beard and always wore a colorful turban. (The turbans apparently had no specific religious significance, and he did not have an advanced degree in anything and never explained why he had adopted the honorific “Dr.”) His playing was every bit as striking.

He began his career at a time when organists like Jimmy Smith and Jack McDuff were blending the sophistication of jazz with the earthy appeal of rhythm and blues. Mr. Smith was very much in that tradition, but his playing could also display an ethereal quality that was all his own. His music later reached new generations of fans when it was widely sampled by hip-hop artists.

Reviewing a 2015 performance at the Jazz Standard in New York, Ben Ratliff of The New York Times praised Mr. Smith’s sense of dynamics. “When he is quiet, he is very quiet,” Mr. Ratliff wrote. “During a gospelish song with the singer Alicia Olatuja, he started a solo passage at a level that almost couldn’t be heard and stayed there for quite a while, unspooling jagged, alert phrases that you had to strain to listen to: an easy trick but a powerful one.”

Lonnie Smith was born on July 3, 1942, in Lackawanna, N.Y., a suburb of Buffalo, and raised by his mother, Beulah Mae Early, and his stepfather, Charles Smith. As a teenager he sang in vocal groups and played trumpet and other instruments before a store owner’s generosity spurred his lifelong love affair with the organ.

As he recalled in interviews, he spent a lot of time in a Buffalo music store, mostly just looking. One day he told the owner, Art Kubera (whom he would later call “my angel”), that he was sure he could make a living in music if he had an instrument. Mr. Kubera took him to the back of the store, showed him a Hammond B3 organ and told him that he could have it for nothing if he was able to get it out of the store. He did, he taught himself to play it, and his career began.

Mr. Smith was soon working regularly at the Pine Grill in Buffalo. Mr. McDuff was an early influence, and when the guitarist George Benson left Mr. McDuff’s combo to form his own group, he hired Mr. Smith.

The Benson quartet had an inauspicious beginning at a bar in the Bronx, where, Mr. Benson wrote in his autobiography, “Benson” (2014), “Lonnie and I played behind a revolving cast of go-go dancers.” After moving to a jazz club in Harlem, the Benson quartet began building a following.

Both Mr. Benson and Mr. Smith signed with Columbia Records. Mr. Smith’s first album as a leader, “Finger-Lickin’ Good,” which featured Mr. Benson on guitar, was released in 1967, but his tenure with Columbia was brief. The next year he moved to Blue Note, which had already used him on the alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson’s hit album “Alligator Boogaloo.”

Blue Note, which had helped launch the organ-jazz boom by signing Jimmy Smith a decade earlier, was a natural home for Mr. Smith. But after releasing four well-received albums on the label, beginning with “Think!” (1968) and ending with “Drives” (1970), he moved on.

He recorded for various labels throughout the 1970s, but by the end of the decade his brand of jazz was falling out of favor and he was growing tired of the music business. He stopped recording and maintained a low profile, performing only occasionally and sometimes under an assumed name.

He ended his studio hiatus in 1993 with “Afro Blue,” a tribute to John Coltrane with John Abercrombie on guitar and Marvin Smith on drums, released on the MusicMasters label. (The same trio would later release two Jimi Hendrix tribute albums, “Foxy Lady” in 1994 and “Purple Haze”in 1995.) By that time Mr. Smith’s influence had grown in ways he had never anticipated: His 1970 cover of the Blood, Sweat & Tears hit “Spinning Wheel” had been sampled by A Tribe Called Quest, the first of many hip-hop acts that would find inspiration in his catalog.

Mr. Smith began performing again, both with his own groups and with Mr. Donaldson, and eventually returned to Blue Note; his first album for the label in more than 40 years, “Evolution,” was released in 2016. His most recent album, “Breathe,” released this year, included a surprising guest appearance by the punk-rock pioneer Iggy Pop on two tracks, the vintage R&B ballad “Why Can’t We Live Together” and Donovan's “Sunshine Superman.”

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

In 2017 the National Endowment for the Arts named him a Jazz Master, the country’s highest official honor for a jazz musician.

“A lot of musicians get into music because they want to be rich, famous or all of the above,” Mr. Smith said in a 2012 interview. “You are already rich once you sit down and learn to play. That’s richness in itself.”

Alex Traub contributed reporting.

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