Something Else! Interview: Legendary jazz organist Dr. Lonnie Smith

Dr. Lonnie Smith, over a career that includes appearances on some 70 albums, has carved out his own unique niche — beyond the idea of being a living legend on the organ. Even as he’s played alongside a virtual hall of fame roster of jazz legends, he’s never let go of his own sense individuality — something that continues with his layered, utterly intriguing 2012 live trio release, The Healer.

From Smith’s scrappy early days with guitarist George Benson, to his career-making sideman turns with Lou Donaldson, through his mythical series of albums for Blue Note and forward into a series projects in the 1970s that soared with a swash-buckling sense of adventure, the self-taught, turban-wearing Smith rarely failed to surprise and delight. That is, until this genie of the B-3 pulled one of the biggest surprises of all: Disappearing from the recording studio for years beginning in the late 1970s.

[ONE TRACK MIND: Lonnie Smith goes in depth on his new live trio release ‘The Healer,’ and digs further back into his legacy as one of jazz music’s most distinctive and challenging Hammond B-3 players.]

Since his triumphal return in the early 1990s, Smith as quickly retaken the throne as jazz music’s greatest living organ master. The good doctor joined us for this latest SER Sitdown to discuss his terrific new album, those career intersections with Benson and Donaldson, and why — after some time away — he intends to keep playing music as long as he possibly can …

NICK DERISO: Once again, The Healer stays the course of your entire career – keeping well away from clichés, refusing to bow to marketplace expectations, and yet somehow staying completely, utterly funky.

LONNIE SMITH: Oh, sure. They never know what I’m doing! (Laughs.) It feels really great to do that. Years ago, I wanted to do a recording with 40 percussionists, with just the organ. They thought I was crazy. They didn’t want to do that. So, I was a little upset. Then, I wanted to do no drums, and they thought I was crazy. I’ve gone through all kind of things like that. But now, I can do whatever I choose to do.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: ‘The Healer’ begins not with a fiery assertion of his soul-jazz supremacy, but with a smoky rumination — and Dr. Lonnie Smith remains right there, stubbornly outside of expectations.]

NICK DERISO: The album also marks the beginning of your new label Pilgrimage. Is that why it was important to start your own imprint — to have that freedom?

LONNIE SMITH: I do have that freedom, although I’ve had some beautiful producers and record companies that I’ve been with. Palmetto was very great. The thing about it, though, a lot of things you do are put in the can — up on the shelf, in other words. There are things you will never hear, and it was so interesting. There are songs that were very interesting. I might be able to do them again, but I don’t know if I can do them like I did it back then. Things that were totally different, but that were also beautiful to me. Yet, you will never hear that. A lot of young people these days are into the things that were done in the past, that’s how they’re learning. But they don’t get a chance to hear those things from the 1960s and what not. It would be quite interesting. So, I decided to give them a chance to hear that stuff. That was one of my main purposes.

NICK DERISO: You started off with George Benson, down in his mom’s basement. What was it like, back in the beginning?

LONNIE SMITH: The thing about when George and I started, I had been with a group that had been playing behind a lot of Motown acts. When they would come through, they would be by themselves. We were a pick up group for them. I loved it; I loved the feel. And so that’s what I brought. If you remember, George did a (Marvin Gaye hit) song called “Ain’t That Peculiar,” that was me — because I loved that. I brought that kind of stuff. I enjoyed that type of feel, because I had been playing all of that stuff earlier. I only play things I feel. I don’t play things to make a hit. Otherwise, it’s wrong. So, in his mom’s basement, we learning “Clockwise” and “Secret Love,” and George says: “Grant Green is playing tonight. Do you want to catch him?” I say, “Yes,” so we stopped — two songs in — and we took off for the city. (Benson’s family lived in Pittsburgh; Green was playing in New York, at the Palms Cafe on 125th and Seventh Avenue.) We went in there, and later on we got up and played a number. As we’re going to leave, Grant Green wouldn’t let me get off the stage. He said: “You stay ri-i-i-i-ght there.” (Laughs.) After that, he always tried to get me to play with him. But George and I were together, and pretty soon we started playing the same club, behind the go-go dancers. A few weeks later, we got signed to Columbia Records. (Columbia producer and talent scout) John Hammond heard about us.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REVIEWS: Lou Donaldson’s 1967 burner “Peepin,’” written by Lonnie Smith, was the song that first got me to explore Dr. Smith’s own works later on as a leader.]

NICK DERISO: That led to Alligator Boogaloo, a legendary 1967 date alongside Lou Donaldson.

LONNIE SMITH: John Hammond signed me and he signed George. He was crazy about us. He was really a beautiful person. Then, while I was recording with Columbia, Lou Donaldson was also going into the studio. Lou Donaldson! I had met Lou because he had rented my organ from me one time, for $25 for the whole week. A brand new organ! He was going into the studio, and they needed an organist. Lou said he knew just the guy. They called me, George and myself, and we recorded Alligator Boogaloo. Idris Muhammad was on there, too. What a band. It was amazing. That’s what really cranked everything up, when I did that record with Lou Donaldson. Everything started happening, because of Lou.

NICK DERISO: How did you end up on Blue Note?

LONNIE SMITH: We did Alligator Boogaloo, and the record did so well. Then Blue Note contacted me and they said they wanted me to come over there. In my head, I didn’t jump for joy. Why? Because I had been let down in the early years, so why would I believe this? I wasn’t jumping yet, until it really happened. But then it happened, Nick. It really happened! I went over to Blue Note, and that was it. Everything took off. But George and I were still playing. Now, my records are taking off, and I don’t have a group! I made a hit, a big hit. Now, I had to get George to play with me, and some other guys, so we could make the gigs. It was really something.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REVIEWS: We loved it in 2009 when Lonnie Smith took total possession of the Stylistics’ “People Make The World Go Round,” bear hugging it with a funky midtempo groove.]

NICK DERISO: Having such lasting musical relationships, like the ones you have with Lou Donaldson and George Benson, is such a rare thing nowadays.

LONNIE SMITH: We’re family. Lou and I used to go on the road, we would go out to eat together; we’d walk together. It’s just so beautiful. George and I, we’re so close, too. That’s the beauty in having a group, you have something to relate to. The kids now are not as dedicated as they were then. Guys were dedicated. In other words, if you played with me, I could call on you next week, next month, next year. You were there. You wouldn’t take another job for five dollars more, because you enjoyed playing with me. Today is a whole different thing. To try to keep a group together is very hard, very difficult.

NICK DERISO: You lose something with all of the turnover, too. When you play together for a lengthy period of time, something more grows between you — an unspoken language.

LONNIE SMITH: Right. You don’t have to say anything. You can ask a question without saying anything. The person knows what you need. That’s very hard to find today, because everybody wants to be a leader. Everybody has a CD now. (Laughs.) It’s not like they worked their way up, and Blue Note called. They make their own now! (Laughs.)

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: They may have called it ‘The Best of Lou Donaldson, Vol. 2,’ but that Blue Note album was also a showcase for Lonnie Smith’s overlooked, always wailing organ.]

NICK DERISO: For a time, you got away from record making. But you’ve come back stronger than ever, it seems. What prompted your return in the 1990s?

LONNIE SMITH: I got in a position where I didn’t want to do certain things. I don’t like the business end of music. I love music, but the business? It is a business, and I don’t particularly enjoy that end of it. So, I stopped playing for a while. The thing about it is, when you’re playing, it’s something that’s in your blood. It’s something that was given to you. We didn’t choose music, it chose us. No matter what you want to do, or if there are other things you would like to do, you just can’t be away from it. It keeps pulling you in, pulling you in. It feels so great. When I finally sat down and played, there’s nothing like that. It’s a part of you, and you remember why you started playing in the first place. As long as I’ve got energy, and my health is good, it’s going to be there — all the time, forever.

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Nick DeRiso

Over a 30-year career, Nick DeRiso has also explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz, Ultimate Classic Rock and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.