Dr. Lonnie Smith

I saw this band at the Dakota Jazz Club. The Lou Donaldson Quartet. I was so impressed I requested an interview with the organist. Dr. Smith. He has a new cd out called ” To Damn Hot ”

Steve Hegman- Hi, I’ve been a fan of yours for a long time. I grew up listening to jazz organ and I play piano/organ for a living here in town.

Dr. Lonnie Smith- Oh really?

H- Yes, I’ve just always been amazed by the stuff you do.

Dr. Lonnie Smith- Thank you.

H- I sense a pulse, a groove and just all the elements, harmony and technique and everything just come together so well.

Dr. Lonnie Smith- Thank you.

H- I’m glad things are going well for you.

Dr. Lonnie Smith- Oh yeah. It’s nice, to, out of all the years, still be here, you know.

H- Yeah. And so strong. I enjoyed the Hendrix project that you did. Was that your idea?

Dr. Lonnie Smith- Uh, Claude Bark, a good friend of mine. He used to own the Keystone Corner

H- All right. In San Francisco?

Dr. Lonnie Smith- That’s right. That’s Right. We’ve known each other for quite some time and we decided that, that was a great idea.

H- Oh. That’s two Cd’s I think that came out.

Dr. Lonnie Smith- Right, right.

.H- with John Ambercrombie and Smitty Smith?

Dr. Lonnie Smith- Smitty Smith and also we did a Trane (John Coltrane) album also…

H- A tribute to Coltrane?

Dr. Lonnie Smith- Yes.

H- Oh, I’ve got to find that. {I did find it and it rocks!} You’ve done a lot of recordings.

Dr. Lonnie Smith- Oh Many.

H-When did you first start playing?
Dr. Lonnie Smith- I started late, playing when I was in my twenties.

H- Really?
Dr. Lonnie Smith- Yeah, yeah.

H-That would be encouraging for lot of readers.

Dr. Lonnie Smith- Yeah. I started late. You could always play maybe ah boogie woogie or something. Most cats can do that you know.

H- Right.

Dr. Lonnie Smith- {sings a Boogie bass line)

H- sure.

Dr. Lonnie Smith- I started late. In school I was messing around with trumpet and tuba and things like that..by ear.I never read any music and I was put in school, in band, the first week. The teacher said he hadn’t seen anything like that, the first, the very first week. I was shocked myself and uh, I hadn’t intended to play that..I wanted to play saxophone…my mother loved the sax, and you know, you want to please your mom.

H- Sure.

Dr. Lonnie Smith- My mother, so, they didn’t have any left. They had already rented those out and uh, after that, I uh, I was always singing. So I was always singing things earlier…because I had a singing group and we had cut a record, a forty-five. Years ago and uh, then we changed the name…we got a group called the Supremes before Diana Ross came out. And yeah, we had made a record and everything. And when that happened, we didn’t change the name, we just kinda broke it up and after that I was still singing. .I came out of the service and I wanted to play, play music more so than sing.

H- Did you play in the service at all?
Dr. Lonnie Smith- Bugle, trumpet, too.

H- So, you came out of the service, what instrument did you start playing when you wanted to play?
Dr. Lonnie Smith- When I learned to play? I did never knew how to play…that’s the trumpet and stuff really. I know how to uh, I would say, get by, but it wasn’t where my heart was at.

H- Yeah

Dr. Lonnie Smith- And, uh, I uh, wanted to PLAY music. That’s all I wanted to do, cause I was a vocalist…so, by being a vocalist, I would stand up and sing and uh, my brothers would play and I’d want to get up there and sing because they would look like they were havin more fun. Do you understand what I’m sayin? Because I would sing, people would love it and they’d go crazy but, a few songs and then they’re playing all the time.

H- OK.

Dr. Lonnie Smith- And I wanted to be up there, so, uh, I uh, would start messin around wantin to play and try to play something. This gentlemen, owned a music store Art Kubera’s, in Buffalo New York. I used to go and sit over there every night, every day til closing time and uh, one day he asks me, he says, son, could I ask you a question, I say, “yes sir.” He says, Why do you come in here everyday and you sit until closing time? .and he didn’t even sell those organs & things I say sir, if I had a, I looked at him and I say, if I had an instrument I could work. If I could work, I could make a living, and I left, going to sit just around the music store. One day I came in and he closed the door and says come here and took me in the back..and a brand new B-3 Hammond organ and he says he saw my eyes light up…he says uh, if you can get this out of here, it’s yours.

And uh, quite natural I got it out. And uh, I didn’t know how to work the organ I didn’t know,y ou know because it has so many stops and things.

H- Just turning it on for some people…

Dr. Lonnie Smith- Yes, it’s rough, right, and I couldn’t get any sound but one and I didn’t know how to get any sounds, because I didn’t know how.

H- Had you heard the instrument before?

Dr. Lonnie Smith- Oh you kidding me, sure, the churches all had organs, you know. That was the thing in churches, you know.


Dr. Lonnie Smith- I used to sing spiritual gospel music and uhm, I used to hear that all the time and then I’d hear people like uh, Milt Buckner, and uh, Wild Bill Davis, Bill Doggett, you know and then, Jimmy, Jimmy Smith, I did, you know…

H- I think I’ve got some early Jimmy Smith albums with Lou

Dr. Lonnie Smith- Right. Exactly. And my friend that lived across the street from me before I even thought I’ve have an organ had an organ and he, his brother played organ, so he says, you got to hear this album and my brother went over and he played it for me and I enjoyed it, but I wasn’t’ playing then. I didn’t have an organ then. I had no idea that I would be playing organ, But I could sit down at the organ and play a few chords. I was always a natural. so, I played the organ and uh,…….uh, I was playing a little club in Buffalo called, what was the name of this place? I can’t think of the name of it, and uh, a friend came by, his name was, another Jimmy Sibly and he needed an organist because one of the organist was leaving and he heard about me and he came to get me and I didn’t tell anyone because just in case, you know I want to come back if I didn’t make it and I did OK and we were playing behind a lot of Motown groups when they would come through, Dione Warwick, Gladys Knight and Presence you know people like that. A lot of Motown folks. So uh, then uh, Jack Mcduff,

Dr. Lonnie Smith- Uh, he used to come through all the time, he came by the club I was playing there. And The place was packed and he made a joke about every time he would tell people, he’d say he would tell me everytime they would hear me they were jumping so much and dancing up in town he ended up from one side of the room to another, so uh, he said that he wanted to, he had heard that I had an organ, and he needed to rent an organ if it was possible. He said a friend of his was coming to town not for him, but a friend was comin…and uh…it was scary you know, because I wasn’t usin’ it out and it was a brand new organ and he said maybe one day I’ll be able to help you.. I don’t know so, I did and you know who it was for? ………. Lou Donaldson.

H- Oh wow.
Dr. Lonnie Smith- And I, uh, today, I’m still waitin for my money for the organ You know.

H- From Jack?

Dr. Lonnie Smith- From Lou. He rented it. He needed and organ he came to town so Jack got an organ for him when he came in after Jack. So, it happened, Anyway, meanwhile, I started to go up and down the road and that’s when I went to join that other group and start playing behind a lot of Motown when they would come through, groups and I would come through and sometimes Jack would be playin. A young fella was out there and he sounded really great. That was George Benson. And George, he was playing.

H- I can believe that.
Dr. Lonnie Smith- Because I had been playing, not even a good year, you know, and uh I was in the club one day and the people say, let this guy play, let him play. They were talking about me. So, he said, Jack called me up and when I got off, George said, let’s get a group, let’s get a group. He took my number. I liked the way he played, loved the way he played.

H- Oh yeah.
Dr. Lonnie Smith- Meanwhile I was still with that group playing up and down, you know the cities Jimmy Sibbly kept up workin. We worked so much. And uh, uh, we were workin with Sammy Bryant, and what happened was, I had been going back and forth playing the smalls in New York. And then I met another tenor Tiimy boy, a key instrument, Timmy Boyd came in here, and he took my number, and every night they would come by and they asked me to play, …to do a recording .they asked me to play. Grant Green was recording..

H- Oh sure, yeah, with Larry Young

Dr. Lonnie Smith- Exactly. So he says to me, he says to me, be there tomorrow at Rully’s at one o’clock…ok meet me at one o’clock. I couldn’t make that because that was Grant Green…when I get started don’t forget, I was playing all that other kind of music and was playing less than a year. But they liked me. They came back again the next night. ..you didn’t show up..ok tomorrow night.

H- Do you have to go up and play?
Dr. Lonnie Smith- yeah.

H- Could we continue this after the gig

Dr. Lonnie Smith- Sure

H- Thanks. This is great stuff.

Dr. Lonnie Smith- OK

Dr. Lonnie Smith- Do you remember where we was at?
H- Yeah I do, are you kidding it’s like a story a cliff hanger. You got a call from Grant Green. You didn’t go in the first day.

Dr. Lonnie Smith- I didn’t go in the second day either.

H- Ok.

Dr. Lonnie Smith- What happened, I left town. The guys couldn’t believe I did that. But I left town and I kept playin.

H- What was the reason, you that you just didn’t feel comfortable?

Dr. Lonnie Smith- I’d only been playing not even a good year.

H- But you were playing with George Benson this time?
Dr. Lonnie Smith- Not yet.

H- Not yet OK.

Dr. Lonnie Smith- Not yet. But the manager Jimmy Boyd was going to handle George Benson…so Jimmy Boyd was gonna manage George, so George said he needed an organist. Don’t forget he had my number, but he had lost it. But Jimmy Boyd, he says, I know a guy, I know just the guy, Lonnie Smith. He said, that’s who I was lookin for! So that found out where I was and he had my number and he called me. George says, I’ll be able to pick you up in a couple of weeks. I had to give a two week notice and once I gave the notice, what had happened was that George came to uh the club I was playing the last job in Buffalo at the Pine Grill so George and I left and went to his home town, in Pittsburg in his Mom’s basement and we learned two songs. One of them was “Secret Love” and the other was Clockwise. that was his first break album, it was Clockwise. So he says, if we leave now we can catch Grant Green, Larry Young & Candy Finch was on drums, he left us too. So we took off from pittsburg to the city. We got there just in time they were playing we were sitting there and all of sudden they called us up to sit in. And we played. The club owner loved it and uh, when I was getting off the organ Grant Green said, don’t go anywhere, sit right there. So we played some and this is the truth, every day Grant asked me to play with him every time he saw me and the manager got angry with him because he says, you and Larry and Candy , and George and Lonnie..he was trying to keep it separate. Don’t ever do that again. He was really mad at Grant for that. Cause Grant wanted me to play with him…I stayed with George. We had fun George and I . We had a lot of fun. We used to ride up and down the highway. We’d get out the car and shoot pellet guns and all kinds of things you know. .we just had a lot of fun, and I stayed with George quite a long time, but in the beginning, Lou Donaldson, I’m sorry, we ended up playing the club that Grant was playing the Palms Café on 25th and 7. so what happened, John Hammond, came in, John Hammond, Columbia records, him and his wife and they sat there and they love it and they sign. I was with Columbia.I was with Columbia records…he signed us with Columbia that night he wanted to sign us right then so he signed George up and he signed me up with Columbia records. We were there for awhile and then Lou was recording and he wanted George and I to play on this record and he was in the studio so, we were the new kids on the block so he called us over and we played on his record and I and that kind of set us out there you know because Alligator Boogaloo was such a hit it did so well that it plunged both of us out them. That’s when Blue Note asked me to uh, Duke Pearson called me. He said, I think they want you over here at Blue Note and uh I went with Blue Note….big club…

H- wow

Dr. Lonnie Smith- And uh then uh everthing else was history for me. It took off. George and I were still playing together but my records started taking off pretty fast but we were still playing together because I loved George, you know and uh, then I went back with George, we started a gig and we had played together for quite awhile together and then I went back out on my own and uh. Then I started going out with Lou because we had the record, so Lou and I have been an item for I don’t know how many years. You know I still talk to Ronnie Cuber, a lot, too, we play together off and on, the baritone,

H- The baritone sax player.

Dr. Lonnie Smith-We still play together a lot And another old friend of mine Dave Hubbard, saxophone player used to play with me he’s in FL now and uh, we’re still great friends out of all those years and when we play it still feels great because they’re such great players, you know, I mean excellent players.
H- Do you see the audiences, have they changed in the years you’ve played?
Dr. Lonnie Smith- Yeah, there’s a different group of people, but they love it, but they love it. that’s the great thing about it seeing that from all those years, that’s a long time and you see the people today the young people, and they still love it.

H- There are some organists I’ll never get to interview because they’ve passed on. Let me give you some names and just tell me your feelings or maybe antidotes you’ve run across. Jack McDuff

Dr. Lonnie Smith- That’s my buddy…Jack is my buddy I’m sorry as soon as I got here I knew Jack would be here..I miss seeing him. we used to have a group called Hellfire and Damnation. It was something too. It was him, Joe Dukes any myself.
H-were you both playing the organs?
Dr. Lonnie Smith- We were playing organ and keyboard and it was a beautiful group. We had fun and it was called Hellfire and Damnation

H- That’s great

Dr. Lonnie Smith- And you know which one he was and you know which Joe was, you know, it was, who was the other one?
H- Don Patterson.

Dr. Lonnie Smith- Don Patterson is another great player. You’re naming some great players there. Don Patterson, he , he was like Lou and I all those years…we had to hook up the marriage between the two…Don and Sonny Stitt, & Lou and I just like a close knit marriage there.

Who was the other one?
H- Larry Young.

Dr. Lonnie Smith- Larry Young. Larry young was another great organist. You’re naming some great organ players.

H- Well I love the instrument.

Dr. Lonnie Smith- Larry, Larry died a little too young.

H- Yeah,

Dr. Lonnie Smith- You know, he died a little too young. We were supposed to do some organ things together and we never got the chance to. He was a very fine person, too, very nice, big fellow though,

H- I remember, 6′ 2″ I think.

Dr. Lonnie Smith- Big fellow, there, you know Laughter Don was on the short side, Don and you know Jack,

H- Jack (McDuff) was a beautiful person. I got to hang with him several times.

S- Jack um you know the sit coms you see on TV, if they had made a sitcom with jack in it, it would have been bigger than all of them,. He was that funny, man. He kept me laughin.

H- Did you cross paths with Jimmy Smith?

S- Jimmy, oh yeah, we’ve known each other for many many years….many years…been over to his house, fell asleep at his table…many years….many years …Jimmy really started it, and really got it going strong , really strong.

H- I remember, he was the first guy I heard.

S- He played the organ like no one.

H- Yeah,

S- You know

H- Yeah, he uh

S- And the organ was him, you know, he had met match he made his hookup and that was it..a lot of guys might play sax and might play another instrument, but that might not be the instrument but they don’t know it. .but Jimmy found his early in life and I found mine early.

H- You sound so natural. on the organ. You’re playing lot of pedals I’m watching some of the stuff you’re doing and I’m not really sure what you are doing because you are playing left handed and you are playing pedals at the same time

S- Oh yeah

H- Sometimes you’re doing exact unison things

S- Oh yeah and then sometimes and then I let my foot have it. It knows when to give the other one it’s room or its space.

H- Do you have any kind of a formulated system you work with?

S- No

H- It’s just very natural isn’t it?
S- Yeah, it is because I’ll fool them every now and again. I’ll fool them a lot

H- Yeah, you fooled me. I was watching and it was just uh

S- And I have to watch it sometimes because the records that we did, Lou and I for many years, he likes to keep it close to that because people recognize certain things..but sometimes I feel like I want to mess with it a little bit, but he doesn’t mind.

H- Yes, he seems like a very mellow guy to work with.

S- Oh, Lou and I we used to travel, east coast to the west coast and he would drive And play. This guy is like I don’t know, and today, he would still if we had to, he has a lot of energy, and he looks the same, from all those years, yeah.

H- From the records I’ve seen.

S- I’m getting old and he’s you know. Laughter

H- No, you look young too, you’ve got a young spirit.

S- Oh well, thanks. And so Lou and I would go walking, like today we went to what is it the mall, May, his wife, Lou, myself, we go eat breakfast sometimes we go walking together. We’re like a family. Lou and I.

H- That’s beautiful.

S- We are really close.

H- Have you ever done a solo organ album?
S- I haven’t done an album. A lot of people ask me to, but I haven’t yet. No,

H- And what do you think of the crop of newer organists that are probably contacting you because they want information about the idiom Joey, Larry Goldings

Larry Golding.

S- I like them. I think they are doing such a fine job at the organ and I think they should keep it going because we are getting older and out of there.

H- There was so much energy on stage tonight, it was just incredible it was just amazing.

H- Do you always stick with the Hammond B3 or do you explore different models in the Hammond family?

S- Laughter Like the new organs?
H- Well, I mean like the A.

S- Oh the A is nice.

H- I have an A

S- Oh you do?
H- You’re gonna give that to me.

H- It’s in my home Laughter come over and play it.

S- OK I’ll come and get it.Uh, that’s a good organ.

H- I have a B and I have a, I just sold a CV. Some guy in Germany wanted it.

S- Yeah.

H- But, there are some synthesizers that are trying to emulate it.

S- It’s hard

H- Yeah, because it has the draw bars.

S- Yeah, it has the sound. it really has the sound.

H- Have you ever played, I haven’t played it yet, the new digital Hammond B?
S- Yeah.

H- What did you think of that

S- It’s a nice organ. But the old organs still have a little something there that’s a little warmth that’s a little different,

H- Maybe it’s the tubes or something.

S- Yeah, it’s lighter and everything the new organ.

H- What makes a good B 3 and a bad B3 when you are out playing?

S- Uh, I love all the contacts to be working first of all, the pedals to be working, uh, and uh the scanner working right, the whole bit. It’s a lot of little things that should be working because if they’re not maintained you catch a lot of bad organs, they don’t keep them up and sometimes I won’t play. I won’t play.or I’ve been places where they didn’t have, they only have a couple of portables or something. I used one I did pretty good on the gig, the Nord electric

H- Oh right, sure, the red things

S- It worked for me.

H- When I used to play synthesizers sometimes Jack would come out and he’d sit in, I wouldn’t have a Hammond on because I’d be playing a one night club, and he would come and he’d kind of make fun of it and laugh at it, but then he’d play and he sounded great.

S- Yeah.

H- He was beautiful cat.

S- Oh yeah we would hang..the organ players we were so close. Sometimes you’d see about 4 or 5 of us together, just hang at night, you know, it was really great man.

H- Yeah.
S- Family. It’s a family.

H- I think it was almost as I would an acoustic instrument because it’s just been around so long.

S- Yeah.

H- Just like the piano. It hasn’t been around as long as the piano but there haven’t been any major changes in the B-3, just like the piano.

S- Yeah, right, right.

H- It’s established.
S- It’s there. It’s got its own sound.

H- Yeah. Absolutely.

S- It’s heavy, though. I broke some backs.

H- Have ya?
S- You know, doing those…when you’re travellin, you get to a town, you get help you see people out there and you ask them..sometimes you get whinos, anything..and you be afraid, because if they drop it, you know.

H- You play other keyboards besides the organ now? Or mainly just stay on the organ?
S- Right now…… just the organ.

H- Well do you have any advice to aspiring organists coming up?
Dr. Lonnie Smith- Stick with it. It’s hard, but it’s worth it. It’s worth it.

H- Yeah.

Dr. Lonnie Smith- You have to stick with it. You got any kind of a love for things, don’t stop.and they have to realize that no matter how they sound, there is space, there is room. In other words that uh, everybody don’t like you or love you, it’s OK. It’s OK. Where as they don’t like me or love me, they will like you.

H- Are you saying there’s room for different voices?
Dr. Lonnie Smith_ Yes. And that’s the thing…don’t look at it like I’ll never be able to play like him or her you know it’s OK, it’s OK.

H- Yeah. That’s a beautiful statement.

Dr. Lonnie Smith- It’s OK, it’s OK. And never let a critic bring them down because the critic lookin at it from one aspect and he’s only a person, A person and what he heard is one thing and what you’re doin’ is another thing..might be a different thing…so in other words why did Doc play that? I didn’t hear him play that? They don’t know what was in my mind at that time..So it’s OK. So whether it’s good or bad it’s OK, because someone is gonna like it. Someone is gonna like it and if you get one person that’s great. It’s great. Never, never look at it and NEVER EVER think of it as a battle. You know how like sometimes you go and play concert and they might have four or five organists.

H- A competitive kind of issue.

Dr. Lonnie Smith- That’s crazy. Why? That’s crazy again..cause everybody has a different taste. It’s not a battle. And you have to make sure that the other guys know that otherwise it’s gonna be chaos up there. Chaos. IT’s not a battle cause we’re all out here doin the same thing..playin music and making people happy.

H- Yeah.

Dr. Lonnie Smith- Around the world. And the man who was here before that didn’t finish what he had to do is watchin players, I will return to complete my work. That’s what I’m here for..nothing else…nothing else…to make people feel happy enjoy music so that they feel good when they go home.

H- So you have a spiritual connection when you play?

Dr. Lonnie Smith- Yeah. So they won’t go out there fightin? Acting ugly.

H- Yeah, beautiful.

Dr. Lonnie Smith- Going to your web site I see that you are touring all over the world. Norway, Europe.

Dr. Lonnie Smith- Yeah, and the people are really nice. Hong Cong and everywhere. They are really nice I did one of there first jazz concerts ever they had they never had one and uh they were so responsive. Very nice.

H- Do you see jazz flourishing more with what your doing now than say 40 years ago?

Dr. Lonnie Smith- I think they still seem to be connected with the old. You know like when Lou and I played an no matter what we played they seem to be connected with what we did years ago. Like when I played as a trio.

H- I really appreciate this interview.

Dr. Lonnie Smith- OK

The conclusion of this interview, as we were leaving, Lonnie took me aside and said he had one more idea he really wanted to convey. I offered to turn on the recorder and he said no man you will remember this. He then talked about musicians and artists aging and the need for society to set up facilities that would allow audiences to come to the performers that were no longer able to travel. A place where musicians could still play and relate to other players and perform. A place where they could conclude their journey with dignity. Surrounded by fellow artists they could relate to.