(4/3/1936 – 5/24/2008)
I grew up in Philadelphia, which was home base for so many great organ players: Jimmy Smith, Don Patterson, Charles Earland, Groove Holmes, Shirley Scott, Rhoda Scott, Trudy Pitts and Jimmy McGriff. I loved all the organ players in Philly and I stole something from all of ’em. And McGriff was always one of my favorites. I covered one of Jimmy’s hit tunes from the ’60s on one of my albums [“All About My Girl,” the title track for DeFrancesco’s 1994 Muse album].
When I was a kid, my dad [Papa John DeFrancesco] hipped me to McGriff. He’d put on a record and tell me, “Listen to this cat play.” The first time I met Jimmy I was 11 years old. He was playing in a club in Philly and I went to see him with my dad. I was just this little kid and I went up to him and said, “How you doin’? I play the organ.” And he said, “Oh yeah? You wanna play?” I thought that was really cool that he invited me up to play. So I sat in and played “Every Day I Have the Blues” and he got a kick out of it, this little kid playing a funky tune like that. And you know, it started from there. We became friends and over the years we stayed in contact. I’d go to see him play and then later on when I started really coming on the scene doing my own stuff I had the opportunity to play in several two-organ situations with him. And we got to be good buddies. We went to Japan together. It was his first trip to Japan. In later years his health wasn’t real good but he still had these really special moments of playing.
The thing I loved about McGriff was he had a certain gospel-churchiness to his playing. He was like Ray Charles of the organ. He was funky, man. He had his own way that he made the organ sound. I always loved his sounds and his approach. His feeling always came across no matter what he was playing. He always considered himself to be a blues player but he could play jazz, too, and you can hear that in his early stuff, which is heavily influenced by Jimmy Smith. In fact, he studied with Jimmy, but he had his own element that he brought to it, that soulful, spiritual kind of thing. And that’s something that I try to get into my own playing, that soulful McGriff quality. There’s definitely a lot of that in my dad’s playing as well.
McGriff was just a sweet, sweet, sweet man. I never heard him say anything bad about anybody. He was always in a good mood, he didn’t drink, he didn’t do anything like that. He just was a gem of a man. It was sad to see him kind of slowly deteriorate after his illness set in. Last November I did a tribute concert for him at his church in Philly [Harold O. Davis Memorial Baptist Church] and he was there. He couldn’t speak a whole lot but he was smiling and looked great. Six months later I was a pallbearer at his funeral at the same church. I miss him a lot and think about him every time I play. He was a beautiful cat.
(As told to Bill Milkowski)