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Dr. Lonnie Smith: The Doctor Is In!

Dr. Lonnie Smith (photo by Jimmy Katz)
Dr. Lonnie Smith (photo by Jimmy Katz)

Sitting behind a hulking Hammond B3 organ, Dr. Lonnie Smith is a riddle wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a turban. Few people know whether the man some guidebooks say is 62 earned a doctorate in medicine or music. The answer? Neither. One story has it that he earned his “Dr.” moniker from his fellow musicians as a tribute to his ability to “doctor up” their music, although he might have just appropriated the nickname in the mid-1970s to distinguish himself from keyboardist Lonnie Liston Smith.

And what about that turban? Smith claims it’s an authentic Sikh wrap, though the Buffalo, N.Y., native seems more Baptist than Sikh.

Just who is this genial genie with the long, wispy white beard and ever-present toothy grin who has the power to transport listeners with his swinging, grooving funk machine?

The day after his CD release party at the Jazz Standard in New York for his Palmetto debut, Too Damn Hot!, an interview in the Doctor’s hotel room revealed more about the man beneath the turban.

Despite his numerous mysteries, a few facts remain crystal clear: Dr. Lonnie Smith is a phenomenal B3 burner who can light up a room with visceral intensity or lay down some of the nastiest funk ever played on an organ. He brings an unusually wide tonal palette to bear on ballads and can hit a relaxed midtempo swing like no one else—or slap it with some bacon fat if he so desires. On stage, he shapes songs on the spot the way a sculptor shapes a slab of clay into an elegant pot. With Smith controlling the 425-pound beast (his pet name for the B3), it’s an eternal search for new chordal voicings, fresh grooves and different approaches to old tunes.

“Playing with the Doctor is an improvisational experience in its truest sense, so you have to be ready at all times,” says guitarist and longtime Smith sideman Peter Bernstein. “The spontaneity is unbelievable. He’s such an intuitive player. There’s never an agenda with Lonnie. He’s always looking to see what he can find on the bandstand. You have to be so in the moment, because with him things will go from solid to liquid and back to solid again. It’s always evolving, so it’s just thrilling to play with him—and terrifying at the same time.”

Because he is strictly self-taught and doesn’t read music, Dr. Lonnie is perhaps more naturally inclined to being in the moment than most schooled musicians. Watching him play, you really get a sense of him searching for and finding the music on the spot as he’s playing it, often even surprising himself with his discoveries. “It’s like I’m hearing it for the first time, like how the audience hears it,” he says. “Music is not something that you practice and you get up on the bandstand and run through on automatic pilot. That’s not for me. I enjoy playing too much to memorize stuff. So it’s never gonna be the same when I play. I can’t do it if I wanted to.

“A lot of people who come and hear me, they don’t realize where the music comes from,” Smith continues. “It doesn’t come from notes on the paper or anything like that. What happens is, the music comes from my toe and travels all the way up like electricity. And that’s why I’m surprised when I’m playing. That’s because by playing by ear, I really let my body play what’s in my heart, right there on the bandstand. I play life instead of notes. I play what I lived. You should always play how you feel. If you’re hurt, play that. If you’re sad, play that. That’s what I tell my students.”

What audiences see when Dr. Lonnie performs are his wide, dancing eyes, Cheshire grin and ever-present turban peeking above the wooden console. And as he plays, he registers every nuance of approval and delight with a facial gesture. His eyebrows raise when he finds a particular chord voicing that pleases. When he nonchalantly peals off fluid, Bird-like flourishes in his right hand, he grimaces then grins ear-to-ear. And when he offers up percussive-sounding comping from some well-chosen drawbar settings, he seems entirely amused by his choice, almost doing a double take.

“He’s just pure joy when he plays,” Bernstein says. “And by him being a performing, improvising person, it’s really a visual thing as much as it is the sound of what he’s creating because everything he plays is completely in his body, in his face. Everything is a musical gesture. It’s all feeling, so there’s nothing fake about what he’s doing on stage.”

That night at the Jazz Standard, Smith was draped in a floor-length black robe and sported a bright orange turban tightly wrapped and piled high on his head. By now, his turban has become his calling card; one of the most iconic images in jazz since Dizzy Gillespie’s upturned horn. “I used to wear turbans when I was young, way before I first recorded,” he confides. “I started wearing turbans early; I don’t know why. And I didn’t know that this was gonna be it for me when I started wearing them, but I’ve never given it up. I have taken it off and played without it. But at this point the turban has become so much of me that the people expect it; it’s what they recognize. Sometimes I do think, ‘Well, what if I just don’t wear it anymore?’ But that’s me. Taking it off at this point is like pulling the mask off the Lone Ranger. Some people just love that mystery. I mean, why does Michael Jackson wear one glove?”

Smith opened his Jazz Standard gig with “Too Damn Hot,” a slinky, smoldering midtempo blues that set the tone for an evening of scintillating soul jazz by one of the kings of the genre. And as the set continued, the audience surrendered to the compelling grooves, slipping further and further into the funky-good spell of the Turbanator. Throughout the set he explored the full orchestral potential of the B3, alternating between unpredictable, slashing statements and patient storytelling full of finesse. Patiently, methodically, he got into the guts of the songs, extracting what needed to be extracted, before neatly wrapping them up. Meanwhile, down below he kicked the pedals like he has eyes on the bottoms of his feet, pumping those deep bass lines like a walking upright player and doubling the line with his left hand on the keys to fatten up the low-end groove. “I have so much fun when I’m playing the pedals,” Smith says. “But if you play them you have to decide, What do you want from them? Do you want a real legit sound? Do you want a grumpy sound? Do you want a warm sound? Do you want a real old sound? And I know what I want from the bass pedals. I like for it to flow a lot, which is why I can play them on uptempo songs, too.”

For the supercharged “Evil Turn,” a burner from the new album, young drummer Greg Hutchinson paced the trio with crisp, controlled sizzle on the kit, and the Doctor’s left-hand bass lines killed. “Sometimes on a real fast tune like that one, I’ll step off and do left-hand bass lines,” he says, “because that tempo will tire me out, especially the older you get, playing the pedals at those tempos.”

In a funk bag, like on “Back Track,” he summoned up dynamic shout choruses, orchestrating like a big bandleader. The voicings that he conjured up on a vamp behind Bernstein’s solo were so rich and slyly syncopated that he made himself smile and raise an eyebrow out of sheer surprise. At the peak of his own angular solo, Smith segued neatly into a soulful quote from “Wade in the Water” before layering on some churchy chords. And for his set-ending tune, Dr. Lonnie scatted a blue streak over Sonny Rollins’ “Oleo” before addressing the crowd with the cryptic line: “We’re gonna take a pause but we’ll be white black.”

Lonnie Smith’s first instrument was trumpet, which he took to quite naturally. Learning strictly by ear, he soon became a standout soloist in the high school band. “And at that point I used to go around shoe shining—poppin’ the rag and playing the trumpet just to make a dollar,” he says.

Before trumpet Smith had been singing in the church with his relatives and eventually gave up the horn altogether to concentrate on a vocal career. “We formed a vocal group called the Smith Brothers and made $14 on our first gig,” he laughs. “I could hardly believe it. That was a lot of money in 1957.”

At age 16, Lonnie formed a doo-wop group called the Teen Kings that featured young Buffalo native Grover Washington Jr. on sax and his brother Daryl on drums. “As a matter of fact, I used to go to their house and they had an organ there, a little Spinet,” Smith recalls. “But I never played it.”

His next vocal group, the Supremes, was formed before Diana Ross came out with her Motown group. “We had already made a record and I was gonna sue to prevent her from using the name,” Smith says, “but I never did.”

The keyboardist remembers getting his first B3 from Art Kubera’s music store in Buffalo and immediately falling in love with the instrument. “I used to go there every day and just sit around in there till closing time,” Smith says. “One day Art came up to me and asked what I was doing and I told him, ‘Sir, if I had an instrument, I could work, I could make a living.’ The next time I came in as usual, he locked the place up and took me in the back, and there in the corner was a brand-spanking-new Hammond B3 organ. He saw my face light up, and he told me, ‘If you can get this out of here, it’s yours.’ It weighed over 400 pounds, but I was determined to move it, so I finally did get it out of there.”

Initially inspired by Jimmy Smith’s 1960 Blue Note record Midnight Special, Dr. Lonnie devised his own play-by-ear method of taming the beast, learning to channel the muse through his fingers. Within a few months, he was on the road as an organist in a regional touring group. Back in Buffalo, Smith sat in one night at the Pine Grill with Jack McDuff’s group, which featured a young guitarist out of Pittsburgh named George Benson. The two immediately hit it off on the bandstand and promised to stay in touch.

But it wasn’t until nearly a year later that Smith finally hooked up with Benson. The two began rehearsing together in the Pittsburgh home of Benson’s mother. “We practiced in his mom’s basement and learned two songs—Clockwise’ and ‘Secret Love.’ Then we took off for New York,” Smith says. “The day we arrived, Jimmy Boyd, who was handling Grant Green, took us down to the Palms Cafe on 125th & Seventh Avenue. Grant was playing there with Larry Young on organ and [Otis] ‘Candy’ Finch on drums, and they let us sit in. And Grant—he wouldn’t let me get off the organ. And practically every day after that, Grant would ask me to play with him. But Jimmy Boyd called him and said, ‘Leave him alone, because him and George are together now.'”

In November of 1965, Benson and Smith got their own gig at the Palms Cafe. Renowned producer and talent scout John Hammond, who had been tipped off about this super-bad guitarist playing Uptown, happened to come into the club one night and catch Benson and Smith—who had been hired to play behind the club’s go-go dancers. Hammond, whose keen appreciation of guitar players had led him to discover Charlie Christian 26 years earlier, was so elated by what he heard that night at the Palms that he tried to sign Benson on the spot, using one of the bar napkins as a substitute contract. Hammond later got Benson’s signature on a proper agreement, and in February 1966 they went into the studio with Smith, baritone saxophonist Ronnie Cuber and drummer Jimmy Lovelace to record It’s Uptown, the guitarist’s Columbia debut as a leader.

A month later, in March 1966, Smith received a chance to record his own album as a leader for Columbia, Finger Lickin’ Good, which featured Benson and Melvin Sparks on guitars, King Curtis on tenor sax, Cuber on baritone sax, Charli Persip and Marion Booker on drums and Blue Mitchell on trumpet. Before the year was up, Hammond had the George Benson Quartet back in the studio to record its follow-up album, The George Benson Cookbook, which carried the album cover tag “Featuring Lonnie Smith, organ.”

While Benson’s and Smith’s albums were well received by players and jazz purists, the two broke through to a higher level of visibility after appearing on Alligator Bogaloo, Lou Donaldson’s 1967 surprise hit album for Blue Note. “After that, George and I took off pretty good because the record moved,” Smith says. “And shortly after it hit, Duke Pearson [pianist and Blue Note A&R assistant] called me and said, ‘I think they want you on Blue Note,’ even though I was on Columbia at the time. But they managed some kind of way, and I ended up over on Blue Note.”

A string of four funky Blue Note releases ensued: 1968’s Think!, 1969’s Turning Point, the live Move Your Hand (recorded with Smith’s working band at Club Harlem in Atlantic City on August 9, 1969) and 1970’s Drives. A fifth album, Live at Club Mozambique, was recorded in Detroit on May 21, 1970, but remained shelved for 25 years, ultimately being released in 1995 as part of Blue Note’s Rare Groove Series.

The Doctor maintained a relatively low recording profile through the ’70s and ’80s, cutting material infrequently for small labels like Kudu, Chiaroscuro and Groove Merchant before experiencing a new wave of activity in the ’90s in the wake of a B3 revival, spearheaded by Joey DeFrancesco.

Too Damn Hot! shows the Turbanator at the top of his game, and he continues to tour with his own trio, perform regularly with his longstanding colleague Lou Donaldson and with guitarist Mark Whitfield while also making special guest appearances with the Canadian horn band Crush and with the Organ Summit featuring fellow B3 mavens Jimmy McGriff and Reuben Wilson. “I’m just doing what I love and that’s it,” he says. “You have no idea that you’re making a statement when you’re on the bandstand, you just play. But it does feel good to know that your stuff is still potent after all those years.” Originally Published