Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

Mike LeDonne Remembers Dr. Lonnie Smith

The organist honors his friend and fellow B-3 player

Dr. Lonnie Smith (photo: Frank DeBlase © Blue Note Records)
Dr. Lonnie Smith (photo: Frank DeBlase © Blue Note Records)

I’ve been playing the organ since I was 10 years old because I love the sound of the Hammond B-3. Once I heard Jimmy Smith play “I Got a Woman” on Live at the Village Gate, I was all in.

Fast forward about 20 years and I’m living in NYC when one day my phone rings and the voice on the other end says, “Is this Mike LeDonne? This is Lonnie Smith and I’m playing at the Village Vanguard with Lou Donaldson and he tells me you have a nice B-3.” I can’t believe my ears because I was a huge fan of Dr. Lonnie’s, having heard his Live at the Mozambique as well as his recordings with George Benson. 

He told me he brought in his own “chopped” Hammond (its wood cabinet had been replaced with a more lightweight material) for the gig but the owner of the club, Lorraine Gordon, hated the way it looked. Long story short, he had me at “This is Lonnie Smith” and I lent him my B-3 for no charge. Seeing him play live several times that week was a game-changer for me. 

Dr. Lonnie used all the sounds available to him on the B-3, whether they were old ones or new ones, and wove them together in such an organic and musical way it was astounding. The first night I went to the gig I found myself hearing the organ in a new light. Yes, he could roar and scream on it, but he could also whisper and invite the listener into a more intimate world of sound than any other organ player I had heard. I found that his facial expressions and body language cajoled me into listening more deeply to the sound of the organ than I ever had before. 

The way he’d begin by playing a simple melodic idea quietly in the lower register of the organ drew me into his musical world like a moth to a light. As he went along, he would slowly ease into the middle register of the organ, building the intensity. Then, right at the perfect moment, he’d rip up the keyboard and start screaming on the high notes. It was all done with such honesty and reverence that it never sunk into crowd-pleasing gimmickry, even though it definitely pleased the crowd. That’s because Lonnie didn’t have an unmusical bone in his body. His creativity was limitless and his imagination as open as the sky. 

As anyone who saw him knows, Dr. Lonnie dressed like a wizard, and there was one occasion when I thought he really was one. We were both playing on a Jazz Cruise and, to my surprise, they told us we had to bring keyboards. I called Lonnie about it and he said not to worry because he was going to have his student in Florida bring an organ to the ship. True to his word, there was a B-3 delivered to the ship and we set sail. Unfortunately, the first night I was slated to play, something was wrong with it. Lonnie had come to hear me and he came over before the set because he could see something was wrong. I let him hear it and he stood there with his hand on his chin just looking at it. Then he reached over and flicked his finger on the power button and said, “Try it now.” I thought he was joking, but when I tried it the organ had miraculously come back to life and sounded perfect. I looked at him and exclaimed, “You really are a wizard!” He just gave a little laugh and sauntered off. 

We became lifelong friends, and every encounter with him was full of positive energy and a true sense of brotherhood. The good doctor felt that all organ players were his family. It was very important to him that we carry the legacy of the Hammond organ and its masters forward into the future. In fact, every night he showed us the future through his music. One full of soulful beauty and pure magic.

Dr. Lonnie Smith 1942 – 2021