The last great oracle of the Hammond B3 organ, Dr. Lonnie Smith rained blues down from above. Many of his lines cascaded from high up on the keyboards of his instrument, writhing in ecstasy as they descended.
There were upwellings, too, that bubbled back against the funky torrent, and sometimes still larger waves of ascent, but the musical balance tipped from high to low. Smith would skip or slide his way to higher altitudes, cling to these elevations with circular patterns—sustained chords animated with bluesy swells—but then let gravity prevail, tumbling down with purpose and exultation.
Even a back-and-forth tune like “Seesaw” from Smith’s album Turning Point—one of the four he brought out between 1968 and 1970 on Blue Note during first tenure at the label—sluices inexorably from soprano towards bass.
Did this Smith’s music recall the sound of The Flood? Was it the Word, even though textless, issuing with powerful meaning from the Hammond pulpit? Are there echoes of the Black preachers who voiced the blues in the American South? Whatever one hears, Smith’s cyclic grooves and apocalyptic cries delivered joy not damnation.
As he let loose these literally electric downpours, Smith remained poised at his console, singing prayerfully along with his ringed fingers racing across the keys, his big fists slapping out blasts of sound. For all the welter and wash of his improvisations there was majesty in his creations. The chunk, bite, and wah of his Leslie-fueled oratory had the force of revelation.
A local music shop owner in his hometown of Lackawanna, New York south of Buffalo offered Smith a B3 for free (in good condition, they now go for upwards of $10,000) if he could get the bulky instrument out of the store. The boy succeeded not only in transporting the Hammond home, but taught himself to play it, convinced now that he would dedicate himself to a life in music.
After the move downstate to New York City in the 1960s, he joined up with guitarist George Benson, who had recently left the trio of Jack McDuff, another Apostle of the B3 and an inspiration for Smith. Benson joined the twenty-five-year-old Smith on the organist’s first recording as a leader made in 1967 for Columbia: Finger Lickin’ Good. No trademark infringement proceedings were launched by Kentucky Fried Chicken, though in this vinyl bucket of an LP there were eleven greasy tracks, most the pieces two or three minutes long. These durations bespoke a distinctly commercial orientation, and probably help explain why Smith left for Blue Note after just one outing with Columbia.
Classified in Bold Face letters as “Soul Organ” on the cover, the Finger Lickin’ album seemed intent on bit-sizing the blues. But what bites! Near the bottom of the tub was “Lonnie’s Blues,” a close cousin of that most famous Hammond jazzman Jimmy Smith’s “Back at the Chicken Shack” recorded on Blue Note a decade earlier. At a truncated two-and-half-minutes, there is no time for stretching out on Lonnie’s eponymous tune, though the cascading exhortations punctuated by calls from the horn section are worth many thousands of words. Smith would later award himself the doctorate that came to adorn his name. His longer solos were Ph.D. dissertations in sound.
Over the next decade Smith made many fine recordings, but by the end of the 1970s he withdrew from the studio, beaten down by the music business.
He returned to action in the 1990s and then to Blue Note in 2016 with his first record for the label in more than four decades. The return proved that the ethical power of his music was infinitely renewable, even if his chosen medium for expressing it—the electric organ—was hooked up to the dirty grid. One could be lured into mystical realms by Smith’s later look. After the hip hats seen on his earlier albums, he took to wearing a turban and grew a long beard that grayed with the years. Smith was apparently above accusations of cultural appropriation, and he disclaimed religious intent or meaning in his costume. Yet the abundance of blues and boogaloos he created emanated a kind of sacred dedication that ultimately protected him from the ritual sacrifices of the marketplace: “You are already rich once you sit down and learn to play,” he philosophized in later years. “That’s richness in itself.”
His last record, Breathe, was made fittingly for Blue Note in 2017, and commemorated his 75th-birthday run at the Jazz Standard in New York City. The album also includes two studio tracks with cameos by Iggy Pop. In the pair’s version of Donovan’s “Sunshine Superhuman” of 1966, Iggy’s breathy, striated voice is so ethereal it’s almost not there. Smith coaxes him along gently, but after the Godfather of Punk has exhaled his lines, the master organist takes command at his control panel of black and white keys and tone bars and fires off one rocket burst after another as Pop shouts encouragement from the background. Smith’s flares streak out into space, where there is no up or down, just pure energy.