From childhood doo-wop singer to becoming a National Endowment of the Arts Jazz Master. It was the kindness of the owner of a local music shop in Buffalo that landed Lonnie Smith ownership of a mighty Hammond B3.
In Buffalo’s vibrant 1960s Jazz scene word of Lonnie’s talent spread quickly and one night when Lonnie was offered to play the organ by Brother Jack McDuff, Lonnie caught the ears of a 20 year old guitarist George Benson. Within a short time Smith and The George Benson Quartet caught the ear of Columbia Records exec John Hammond and became recording artists. His next recordings where with saxophonist Lou Donaldson on Blue Note in 1967 before his first solo project Finger Lickin’ Good Soul Organ on Columbia Records also in 1967.
In the 2020 documentary, Dr. B-3 The Soul of the Music, Dr. Lonnie Smith’s story has been told through archival and contemporary concert footage. Interviews with collaborators such as George Benson, Lou Donaldson, Don Was, Rudy Van Gelder and fans like Iggy Pop and Ali Shaheed Mohammed.
In the mid 70’s Lonnie Smith became Dr. Lonnie Smith. With his long beard and turban, he took inspiration from fellow organists, Jimmy Smith and Jack McDuff and continued to carry the tradition into Soul-Jazz and Rhythm & Blues.
While not technically a “degreed” doctor of anything but the healing power of music, his groove as well as his ability to be tranquil and ethereal has made his music a deep well for hip hop artists to draw inspiration and samples. In his own words…
“I’m a doctor of music. I’ve been playing long enough to operate on it, and I do have a degree, and I will operate on you. I’m a neurosurgeon. If you need something done to you, I can do it. But when I go up on that stand, the only thing I’m thinking of is music. I’m thinking to touch you with that music. I don’t think about the turban, I don’t think about the doctor — I just think about how I’m going to touch you.”
He was a master of the Hammond B3 organ and a healer through the music that was often rhythmic and a leader in the genre known as soul jazz. Dr. Lonnie Smith died on September 30th, at his home in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.