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Johnny "H" Smith: Opus de Funk

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Johnny "Hammond" Smith Organist Johnny “Hammond" Smith isn't as well known todayas organists like Jimmy Smith, Jack McDuff, Shirley Scott, Don Patterson and Charles Earland. I'm not sure why. Perhaps his name was too close to Johnny Smith's (the guitarist) and John Hammond's (the producer). Nevertheless, Smith was a high-energy player with enormous soul power and restraint. His recording career roughly divides into two parts—his jazz-soul sessions for Riverside and Prestige in the '60s and his jazz-funk CTI records of the '70s for Creed Taylor. One of his finest Prestige dates was Opus De Funk—an usual album at the time, considering the kind of repetitious material most organists were compelled to record then.

Smith's Opus De Funk was recorded in May 1961 and merged the hot sound of the Hammond B3 with cool vibes and a swinging blues guitar. The musicians on the date were Freddie McCoy (vib), Johnny “Hammond" Smith (org), Eddie McFadden (g), Wendell Marshall (b) and Leo Stevens (d)—sidemen today who also are largely forgotten.

If you were a jazz-soul organist back in the '60s, you likely wound up at Prestige making “chicken 'n' dumplings" recordings. These were albums that showcased mostly funky blues originals that had a down-home feel, with names to match. Occasionally, an organist would get a chance to break out of this mold and record an album of straight-up jazz. But mostly these artists were steered toward the fried stuff because it sold well in Northern urban markets as well as down South—the jazz version of a crossover offering back then.

Interestingly, Smith recorded two albums with the same quintet in '61 that included thick portions of jazz—Opus De Funk and Stimulation, which was recorded three months earlier in February. In later years, the track line-ups were shuffled by Prestige, giving the Opus De Funk release a heavier jazz emphasis while Stimulation captured the blues. The swinging jazz tracks were Opus De Funk, Almost Like Being in Love, Sad Eyes, Shirley's Theme, If Someone Had Told Me and Gone with the Wind.

Horace Silver's Opus De Funk here receives one of the finest  treatments of the song, excluding Silver's own original recording, of course. The vibes takes the lead at first, with the organ and guitar supporting. But as the song progresses, Smiths' organ chords bleed through and raise the temperature, with the electric guitar hitting a moving groove.  

The album's two originals by Smith should be standards today, but they're little known: Sad Eyes and Shirley's Theme. If Someone Had Told Me places the organ, vibes and guitar in tight, swinging unison, while Gone with the Wind features a shuffle beat, setting up brisk, spirited solos by all three instruments.

Smith's recordings as a leader and sideman throughout the decade veered toward blues-gospel material that sold well among jazz-soul fans. Given the over-supply of blues-funk recordings being cranked out by organists on Prestige, it's a shame that Smith didn't have additional opportunities to go beyond the bump and grind. But at least we have Opus De Funk.

JazzWax tracks: You'll find Johnny “Hammond" Smith's Stimulation and Opus De Funk combined on a single CD (Opus De Funk) here.

JazzWax clip: Here's Johnny “Hammond" Smith's Sticks an' Stones, one of the blues tracks. Though a jazz-funk offering rather than a swinger, you'll at least be able to hear what the organ sounds like with the vibes and guitar...


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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved.
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