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The B3 Guru: Jazz Organ Legend Dr. Lonnie Smith Addresses His Life and Craft

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With the passing of Jimmy Smith in 2005, Dr. Lonnie Smith (no relation) is now at the top of the Hammond B3 organ food chain. The latter Smith broke into the New York scene in the mid-'60s as a member of George Benson's quartet and quickly became the go-to organ guy for folks like Lou Donaldson, who is still a good friend and occasional collaborator. After burning out near the end of the '70s, Smith returned to music full time in the '90s and has released a number of great albums that further cemented his status as one of the most important living organists working today. I caught up with Smith at his home to talk about life and his new album, 'Spiral.'

You brought in a new guitarist, Jonathan Kreisberg, for this recording. What led to the change?

Different songs. I was looking for a different sound and it seemed to work. He has a great sound for what I wanted to do.

Is that him or you soloing on 'Beehive'? It's such a weird sound that I can't tell.

That's him [laughs]. Sometimes guitarists enjoy making other sounds, and Jonathan does it quite well.

Most of the album is standards, but I don't recognize 'Sukiyaki.' Where is it from?

You know how in Ireland they have that song 'Danny Boy'? 'Sukiyaki' is, like, the top song in Japan. I loved the song and always have. It's a beautiful song and the lyrics are great, too. The guy [Kyu Sakamoto] who wrote the song and made it popular died in a plane crash. The song has the lyrics where the singer is crying and he holds his head back to keep the tears from falling.

'I Didn't Know What Time It Was' has a unique sound and rhythm to it.

I have a habit of hearing things a little different. When I hear a song, I already hear how I should play it. In other words, I don't have to stretch to get there and play it like I want to. I came up with the rhythm. Jamire Williams is a really capable drummer, very independent, but he's got a good feeling. When you got musicians who can hear you and know what they are doing, it makes it much easier. So when I arrange, I will play the rhythm and feel that I want and they just take it right up and play what they do, also. The guitar is kind of hard there because you have to play a certain way that is really tiring and then you have to stop and play a solo. But he did it.

Do you work fast?

I'm from the old school. Basically, when we get up there and play, the band doesn't have any idea of what I'm about to do. When I was in the studio with David “Fathead" Newman and Lee Morgan I would tell them to play one way and I'd play another. Then they'd point that out and I'd say, “I changed my mind, we're gonna do it this way." Then they'd play it that way and I'd change it again. I got a habit of keeping changing. Whatever comes, comes.

Organists are at the mercy of whatever instrument happens to be at the gig. You must have some great stories.

What I always tell everyone including my students is: “You are the organist and you are gonna have to make it sound good. Don't blame it on the organ." Organs are old and temperamental instruments. I'm not going to tell you what it was, but the organ was broken on the record, and the last one, and the last one before that. You just have to make it work; it's you. If they don't play, that is something different. Once I was in a club and the organ was bad. They brought another one, and that one was bad. Then another one and that was bad. It was a little rough.

So what happens?

I was playing 'Grant's Tomb' with Lou Donaldson and the power [source] wasn't right. So every tune we played I had to play in some other key. I had to transpose everything on the spot because the organ wasn't working. Let me tell you, I was angry. I was playing with George Benson on a ship somewhere and the power wasn't right and the sound kept wavering. I ended up playing piano and we finished the gig like that.

So there is a huge gap in the '80s where you didn't put out records. What happened?

I quit. I walked out. I love playing but I don't like the business of music. I went and hid because I was tired of being a part of it.

Where did you go?

I went to Detroit for a while. Then I was in Indianapolis. Then I went to Hawaii--I loved Hawaii.

What made you come back?

I wanted to see what everyone was doing in New York so I came back and checked it out. Everything was the same, so I went back [laughs]. Then I came back to New York again and started working. Because I'd been gone, people wanted to see me and record me, so I got busy. Then I would have a week off, and Hawaii was so far away, it was a little too much to travel. So I moved back to New York. It's the main vessel or vein for me.

Do you get back to Buffalo much?

I was back there recently for an award, and the fellow who gave me my first organ was there. It was beautiful. I still talk to him. I call him my guardian angel. He's my angel, for sure.

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