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Dr. Lonnie Smith

Dr. Lonnie Smith
Frank De Blase
Courtesy of Blue Note Records
Dr. Lonnie Smith

Jazz organist and one of the pioneers of what we now call "soul jazz," Dr. Lonnie Smith died this past September at age 79. KNKX’S Nick Morrison gives us a fond remembrance.

If an election were held for the office of "coolest guy in the universe," my vote would probably go to Dr. Lonnie Smith.  He was cool to listen to, cool to talk to … and cool to look at with his long, gray "mystic on a mountaintop" beard, his elegant walking sticks and, perhaps most strikingly, the array of turbans he seemed to wear continually — which, by the way, earned him the nickname of "The Turbanator." Anyway ... the man was just cool.

But he wasn’t one of those musicians you hear about who started playing their instruments when they were kids. You know: “When I was 10, I made my first guitar out of baling wire, a cigar box and a broom handle.” No, that wasn’t Lonnie Smith. He’d been a singer in R&B vocal groups in the Buffalo, New York, area as a teenager, and had done a stint in the Air Force before he ever put a finger on a Hammond B-3 organ.

The story goes that one day a music store owner of his acquaintance told him he could have the B-3 that was in the basement if he could figure a way to get it out of there. Which he did. When he got it home, a neighbor showed him how to turn it on and, as the saying goes, he never looked back.

In 1965, Smith loaded up the Hammond and moved to New York City, where he met another young musician, guitarist George Benson. At the time, Benson was working with organist Brother Jack McDuff, but Smith and Benson clicked. They formed their own quartet and were soon recording for the Columbia label and gigging all over the place.

During that time, Smith also made time to do recording sessions with other jazz artists — one of which put him pretty much in at the birth of what would come to be known as “soul jazz,” when he performed on saxophonist Lou Donaldson’s surprise hit record Alligator Boogaloo.

And it was soul jazz that Dr. Lonnie Smith would pursue for the rest of his life, mixing jazz, R&B, funk and a dash of pop, creating a musical elixir that was an expressive, elevating art — and often quite danceable.

Now, you may be wondering, “In what area of endeavor did Dr. Lonnie Smith have a doctorate?” Well, none … at least not by any academic standard. It’s a title he bestowed on himself sometime in the 1970s. Some say it was to differentiate himself from another jazz organist on the scene named Lonnie Liston Smith. Others say he did it basically for the hell of it.

Here’s what he had to say about it: “I’m a doctor of music. I’ve been playing long enough to operate on it. But when I go up on that stand, the only thing I’m thinking about is music. I don’t think about the doctor—I’m just thinking about how I’m going to touch you.”

Well, Doc, mission accomplished. For 55 years, from your first recording with George Benson to your final recording released earlier this year, you did an amazing thing — and it’s something you maybe don’t get enough credit for: You continually explored and evolved while remaining absolutely true to your musical roots. And in doing so, you doctored hearts — and minds — all along the way.

Nick began working at KNKX as a program host in the late 1980’s and, with the exception of a relatively brief hiatus, has been with the station ever since. Along with his work as a Midday Jazz host, Nick worked for several years as KNKX’s Music Director. He is now the station’s Production Manager and also serves as a fill-in host on KNKX’s jazz and blues programs.
Originally from Detroit, Robin Lloyd has been presenting jazz, blues and Latin jazz on public radio for nearly 40 years. She's a member of the Jazz Education Network and the Jazz Journalists Association.