dr. Lonnie Smith (1942-2021) the ‘Sultan of the Hammond Organ’

Dr. Lonnie Smith

Lonnie smithEven when the Hammond organ fell out of fashion in the 1970s, Smith continued unabated dr. Lonnie Smith  (1942-2021)

dr. Lonnie Smith, neither academically nor medically trained, but who coined his nickname “doctor” in the 1970s to avoid confusion with fellow Lonnie Liston Smith, was one of the most popular Hammond B3 organ players in jazz. In his own words,

he got the nickname because he had figured out his funky, always grooving playing himself. On Tuesday, the keyboardist died of pulmonary fibrosis at the age of 79.

Smith was by no means the only skilled Hammond player in the 1960s: Jimmy Smith, Brother Jack McDuff, Richard ‘Groove’ Holmes and Jimmy McGriff also had success with it. Yet both guitarist George Benson and saxophonist Lou Donaldson chose the still young Lonnie Smith in their band.

Smith first achieved success in 1964 in George Benson’s quartet. This laid the foundation for a new style within soul jazz, in which bebop and hard bop merged with R&B, after which Benson and Smith were given solo contracts with Columbia.

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Smith’s soulful playing was subsequently noticed by saxophonist Lou Donaldson, in whose band Smith would achieve his greatest success. Donaldson’s Blue Note album Alligator Bogaloo was a huge success in 1967, the title track would even reach the charts. Smith also became successful as a bandleader for Blue Note.

In the 1970s, the Hammond organ fell out of fashion. Jazz electrified, the Fender Rhodes supplanted the organ. But Lonnie Smith kept going, calling himself Dr., donning a turban, and going through the clubs as ‘Sultan of the Hammond’.

In the 1990s, Smith’s music actually became fashionable again. You could hear his organ in sample form on countless hip-hop tracks. His 1970 version of the Blood Sweat & Tears hit Spinning Wheel appeared on A Tribe Called Quest and the Wu-Tang Clan, among others. In addition, acid jazz briefly became a fashion on the dance floor, and Smith still had just the right soul-jazz sound for it.

dr. Lonnie Smith has remained a welcome guest on the international stages ever since. He worked with anyone who wanted to. Curious is his collaboration with Iggy Pop, on this year’s album Breath. It was great in 2010 with the Jazz Orchestra of the Concertgebouw in the Amsterdam Bimhuis, recorded six years later on the grand-sounding I Didn’t Know What Time It Was.


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