Two things have remained constant throughout Dr. Lonnie Smith's long, winding career: an unpretentious, wide-ranging love of music, and an almost equally strong distaste for the music business.
Smith first made his name in the late '60s as part of Blue Note Records' stable of Hammond B-3 organ specialists, alongside the likes of Larry Young, John Patton, and, most famously, Jimmy Smith (no relation). On albums such as Think! (1968), Turning Point (1969) and the live Move Your Hand (also 1969), Dr. Lonnie ushered in a funky, groove-oriented approach to the jazz organ. The style proved popular during its own era - one in which jazz was rapidly losing market share to rock - while also helping provide the impetus for the acid-jazz and "rare groove" crazes of the 1990s and beyond.
The only problem for Smith was that the jazz-funk style he helped to define soon came to define him, at least in the minds of listeners. "When I came in [to Blue Note], I had no idea that it was gonna be the Motown of the organ," he says. Blue Note executive Francis Wolff was a big fan of Smith's groove-oriented numbers: "Every time I would record one, Frank said, 'Do another one like that,'" Smith recalls. "And I didn't want to! I wanted to play more straight ahead. But I brought something [to the label] that I didn't know I was gonna have to keep doing."
The R&B elements on Smith's records weren't contrived or gimmicky. Before taking up the organ, he sang in a doo-wop group in his native Buffalo known as the Supremes (years before Diana Ross and company claimed the name for themselves). Smith didn't start playing organ until around 1965, when he was already in his mid-20s.
Yet within a year, he found himself playing in backing bands for Gladys Knight, Dionne Warwick, the Impressions, and other vocalists who toured through Kentucky, Ohio, and upstate New York. By 1966, he was recording for Columbia, first as part of guitarist George Benson's quartet and then as a leader in his own right. An appearance on saxophonist Lou Donaldson's 1967 Blue Note disc Alligator Bogaloo led to him getting picked up by the legendary jazz label, for which he recorded a handful of albums over the next few years.
It was during this otherwise successful era that Smith learned some tough lessons about audience expectations. "I used to play strictly for myself and not for [the audience] at all," he recounts. "I'm the star of the concert, and the people wait for me to come up, and I finally get up, the place is packed, and what'd I go out there with? Original compositions, jazz, straight-ahead. They didn't particularly care for it. Because they had heard, on the radio, something that I recorded - that's why they were there."
For Smith, the lesson learned in all this was simple: "Be careful what you do if you're making a record. You better like it, enjoy it. I learned that from experience. And I quit the business. I went on hiatus. I hid. I was so hurt. I thought it was all about music, and I still do."
Smith recorded sporadically from the late '70s through the mid '90s, although he never quit playing. He moved to Florida in 1988 and performed regularly at local venues. His gradual reemergence in the mid '90s coincided with a resurgent interest in vintage late '60s/early '70s soul-jazz among younger vinyl collectors, especially in Europe. Smith says the timing was merely a coincidence. While he appreciated the new fans, he had a simpler reason for ending his hiatus. "I'd talk to people, and they missed me and I missed them. So I was putting my life on hold as far as the music was concerned."
Oddly enough, the past decade has been one of Smith's most prolific. His most recent album, last year's Rise Up! (Palmetto), once again showcases his catholic tastes, featuring liberal interpretations of Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" and the Beatles' "Come Together" alongside a handful of originals.
Rise Up! also features a version of Larry Young's "Tyrone," which could be seen as a tribute to the late organist, whose advanced post-bop approach to the Hammond B-3 was miles apart from Smith's more down-to-earth style. Smith says he always felt a sense of kinship, not rivalry, among his organ-playing peers. "We were a family. We all had a different style and brought something to the organ that was a little different."
At 67 years old, Smith is practically the sole survivor from the "golden age" of the jazz organ. Having seen too many of his friends pass away - many of them poor and/or lacking adequate medical care - he has become an enthusiastic advocate of the Jazz Foundation of America. A future goal of this foundation is to create a sort of retirement home for musicians, in which they can continue to play music as well as interact with younger musicians while also having access to medical care and affordable housing. "It could be a beautiful thing," he says. "All our friends are passing and leaving us, and they never got a chance to do the things that they wanted to do."
Meanwhile, having ascended to the role of elder statesman himself, Smith enjoys plenty leeway with audiences, who come to see him, not a particular song they might have heard on the radio. He's earned the right to play what he wants.
"I worked hard for that," he admits. "Yeah, I can do anything now - within reason. I'm not gonna get up and burn the organ or something like that." Laughing, he reconsiders, "I might."