Category Archives: Hammond B3

On the 72nd Birthday Anniversary of Charles Earland, An Interview From 1998

In 1998, Joe Fields gave me the opportunity to write the program notes for a terrific Charles Earland recording called Slammin’ and Jammin’ [Savant] with Carlos Garnett, Melvin Sparks and Bernard Purdie. The man known as “The Mighty Burner” died the following year; in recognition of his 72nd birthday, here’s the verbatim interview that I conducted with him towards writing the piece.

* * *

Charles Earland (Ted Panken):

TP:    This seems a little different than your last number of records in terms of the way the band is set up, because you seem primarily to have used working bands on the last records, particularly in terms of rhythm sections.  Why is this one set up in this way?

EARLAND:  Well, sometimes you need to change your taste.  I’m used to working with my band all the time. Eric Alexander, Jim Rotondi, Greg Rockingham, Vince Ector and Bob DeVos, we work together as a group all the time.  On this particular date, I just wanted to do something different, just to change the pace a little bit.  We don’t want to keep giving the people the same thing all the time.

TP:    What’s the difference between coming into the studio with a band like this and let’s say going in with your own working band?  There seems to be quite a bit of care taken and thought given to the material you’re using.  You’re using a different groove on each one, each one has a little different structure.

EARLAND:  Well, when I go in the studio with my regular group, we’re more serious-minded.  It’s just the complete opposite of what you said.  When I go in with the quintet, we go in with the attitude to really come out with something more serious than the normal organ group sound or the way the organ groups play.  A lot of times organ groups play slammin’ and jammin’ music all the time, and they never play anything serious.  With the quintet, we usually do different time signatures and different kind of material.

On this particular date it was more fun.  Four guys got together, and we did stuff that we all knew.  It was nothing that we put together with any…

TP:    Was it all pretty impromptu?

EARLAND:  This was all pretty impromptu, and we all had a lot of fun doing it.  Like, it was good to see Melvin Sparks and Purdie, we slapped hands and went in the studio and had a good time.  We got together the day before and worked out the things we were going to put down.  It was just like that.

TP:    What was the criteria for picking the tunes and using the tunes?

EARLAND:  I already had an idea of what I wanted to do.

TP:    Let’s talk about each tune, a little capsule on each thing.  Your relation to the tune, why you took the approach you took.  “Honky Tonk.”

EARLAND:  “Honky Tonk” has a lot of history with it.  We had just lost Bill Doggett, and I loved Bill with all my heart and I love his wife.  I just wanted to keep his spirit alive.  He was a definite hero as far as the organ instrument is concerned with his life.  He helped us as young guys find our way to where we are today with the music.  He was always in the trenches.  He never really got the recognition that he deserved.  People only know him by the one song “Honky Tonk,” but I feel as though this one song… If you can just write one song that will follow yo for the rest of your life, you’ve made an accomplishment.  Bill Doggett was definitely one of the innovators who I feel needs to get a certain amount of recognition, and whatever I can do to say that he’s a great man, I will.

TP:    When you were getting your organ chops together, was he someone whose solos you studied?

EARLAND:  Oh, yes.  When I was coming up as a kid, he was someone I definitely admired.  I loved his group.  I loved him and I loved to hear that saxophone of Percy France.  Oh, man, those were the good days, especially when I lived in Atlantic City, and these cats used to come to town.  Oh, they used to just knock my socks off.

TP:    Let me step back with a little bit.  I gather you’re from the Philly area.  When did you live in Atlantic City?

EARLAND:  Well, every summer I lived in Atlantic City!  As a kid, I was playing saxophone in school, in the school band at South Philadelphia High School.  I went to school with Frank Avalon and Lew Tabackin and Chubby Checker and people like that.  So I was always being inspired musically by somebody.  Frankie Avalon played trumpet.  A lot of people don’t know that.  He played trumpet in the band.  As a matter of fact, I played baritone saxophone in the South Philadelphia High School dance band, and Lew Tabackin played tenor and Frankie Avalon played trumpet.

TP:    Was baritone sax your first instrument.

EARLAND:  No, alto saxophone was my first instrument.  During the summer vacation, everybody got a job in Atlantic City.  We could read music, so we played in the pits, where they had the girlie girls dancing, the shake dancers and the strippers.  So as a kid, at night I played in the pit, and then during my off-time I was running around to the different clubs checking out the bands, like Willis Jackson and Wild Bill Davis and Jimmy Smith and Jack McDuff, and cats like that around town.  And of course, Bill Doggett was one of my favorites.

TP:    So you were 15-16-17 around then.


TP:    Was that the first time you got a dose of live music?

EARLAND:  Well, I was always big for my age, so I looked much older than I was — because I was a big kid.  But that’s when I really got my fill of organ.  I just fell in love with that instrument.  Then I was lucky enough to land a job playing tenor saxophone with Jimmy McGriff, and I worked with Jimmy for about 3½ years, and that’s where I learned to play the organ.  I used to watch him play every night, and then on intermissions and breaks I would sit down and try to imitate what I heard Jimmy McGriff play.

TP:    Did you have a keyboard or piano background before that?


TP:    So you developed your technique through watching him and trying to apply what he did.

EARLAND:  Watching him, right.

TP:    So you’re totally self-taught.

EARLAND:  Yes.  It’s a blessing from God, what I do.  I’m not what you call classically trained.

TP:    Do you have a musical background in your family.

EARLAND:  Yes, my mother played piano in church, but I never had any kind of piano training at all.

TP:    When did you start playing an instrument?

EARLAND:  I started in elementary school on alto saxophone.

TP:    Who were the jazz saxophonists that you liked?

EARLAND:  I used to babysit at my aunt’s house all the time, and she had this great big James Moody collection, and I used to play James Moody records and try to imitate what James was playing on alto.

TP:    With the Johnny Acea arrangements.

EARLAND:  Yeah, the big band, “there I go, there I go,” all that stuff.  My aunt had all these on 78’s.  Of course I scratched them all up trying to learn the solos!

TP:    So James Moody was your first big influence on the alto.

EARLAND:  Yeah, he was my first influence on saxophone.  There was also Jimmy Heath, Benny Golson, of course Trane.  I lived around the corner from the Heath Brothers, from Percy, Tootie and Jimmy.  Jimmy was always having some kind of musical rehearsal around his house, and one afternoon, man, they had Cannon and Nat and them cats over there.  I used to hang outside the window, Pops, Jimmy’s father, used to chase us from under the window!  I used to see all the greats.  When they came to Philadelphia to play, they would look Jimmy Heath and the Heath Brothers up.  I used to take saxophone lessons from Jimmy. [HE WAS ON CHARLES’ THIRD RECORD]

TP:    Let’s talk about “Sugar.”

EARLAND:  “Sugar” was a tune I fell in love with when I was coming up as an organ player, listening to George Benson and Stanley Turrentine and Freddie Hubbard.  It was a tune I always liked to play.  They used Ron Carter when they recorded it, and they couldn’t have used a greater bass player, but I felt like I could record it and do it with my own bass.  I always wanted to do it, and I finally got the chance.

TP:    Anything particular about what you put on it?

EARLAND:  No, we just had fun playing it.  We did it as a trio with Melvin Sparks and Bernard, and the three of us always clicked whenever we played.  It was like old home week.

TP:    When did you first start playing with Melvin Sparks?

EARLAND:  That was back when I played organ in Lou Donaldson’s band.

TP:    That was the late Sixties, and you did some of those Blue Note records.

EARLAND:  Yes, I did some of those Blue Note records with Lou Donaldson.

TP:    How about Purdie?

EARLAND:  Oh, I used to watch Purdie back in the R&B days.  He played with everybody.  We did a couple of LP’s together, though I can’t remember how far back.  We were always jamming and always on sessions together, and when the musicians get together and do jam sessions together, they get a feeling for each other.  Matter of fact, we just did the Playboy Jazz Festival Together, me, Bernard, Joey De Francesco, Stanley Turrentine and Lou Donaldson and Kevin Eubanks.  Bill Cosby put together what he called “The Cos of good music thing,” and we were the “Cos of good music.”  He likes them Philly boys.  Plus he likes Kevin, too.  Kevin is a real nice cat and a good guitar player.  That was the first time I had a chance to work with Kevin, but I had played with everybody else before.

TP:    Talk about “Mercy, Mercy,” your association with the tune and what you put on it.  You have that long sort of building solo at the end.

EARLAND:  We kind of changed it up and put another groove to it.  More Funk.  I don’t use bass players, but I did on this tune.  I wanted to get a more funky sound.  I was really kind of experimenting, working with a bass player; I’m my own bass player, because I’m my own bass player.  Joe Zawinul is one of my favorite players, and it’s his tune, and you reach back into your history, Cannon and Nat… [LAUGHS] Then living out here in Chicago also, where they made it live, so I hear it quite a bit.

TP:    “Mercy, Mercy” is popular in Chicago.

EARLAND:  Oh yes.  I live in the south suburbs, out in Madison(?), about 30 miles south of Chicago.

TP:    “Johnny Comes Marching Home”.

EARLAND:  I could say that was one of my favorite organ albums with Jimmy Smith and Donald Bailey.  That was some group he had.  I just loved that “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” and I thought I’d stick that in here and people will remember it.

TP:    Was Jimmy Smith pretty much of a first-hand influence for you?

EARLAND:  Oh yeah.  He was one of the cats, man.  I loved Bill Davis and Bill Doggett.  You know what I liked about these guys the most?  They could groove!  Man, when I would come down Kentucky Avenue in Atlantic City, I could hear them organs screaming all the way at the end of the block.  As soon as you hit that block on Kentucky Avenue (and Kentucky Avenue looks like a ghost town right now, man, when the casinos came and put everybody out of business), I could hear those organs, and you would automatically… We had a certain kind of walk in those days anyway, man, and as soon as you’d hear them organs on Kentucky Avenue you’d go into your bop walk!  You’d start to struttin’ with the groove, man, because you could feel the pulse all the way a block away.  You’d just groove right on up to Club Harlem, or across the street to the Little Belmont.  Usually they’d have Chris Columbo and Gatortail playing at the Harlem Club, and Wild Bill Davis or Bill Doggett playing at Little Belmont, right across the street.  Right down the street from that was the High Hat, where there was Jimmy Smith and Jack McDuff.  All these orsgan players in town at the same time.  Then down at the Glass Hat you’d find the Don Patterson Trio with Billy James on drums.

TP:    So you learned from watching Jimmy McGriff, but you were studying the nuances of everybody’s style.

EARLAND:  Oh, yes.  I loved the way Jack McDuff voiced his group.  I still voice my group similarly today, to make my little group sound like a big band.  Jack McDuff was using a quartet then.  I use a quintet because I like a brass sound, so I have a trumpet player in my band.  Jack had Georgie Benson and Joe Dukes and Red Holloway, and I used to follow this quartet around Jersey.  If they went to Newark, I would be in Newark; if they were in Trenton or Atlantic City, wherever they were, if I could be there, I went to see this quartet.  The way Jack arranged his band was phenomenal.  He’s a great arranger and a great writer.  He’d have that little quartet so dynamically rehearsed and the voicings were just incredible!  That’s the only thing I could say.  I loved the way Jack voiced and structured his band, and I learned from that how to voice a band, how to make a little organ group sound like a big band.

That’s one of the advantages of an organ, too.  Because it has so many voicings, you can add to what you already have, and all you’d have to do was put a lead voice on the top and an organ underneath and another voice in between, and you had a full orchestra sound.

TP:    Well, you really put the moan on the organ.  I know your phrasing comes from your saxophone background, but I hear a lot of that Don Patterson single-line approach.

EARLAND:  Yes, I play staccato.  Cats with Classical training have a tendency to play legato.  But since I don’t have Classical training, I play staccato.  My attack on my notes is completely different. I play like people play typewriters.

TP:    “Organic Groove” is where Carlos Garnett starts making his presence felt.  A bit about him and his participation in this, and that tune.

EARLAND:  Joe Fields recommended Carlos Garnett, and I remembered him from the days he played with Norman Connors and people like that.  He was always a fascinating player.  He wrote this tune called “Organic Groove,” and we said, “Let’s do it.”  That’s what it was.

TP:    A few words about the tune.

EARLAND:  It’s just like what it is, a groove.  I guess he was thinking about something organic at the time he wrote it.  I can’t really elaborate on it, but we liked it.

TP:    How do you like his sound?  Did you know him in the ’70s?

EARLAND:  Oh, yes.  I knew him back when he played with Norman Connors.  Plus, you know how Norman was; he was playing a bit of everything back in those days.

TP:    Well, the thing that really got me of the whole album was “Let The Music Play,” because of the way it built.

EARLAND:  Man, I love playing that song.  Randy Miller, who produced one of my albums back in the ’70s, and was the bandleader of Brass Construction, wrote it.  I recorded it once before on electric piano for Mercury Records, back in the ’70s.  It was a big hit.  It never was a hit in the United States, I believe because I did on piano!  But every time I go to London, if I don’t play that song, I get shot!  It’s like a European hit.  But I never did it on organ.  So I figured if it’s a hit in Europe, now I can try it out in the States.  We had fun doing it.  I love that tune.

TP:    Here’s the time to say something about what Purdie is like as a drummer.  He just takes those grooves like a pit bull with some meat, and he doesn’t let them go!

EARLAND:  Oh yeah.  Bernard Purdie is one of the greatest drummers that ever played the instrument.  He is super-versatile.  It doesn’t matter what you come to play.  He’ll play heavy metal, he’ll play R&B, he’ll play Gospel, he’ll play Jazz, and then he’ll play the intricate way-out Jazz.  It doesn’t matter to him.  All you have to do is let him know what you want to play, and Bernard Purdie will play it.  I don’t know any other way to describe this man but saying that God has blessed him with a super-talent and he has used it efficiently.

Melvin Sparks is an organ player’s guitar player.  Not only that, but he’s also a virtuoso in his own right.  Melvin Sparks can play it all, from R&B right down to the heaviest Jazz.

TP:    Talk about your composition, “Sheila’s Blues.”  You do that locked-hands Milt Buckner thing at the end.

EARLAND:  See, I had those influences all my life.  I have a whole lot of Milt Buckner and Wild Bill Davis and Bill Doggett still locked in me that I haven’t released yet.

TP:    Do you think the loose nature of this record let you put some of that out where it might not have with the quintet?

EARLAND:  Yeah.  A lot of that stuff is like groove stuff, and you get into one of those Bill Doggett grooves or one of them Wild Bill Davis grooves or one of them Milt Buckner grooves on the end, and it’s just automatic.  I never know what I’m going to play.  It just becomes automatic.  It’s just like a computer; before you know it, something just poppped up on the screen.  You get into one of those feelings, man… If I can’t feel it, man, I won’t play it.  If I can’t feel it, I have a problem with it.  That’s how I describe music.  Anything that I listen to that moves me emotionally or touches something in me is good music.  If I listen to something and I don’t get no kind of reaction from it, to me it’s not good music.  Now, it might be good music to somebody else, because it’s a matter of taste, but that’s how I judge music.  And I listen to Classical music, I listen to R&B, Heavy Metal; it doesn’t make a difference to me.  If it moves me, I like it.

TP:    I interrupted you when you were talking about “Sheila’s Blues.”

EARLAND:  Sheila is my wife, and there’s just something about the way that she walks.  So this is more like describing how she walks.  She has this sexy litle flair about her that just knocks my socks off.  We’ve been married now going on eight years, and it’s still there, man.  Sometimes you write about those things.

TP:    What’s that riff on the end of it?  The call-and-response thing you do on the end.

EARLAND:  That’s that old Jimmy Smith groove.  That’s my Jimmy Smith interpretation! [LAUGHS] SPOON-SKRANK… Jimmy used to play that kind of stuff all the time, where the guitar player would automatically go into a 4/4 thing, CHOMP-CHOMP-CHOMP-CHOMP.  We used to even break it down from a 4/4 to a 2/4, but I think I played in four on that.

TP:    One of the things you like to do to keep yourself interested is play with time signatures.

EARLAND:  Yeah.  I do a lot of different time signatures.  I’m the only organ player who plays in 10/4.  I like to do things like that.  I just produced an album by my guitar player, Bob De Vos, and we did a couple of 3/4 things in there.  I also produced an album with Eric Alexander where we do some 3/4.

TP:    One more tune, “Mr. Magic.”

EARLAND:  All right.  “Mister Magic Man” was always a Funk favorite of mine, and the only cat I knew in the world that I could play it with wad Bernard Purdie.  So we just did it for the fun of it.  I don’t know that it sounded as good as Grover and the guys, but Grover’s a good friend of mine, and…

TP:    His first recording was on a record of yours.

EARLAND:  His first record was my second record.  I think it was Living Black: Live At the Pea Club.  I had a young Grover Washington on there.  His brother Darryl was on there, who plays drums with Darryl right now.

TP:    When did you leave Philly?

EARLAND:  Oh, I left Philadelphia at a young age, when I was in my teens still.  Still about 17-18 years old.

TP:    How long have you been in Chicago?

EARLAND:  I’ve been out here now about ten years.  I got married out here about 7½ years ago.

TP:    Does being in Chicago have an effect on the way you play?

EARLAND:  Yes.  I got a chance to relax, I got a chance to plant some roots, and I came out here and slowed my life down, and I found Jesus Christ, and I turned my whole life around.  I’m going to school now.  I’m studying for the ministry.  I’m giving my life to Christ, and I’m completely dedicated.  I just love living now.  I’m glad that I met this young lady I’m with.  I couldn’t be any happier than I am right now.

TP:    Do you play a lot locally around Chicago?

EARLAND:  At least once a month.  I’ve got two clubs I do, and a third I do every now and then.  I play the Cotton Club, at 1400 S. Michigan, and I play Green Dolphin Street at 2200 N. Ashland, at least once every month that I’m in town.  My drummer, Greg Rockingham, lives in Chicago, so I’m fortunate to have Greg wherever I go.  Now, I broke in Eric Alexander, who lived here before he moved to New York, and he worked with me a long time before he got to New York City.  I broke him in…how can you say it, man?  I don’t want to say like I did something great, man.  But I just pulled him through.  I got another little young cat, tenor player that I’m doing the same thing with now.  His name is Frank Catalano.  I see he just did his first CD with Willie Pickins and a couple of cats from out here.

TP:    Who did that for you?  Who were your mentors?

EARLAND:  Lou Donaldson.  Lou Donaldson was like a father to me.  And not because I didn’t have a father, because my real father was a great father.  Lou taught me not only music, but he taught me about the business end of music.  The musicians today are much more intelligent than the cats were when I was coming up.  When I was coming up, all the musicians wanted to do was play and make a record.  But Lou Donaldson told me that music wasn’t only to be appreciated and enjoyed, but it was also a business.  He taught me how to make a living playing music.  A lot of musicians die poor, or they never have anything, because they don’t treat it as a serious business.  The treat it as having a good time.  And the good time runs out when the gig is over, and then you don’t have anywhere to go afterwards.  But now I have a home and a wife and roots and a career.

TP:    And Lou Donaldson helped you set that foundation.

EARLAND:  Oh, Lou Donaldson definitely helped me set that up.  He taught me that it’s a business.  He said you can still enjoy playing music, but you’ll even enjoy it more if you’re a secure person.

TP:    Who were your influences as a tenor player?

EARLAND:  Oh, Trane, of course.  Wayne Shorter.

TP:    So you were into the Modernist sound on tenor.

EARLAND:  I always loved the good players.  That’s why I love Eric Alexannder so much.  Don’t get me wrong, now.  When I first started playing tenor, I listened to cats like Gene Ammons and Red Prysock and Willis Jackson and I imitated them, too.  But I kind of matured, and I started listening to cats like Wayne Shorter and John Coltrane and Benny Golson — always Jimmy Heath!  I always listen to Jimmy.

TP:    It sounds like you had a really top-shelf musical education in high school, like that prepared you for anything you’d have to do later.

EARLAND:  Kinda-sorta.  It was kind of rough for me in high school.  That’s why I left.  I was getting a fair deal over there where I was at.  They made me play baritone saxophone because nobody else wanted to carry it.  It was a great big Buescher, weighed a ton… [LAUGHS] It was one of those kind of things.  I just wasn’t getting what I wanted to get out of high school.  I was around a lot of people, and everything that I got, I got it because I wanted it.  Nothing that anybody took any time with me in high school and sat me down to try to do anything.  Lew Tabackin showed me a few things.  He was always a nice guy.

TP:    I won’t try to paint a rosy picture of high school days.

EARLAND:  No, high school wasn’t that great. I got all my real street training from Atlantic City and places like that, then being with Jimmy.  As a matter of fact, Jimmy had a big influence on me switching to organ.  I used to watch him play.  Jimmy McGriff is so dynamic.  He plays with so much feeling.  He just rocks you.  Jimmy rocked me for a long time, and I just had to do that.

TP:    You’re talking about being into Coltrane and Jimmy Heath and Wayne who put very advanced and cerebral harmonies on top of the groove.  Talk about that in terms of the function of being an organ player in the type of venues that you play over the years, that balance of keeping yourself interested but pleasing the people as well.

EARLAND:  That works perfect with organ, see, where piano groups can’t particularly do that.  With the organ quintet, we might just play, for instance, a song like “Cherokee.”  A piano group will play “Cherokee,” and say we play at the same up tempo.  When they play it, it will sound really far out there, but when the organ group plays the same song, the same arrangement, the same tempo, it will swing harder.  So whatever we played with the organ group, the groove is always going to be there because the instrument is such a percussive type of instrument.  It’s hard for any player, unless they don’t use the bass pedals, to not be able to swing.  And Jimmy McGriff was one of the hardest-swinging organ players.  He had the most dominant bass line, man, of all the players.  Now, Richard Groove Holmes had the trickiest bass line of all the players.  His bass line was more intricate than others.  But if you wanted a steady pulse, a real hot beat that never skipped a beat, Jimmy McGriff was the guy.

TP:    And you got your conception of the bass function of the organ through him?

EARLAND:  For sure.  The groove that I use today came from cats like Jimmy McGriff and Bill Davis and Milt Buckner and even Jimmy Smith.  Jimmy Smith’s bass line is good.  Jimmy Smith was one of those kind of players where everything he did was good.  He didn’t have any one particular part of his playing that stuck out more than the other.  He was a well-rounded player. But you take a cat like Jimmy McGriff, his bass line was outstanding.  The walls would shake!  When we played little clubs, everybody sitting at the bar or the tables, if their heads wasn’t moving, their feets was pattin’.  That’s the kind of thing he had over people when he played, and he still does today.  As a matter of fact, we just played the Blue Note together, Jack McDuff, Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff and myself.  I had a chance to see all of the guys again, and those guys still have it.  And Jimmy McGriff was still kicking like he always has.

TP:    A few words about your feelings about this date.

EARLAND:  It was good being with my friends again — Bernard, Melvin and Carlos.  I had a great time doing this album.  It was a lot of fun, and we shared a lot of good music together.  God blessed us with the serious groove.  I know that people will like this record because it was definitely slammin’ and jammin’.

TP:    Is that your title?

EARLAND:  Yes.  And that’s really the kind of feeling we got from it.  We came in slammin’ and jammin’, really having a good time and laughing, slapping hands.  Like a good time!  God blessed us with a real seriously musical good time.


Filed under Charles Earland, Hammond B3, Interview

Dr. Lonnie Smith is 69

As reviews of Dr. Lonnie Smith’s recent engagement at Ronnie Scott’s in London make clear, the Hammond B3 master, who turned 69 today, remains an American original, as cliche-free in his attire as when expressing himself through notes and tones. After listening to him for years, I had the opportunity to learn this first-hand when I profiled Smith for DownBeat four or five years ago. Hopefully we’ll have a chance to experience his magic for many years to come.

* * * * *

“I don’t do soundchecks,” Doctor Lonnie Smith noted as he entered Manhattan’s Jazz Standard ninety minutes before hit-time on night one of his pre-Christmas week. It was cocktail hour, and stragglers from a private party ambled leisurely from the room with doggie bags filled with barbecued ribs and chicken. Smith, however, was ready to attend to business. So were his bandmates, an as-yet unrehearsed quintet billed as Crescent Boogaloo for the presence of New Orleanians Donald Harrison and Nicholas Payton, along with Peter Bernstein, a Manhattan native, and Bill Stewart, a son of Iowa.

Smith’s white hair was tied back in a bun. His white beard was combed out. His black rasta hat sat at a precise angle over his forehead. With the help of his trademark conjure cane, he picked his way to the bandstand to gauge the idiosyncracies of the house-owned Hammond B3. As the staff moved tables and chairs into position, Smith proceeded to poke and prod as Harrison and Payton, both in town just that afternoon, warmed up with licks and long tones. Bernstein tweaked his amp, Stewart tuned his drums and adjusted his cymbals. Smith set forth the chords for Tadd Dameron’s “Good Bait,” Stewart went four-to-the-floor, and Smith, already grooving, eyes darting, played an intense solo, harmonizing his line in a fervent grunt. Harrison blew a half chorus. So did Payton.  Satisfied, Smith smiled, halted the proceedings, chatted briefly with the house engineer, and left the room.

Forty-five minutes later, barbecue-munching, spirits-sipping patrons packed the house. Smith reemerged, now topped with his trademark black turban. Again, he kicked off “Good Bait,” embellishing the melody with a funky bassline not unlike the one he’d laid down forty years before on “Alligator Boogaloo,” the still-popular Lou Donaldson jukebox hit on which Smith generated the grooves with George Benson and Idris Muhammad. As Harrison uncorked a darting solo, Smith shifted the drawbars with his right hand without allowing the bass to flag, then segued into a characteristically dramatic solo that built to climax and decrescendo. Without a word, he launched the theme of Frank Foster’s “Simone,” simultaneously floating the melody and articulating another inexorably raunchy bassline over Stewart’s staunch 5/4. As his solo transpired, he tilted his head almost at a right angle to the Leslie speaker behind him, extracting signifying squawks and fuzz. Over Stewart’s declarative swamp beat on the Beatles’ “Come Together,” Smith continued to jab-and-weave atop another ferocious bass figure, juxtaposing long runs with short bursts, then gave way to Harrison’s intense wailing-the-blues alto solo and Payton’s low-register effusion, nodding like a pendulum as he comped, growling scat syllables to conclude.

It was time to cool down the inflamed congregants, and Smith ratcheted down with an abstract, rubato fanfare at a subtone murmur, gradually transitioning to an exposition of the elegiac theme of “Chelsea Bridge.” Supporting nuanced solos by Payton and Harrison, Smith turned the organ into a virtual choir, which, on his own concluding statement, blasted off the firmament and into ether. On the intro to “Willow Weep For Me,” he continued to orchestrate, interpolating fragments of “Parisian Thoroughfare” and “Rhapsody in Blue,” and splattering synth-like Sun Ra platters of color, sustaining a slow drone to complement Bernstein’s melody statement and Payton’s brief melodic variations. On his own solo, he postulated a long, swaying bassline, picking each note with care. Gradually, he raised the tempo, harmonizing the line and locking in, eyes closed, before unwinding with a slow blues over a shuffle. On the brisk set-closer, “Oleo,” Smith spun out crisply articulated bop lines, prodding an informed succession of solos with stabbing, Bud Powell-like comp.

The house began to clear for the second, sold-out show. Smith—who seemed barely to have broken a sweat while spontaneously conjuring a perfect set from, as it were, a blank canvas—exchanged a pleasantry or two with fans and friends, and retreated to the bar for dinner.


At 65, Smith occupies a singular niche in 21st century improvisation. Along with less visible B3’ers such as Gene Ludwig and Gloria Coleman, he’s one of the last survivors to have lived and breathed his instrument’s down-home, good-time function that provided a foot-patting  soundtrack at blue-collar inner city lounges and grilles across urban Afro-America until the era of Ronald Reagan. Deejays and producers still sample the famously funky grooves of such early career albums as Alligator Boogaloo, Mama Wailer, a Kudu session from 1974, or Afro-Desia, a 1975 Groove Merchant date on which Joe Lovano debuted as a sideman. Smith himself never stopped sidemanning with Donaldson, and spent much of the ‘90s offering omnidirectional testimony in bracing contrast to the leader’s straight-down-the-middle declamations. These days he performs mostly as a leader, still building full-bodied basslines from the bottom up. He also continues to deploy the presentational style that he developed early on, projecting earthy roots while developing ever more sophisticated ways to satisfy a hunger to embrace a universe of sound, an imperative that also drove the jazz fusion avatars of his generation, psychedelic mother-shippers like George Clinton and Bootsy Collins, or, for that matter, Sun Ra.

“He’s the king of nuance,” said Harrison between sets. “Lonnie can switch so quickly from one feeling to another; he’s figured out how to do it.”

“He uses a lot more harmony than he used to,” said Joey DeFrancesco, whose father, a Niagara Falls native, crossed paths with Smith on the early ‘60s Buffalo scene, where both soaked up local hero Joe Madison. “But no matter what he does, his bass always grooves, so it’s swinging, and he comes up with a lot of different sounds. He’s got the whole thing going.”

Few musicians have played more frequently with Smith than Bernstein, his bandmate with Donaldson since the early ‘90s, who often plays guitar in Smith’s trios. “Lonnie trusts his instincts like nobody else that I play with,” Bernstein said. “He’s totally unafraid to stop on a dime, change the direction of the music, and see what happens. He sings, and on one level, that’s his approach to playing the instrument. On the other level, he is the orchestra accompanying the singer, accompanying himself. He gets inside the tune, melts it down, then brings it into a form. He’ll try anything”

Organist Sam Yahel experienced Smith’s experimental proclivities first-hand during the early ‘90s when he loaned Smith his Korg CX-3 portable organ for a gig at Augie’s, then a hardcore jazz haven on the Upper West Side and now the premises of Smoke.

“I’d been gigging all over the city with it, and thought I had it figured out,” Yahel said. “But after I set it up for Lonnie, I was blown away by the sounds he got out of this thing. He’s one of the first guys I heard who expanded the sonic palette. From “Alligator Boogaloo,” I perceived him as this amazing player in the tradition of Jimmy Smith, which he is. But when I heard him live, I understood that he was bringing something else to the table—a capacity for abstraction. He pulled out sounds that we didn’t realize were there. When I heard him on the real organ, I was even more blown away by his ability to come from an abstract place, and then reach that place of soulfulness. Unlike Larry Young, who freed up the harmony and lyricism of the right hand by freeing up the left hand so that the bass didn’t always have to nail the groove, but could float, come behind or a little ahead, Lonnie never sacrificed the idea that the bass is ALWAYS incredibly grooving. Indirectly or directly, he influenced my generation. When you hear him play an introduction, you feel that anything could happen. Your creative juices can’t help but flow when you walk away.”

“Lonnie approaches his solos thematically, and is a very thoughtful improviser,” said Larry Goldings, who witnessed the aforementioned night at Augie’s. “Now, he has a bunch of very personalized sounds—organ effects—that I still can’t figure out and copy. But more important is the way he builds the solo, with a lot of space and tremendous drama. In a way, that’s mostly what he’s about. He wants to tell a story, and he knows how to get the audience on the edge of their seat. By the end you really feel like you’ve been through something.”


“The first night was very hard,” Smith reported a week later. “But I had faith because they were great players. What made it hard is that you have to make sure all the equipment is working right, and their organ was a little rough for me. But once you start playing, it’s okay—you figure out what to do with it.”

“Figuring out what to do with it” has been Smith’s modus operandi from the jump, and the dictum served him well around 1961, when he returned to Buffalo from an undistinguished Air Force stint in Texas as an electronics specialist (“I didn’t want to take orders from anybody, so they discharged me”), and started singing with his brothers on local jobs.

“I always sang,” he recalled. “My family sang spiritual music at home, and before I went into the service, I’d sung in churches. Then, we had a four-part harmony singing group called the Supremes, which we changed to the Teen Kings. A disk jockey named Lucky Pierre managed us, and we made a record. But also, I always loved to play musical instruments. The first time I touched a piano, I’d just graduated to third grade, and I went to visit my aunt. No one was watching me, and I got up to the piano and figured out how to play ‘Crying in the Chapel.’ I still remember the key—F-sharp.

“I never had a piano, but I learned a little about the keyboard by fooling around. I knew some boogie-woogie, and natural things like that. My mother and I used to scat to instrumental songs, and I played trumpet and tuba in high school, but I’d play piano in the school auditorium, or at someone’s house, like Grover Washington, who I grew up with. I’d play songs by Fats Domino or Little Richard—what they played had a lot of feeling, and wasn’t so complex that you couldn’t understand what they were doing; once you listened to the record, you said, ‘Oh, okay,’ and you’d have it. A friend played me Jimmy Smith’s ‘Midnight Special’ record, and I heard Wild Bill Davis, Bill Doggett and Milt Buckner, too. My brothers played bass, guitar and drums, and on the jobs, I’d sing a few songs, then sit on the side while they kept playing. I wanted to get up there so bad! It looked like were having too much fun. I borrowed a Wurlitzer. I’d play a couple of songs, and I’d be happy.”

Obsessed with the keyboard, Smith began spending most of his down time at a downtown music store owned by a generous soul named Art Kubera. “He asked me why, and I said, ‘Sir, if I had an instrument, I could work, I could make a living,’” Smith recounted. “It must have stuck. One day, I came in, and he closed up, took me in the back, where he stayed, and showed me a new Hammond he’d had to take back. They were in the thousands then. He said, ‘If you can move it, it’s yours.’ I got a pickup truck, and moved it.”

While learning the complex sequence of stops and presets that generates the Hammond sound, Smith played the house keyboard at a local boite called the Little Paris. One night, Jack McDuff, in town for an engagement at Buffalo’s top jazz venue, the Pine Grill, came by when the place was packed. “McDuff told me he was standing on one side of the room, and the people were jumping so much that the vibrations from the floor moved him to the other side,” Smith said. “He’d heard I had an organ, and wanted to rent it—a friend of his was coming to town. I wasn’t sure, but he said, ‘One day maybe I’ll be able to help you.’ Guess who the friend was. Lou Donaldson.”

In 1964, McDuff fulfilled this karmic promise, allowing Smith—now booked out of Ohio, he had gainful employment backing acts like Dionne Warwick, Gladys Knight, the Coasters, and the Impressions, Etta James, and Jimmy Reed—to sit in with his popular George Benson-Red Holloway-Joe Dukes quartet on a Buffalo gig. About to branch off on his own, Benson liked Smith’s groove. He took his number, but didn’t call.

“I’d been playing in New York City at Smalls, and Grant Green was trying to get me to record with him,” Smith stated. “But I’d heard Grant Green on records, I’d just started playing, and I knew I wasn’t ready.” Green’s manager, Jimmy Boyd, was also working with Benson, and had Smith’s number. “They were playing in Pittsburgh, and needed another organist, and Jimmy said, ‘I know just who to get.’ George said, ‘That’s who I was looking for.’ I gave my group two-week notice, and my last gig was in Buffalo. George came to get me that night, and we went to his mom’s house in Pittsburgh, learned two songs in his basement, and took off for New York.”

First, they entered the 845 Club in the Bronx. The owner then booked them to follow Grant Green at his Harlem club, the Palm Café, on 125th Street, down the block from the Apollo. An extended run at Minton’s Playhouse followed.

“The Palm Café had go-go dancers, and George and I would sing duets,” Smith recalled. “James Brown was at the Apollo, and he came down every night, jumped up on the organ and said, ‘don’t you move; you stay right there.’ Esther Phillips would play a bit of organ, too; I’d stay there and they’d tickle the top. James Brown wanted us to go with him, but we just kept on our route, which was the correct thing to do. John Hammond heard about us, and he came by and signed us to Columbia Records. The rest was history.”


“I was a rebel when I was younger,” Smith said. “I never liked the business of music. When I didn’t want to be bothered, I’d go somewhere and hide.”

A Harlem resident since the ‘60s, Smith sold ample units for Columbia, Blue Note and CTI, and he made it his business to reach out to his fan base, criss-crossing the highways with his Hammond in tow. Sometimes he made long pit stops—six months in Milwaukee in the late ‘70s, and several extended ‘80s residences around Miami and Fort Lauderdale. Still a road warrior at 65, he remarks that although he would prefer to work several months a year, and as little as possible in the winter, it would be very difficult to scale back and retain the lifestyle to which he is accustomed.

Smith’s rebellious proclivities extended to the aesthetic realm of repertoire and interpretation. “Before I started playing with George, I was into the kind of music John Coltrane and Miles Davis were playing, and I was crazy about McCoy Tyner and Ahmad Jamal, Thelonious Monk and Erroll Garner,” he said. “I love classical music and the different sounds of the instruments. I wrote a song called “I Be Blue” that I recorded with Lou Donaldson. I wrote it thinking of Lady Day, this beautiful melody with this ugly sound grinding up underneath the chords, like seeing yourself threading through thick water. I was doing this years ago, but it was too early.

“When I left George, I went through a period of playing completely free-form music, which was too out for the people. I didn’t care at that time. I had a hit record, and I’d play something they hadn’t heard. As the years passed, I started tuning in on the people more. Those are the people who are with you. The young people buy my music today because I stopped and listened.”

The young people also respond to Smith’s expressive face, his headgear, his honorific—in short, his showmanship. The term, by the way, makes him bristle. Nor does he care to comment on “Doctor” and the turban.

“When I get up there, you might see showmanship,” Smith remarked. “I’m not even thinking about it because I’m really shy. But when I play, a lot of those things come out because I want people to feel loose and enjoy themselves. If you don’t draw anybody, you’re not coming back. See, we used to have dancers and comedians—a show. Young people don’t know what we did to keep this music going. Do you think I make faces to be making faces? No! I can’t stand it; they’re always taking pictures of me making faces.

“I have so much passion. I had an algebra teacher who got real involved, and would shout, ‘Yeah, that’s it!’ and start writing out the answer. That’s how I feel when I’m playing, so enthused and so happy. I’m pleasing myself first, and you’re next. The Hammond has such a warm sound—the feel of the earth, the sun, the moon, the water—and it matches so well with the Leslie. The horn that goes around inside the Leslie moves slow and fast—when you close the switch on it, it’s like a nasal type sound; when you open the switch, it’s like the earth opened, or someone who’d been stopped up with a cold and everything opens up, or when you let caged birds go free and they fly everywhere. Later, I’m out of breath, I don’t want to talk, I don’t want to do nothin’, I just want to go home and relax. It’s so pleasant—unless somebody really pisses you off on the stage. Sure, sometimes people you play with don’t match too good. But 99% of the time I’m having a ball.”

Pressed on the issue, Smith mentioned that he started turbaning-up during his teens, and that “‘doctor’ was given to me because I was doctoring up my music.” He paused. “I know you were trying to get to it. You got it.

“If you remember, Sun Ra had a miner’s cap, and Sonny Rollins had the Mohawk hairdo. But I’m a doctor of music, I’ve been playing long enough to operate on it, and I do have a degree, and I will operate on you. I’m a neurosurgeon. If you need something done to you, I can do it. But when I go up on that stand, the only thing I’m thinking of is music. And I’m thinking to touch you with that music. I don’t think about the turban, I don’t think about the doctor—I just think about I’m going to touch you.”

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