The Doctor Is In
Dr. Lonnie Smith has been hiding in South Florida for almost ten years. "It's strange in Florida because they know me as a local," Smith notes. "They don't know that I have records or anything. They love me, but they don't know who I really am. I can go anyplace else, and people come up with my albums for me to sign. But the people here, they have noidea."
Indeed, only a handful of his South Florida fans realize that Smith is considered one of the finest jazz organists in the world. During the '60s and '70s, the good doctor -- peer-appointed, naturally -- enthralled audiences with his funky, groove-driven tunes. Down Beat magazine declared him organist of the year in 1969. He played for years with guitarist George Benson, as well as saxophonist Lou Donaldson and other jazzgreats.
These days Smith plays a few nights a week, mostly at the O'Hara's in Fort Lauderdale but once a week, as well, at the club's Hollywood location. He favors a turban, flowing robes, bracelets, rings, a white beard, and a walking stick. In Hollywood he plays his beloved organ. In Lauderdale he performs atop a stack of three plastic chairs, a white-plastic tip jar sitting on his Yamaha keyboard.
But his storied musical career actually began in Buffalo, New York, where his musical talent first emerged. "I could always play," Smith says. "Ever since I sat me down at a piano, I always picked up songs easily." To prove the point, Smith shuffles over to the grand piano in the living room of his Fort Lauderdale home and begins playing a gospel song called "Crying in the Chapel," the first tune he everlearned.
Smith actually began his career as a doo-wop singer, recording with a band called the Supremes (not the Diana Ross version), and later with the Teen Kings, performing at sock hops and on local Buffalo television shows alongside Fabian and the Mills Brothers.
But he quickly found his passion playing piano and organ. The problem? He wasn't very good at first. He fondly remembers his first out-of-town gig, at the Hurricane Lounge in Pittsburgh. "The owner wanted me to go," he says, with a chuckle. "I couldn't play very well, so I'd practice in the off hours or on stage, and within a week I blew heraway."
Smith toured clubs throughout the Midwest and East Coast. But it was back in Buffalo that he first met rising guitarist George Benson. "When I thought about organ players, he came into my mind, because he can swing," Benson recalled in a 1967 interview with Down Beat. "When I called him, he was working with a rhythm-and-blues group, but he decided to take a chance with me, although I had nothing linedup."
Benson and Smith gigged regularly around New York City, and a number of record companies did come courting. But they waited for the right deal. "Then one day, sure enough, the biggie came in: John Hammond with Columbia records," Smith recalls. After seeing them once, Hammond signed Benson and Smith to separate deals. Soon after that, Smith recorded his first solo album, Finger Lickin' Good. A gig at Newport Jazz Festival followed.
In 1967 Smith joined Benson and saxophonist Lou Donaldson on Donaldson's composition "Alligator Boogaloo." The track was an instant smash, taking jukeboxes by storm and helping to popularize Smith's hip, soulful sound. "Everyone started to play that funk-groove jazz," recalls Donaldson, still a good friend and collaborator of Smith's. "Especially with the organs. When it was happening, we didn't think about it. Looking back, I can see exactly what was happening. But at the time we were on the road with a whole lot of stuff going on. We didn't even concentrate on it toomuch."
Smith continued to play with both Donaldson and Benson. Despite all the sudden activity, Smith remained focused on his own music. "I just wanted to play my instrument," he notes. "That's all I was thinking about. I just wanted to be good at what I did. I wasn't thinking about any big time." But Smith's soulful style helped set the standard for jazz organists, and he was soon being courted by Duke Pearson of Blue Note records.
"I will never forget that," Smith says fondly. "I used to get a lot of Blue Note records. All the people I loved were on that label. I tried to act like I wasn't excited, but I was. I had finally done it." From 1968 to 1970, Smith recorded five albums for Blue Note, Think, Turning Point, Move Your Hand, Drives, and Live at Club Mozambique. The title track on the LP Move Your Hand proved to be asmash.
But Smith was never too crazy about the commercial pressures of his stardom. Rather than regurgitating hits from his albums, Smith was more interested in playing his new material, which didn't go over too well with his audiences. "I didn't like the star system. I guess I was a rebel, though I didn't even know I was a rebel."
Eventually Smith made a break from Blue Note. He bounced around to a few more labels. But his dislike of the politics inherent in the music business eventually drove him into virtual hibernation in the '80s. During his seclusion Smith hung out in Detroit and the Midwest, playing nightclubs. "I didn't care about anything," he says. "I would just be in a town playing, hoping they didn't know who I was. Or I would play under another name. I'd get by with some people, but some peopleknew."
Despite the ups and downs in Smith's career, he always kept playing. Even when he shunned the musical world, he kept refining and honing his craft, never abandoning his keyboard.
A decade ago Smith ventured down to South Florida to play a New Year's gig. A friend of his was playing at O'Hara's, and Smith -- ever the crowd pleaser -- decided to sit in. Proprietor Kitty Ryan still vividly remembers the first time she saw Smith play at her club on Las Olas Boulevard. "I just thought, 'Gee, wow, this guy's really big time.' He's so professional, so talented; he just mesmerized the crowd." Although Smith still plays a number of gigs in other cities, he spends most weekends at O'Hara's.
Even though Ryan knew Smith was a seasoned musician, she didn't know the extent of his background when he first started playing O'Hara's, more than nine years ago. "Lonnie is pretty modest. If you talk to him some, you can get this stuff out of him. But he doesn't blow his own horn a lot." She eventually realized the full extent of his background. "When he started to open up a little, he would reminisce and talk about where he played, and it all kind of just gradually fell into place. He was talking about all the people he'd played with, names like George Benson, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, Joe Sample, a lot of people."
Smith maintains a close relationship with many current artists, and a number have been known to stop by O'Hara's when they're in town. Joe Sample, Taj Mahal; Betty Carter; Grover Washington, Jr.; Mark Whitfield; and of course George Benson have all stopped by to see Smith, hang out, and sometimes jam with him and his band. This band, in fact, consists of a shifting cast of cronies that includes but is not limited to Danny Burger on drums; vocalist Juanita Dixon (whom Smith has known for 30 years); Jesse Jones, Jr. on saxophone; and Gary King on guitar.
The crowd at O'Hara's -- generally middle-aged professionals not afraid to toss back a few drinks, along with a few jazz aficionados -- are always enthusiastic. Smith always has a steady stream of well-wishers when he comes off the stage. And Smith, often smiling, takes the time to joke around with them and briefly converse.
As for his future plans, Smith says he has more music in his head that he would like to release. He feels it might be time to come out of his pseudo-hibernation. "I feel now that I'm ready. I don't think I need to make a comeback, because I'm already out there. But I need to make a statement and give. I have songs in my head that are just piled up, things I want to do that I'm not doing."
But a stroke he suffered last year helped him keep his career in perspective. He says when his number is called, he can go a satisfied person. "When I got the stroke, I realized that if I had to go, I could go, because my music keeps goingon."
It's the enjoyment he supplies fans in so many different parts of the world that inspires Smith to continue his work. "Can you imagine everywhere you go, they just love you and your music? When you come off that stage and the people love it, it's a great feeling. When you see kids in their teens and early twenties dancing to your music, you can't beat that." With a gleam in his eye, he adds: "Imagine that, as old as I am. I never think that I've been out there [on stage] that long. Sure, I walk a little slower, I got a little gray, but I just don't realize how long it's been. When I see a grown man say he grew up on my music, it hits you. It's shocking."
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