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."