“…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.”
—Dr. Lonnie Smith on
his trademark turban and honorific title.
Hammond organist Dr. Lonnie Smith died on Tuesday, Sept. 28 of pulmonary fibrosis, a form of lung disease, at his home in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. He was 79 years old according to his label, Blue Note Records.
Born in the Lackawanna suburb of Buffalo, NY, his formative years were rooted in the rich musical heritage of that area, as the family sang spirituals around the house. His first steps into the secular realm came via the doo-wop idiom so popular in that era, including a vocal ensemble called “The Teen Kings,” featuring the saxophone of childhood friend Grover Washington, Jr.
The local music store gifted him with a Hammond B3 organ, and in short order he was proficient enough to sit in with visiting musicians.
Making a name with guitarist George Benson and alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson, Smith moved to New York City and by 1968 had secured a contract with Blue Note. Over the next few years he perfected his own brand of “soul-jazz,” a departure from the experimentation in vogue, marking a return to the soul commercialism creeping into the tastes of the general public, and drenched with the musical funk of his childhood.
Around this time, he affected the de-notation or epithet of “Dr.” A product of the self-taught curriculum, he didn’t read music (“I play life instead of notes,” he explained). The title had no academic significance, and may have served to distinguish him from fellow keyboardist Lonnie Liston Smith, a master of the Fender Rhodes electric piano who is still alive at 80.
Ascending to the stage assisted by a cane, he projected a vaguely oriental aura, abetted by his attire in flowing robes, topped off by a turban commonly worn by members of the Sikh religious order of India. This also had no significance, and he defended its use as a theatrical adornment.
“Taking it off at this point is like pulling the mask off the Lone Ranger,” he said.
“Some people just love that mystery. I mean, why does Michael Jackson wear one glove?”
This off-beat attire set the stage for the other-worldly sound of the “Beast” (his name for the 400 pound Hammond B3 organ on which he played his sermons), all four of his appendages coaxing an acoustic carpet resonating with the sanctified cry of the Black church.
Always open to other musical genres, he frequently crossed the line by playing with Marvin Gaye, Etta James, multi-genre chartreuse Norah Jones, pop/R&B siren Dionne Warwick, with drummer Questlove. He also released a 2007 album in tribute to guitar legend Jimi Hendrix, and “Boogaloo to Beck,” a 2003 homage to alternative rocker Beck.
This past year, he released his last album, “Breathe,” with punk icon Iggy Pop contributing vocals on the decade’s old hits “Why Can’t We Live Together (1972)” by Timmy Thomas, and Donovan’s 1966 “Sunshine Superman.”
For information on an upcoming documentary on this remarkable artist, go to http://www.drlonniesmith.com/.