Dr. Lonnie Smith isn’t a conventional doctor; in fact, he’s not even a doctor at all by any sort of official certification. What governs his accreditation instead is a slow, funky groove that has followed him for the entirety of his career enchanting musicians, fans, and record executives into his web of music and mystery.
This past month Dr. Lonnie released ‘In the Beginning’ which revisits twelve compositions from early in his career with a brand new octet of talented musicians. We sat down to discuss the new record as well as to take a look back at the legendary career of one of the most influential organists alive.
Where did this idea to revisit music from early in your career come from?
So the thing about those songs is that people are always asking me about them because those records are hard to find. They were done so long ago. So lots of people were asking simply because they couldn’t get them. I don’t typically play them live either. Someone had been saying that I should play one of those tunes and I listened back and thought to myself, you know, “These are some nice tunes.” That’s how the idea really came about. They feel good now that I play them [laughs].
When did you meet Ian Hendrickson-Smith and how did he get involved with the project?
I had met Ian a while ago from just playing around the same spots. I just knew that he understood what I wanted to do and could do it. And he really captured it. It went very well because he knew so many guys that could do that stuff also—he picked the right fellas.
What made these specific musicians in the octet work well in this setting?
First of all, I knew Johnathan Blake because of his father, John Blake, a very important jazz violinist. I knew he was capable of doing this type of stuff because he knows the old and he knows the new. And I knew Ed Cherry who’s played with Dizzy Gillespie and those guys, so I knew he could do it. I didn’t know Johnny Rivera, but he gave those congas the feel of that day. Andy Gravish on trumpet was just incredible. All of these guys are fantastic—John Ellis, Jason Marshall. They were really perfect. We didn’t have much rehearsal or anything, we just said, “Let’s do it.” It worked too—it went beautifully.
Do you feel that the music changes depending on whether you record it in front of a live audience as opposed to isolated in a studio?
I like it live. Yesteryear we would go into a studio—like Rudy Van Gelder’s—and you would only have a few hours. You would just play the song 50 times sometimes and I don’t want to do that. It doesn’t feel good when you do it over and over again. They’re trying to be too perfect nowadays with the music and that’s not what I want. I want to just hear it how it is. It shouldn’t be like Frankenstein, you know? It’s supposed to be about feeling. So when you’re playing live, that’s what it is. You might not have wanted to play that way; “I should’ve done this” or “I should’ve done that.” Sure, I’m never really satisfied with everything that I do, but it’s done. It’s done and that’s the way it was. The feeling is more important than any of that. There is so much you can do nowadays to make the music “perfect,” but I don’t want that. Give me the natural feeling; that’s what I’m all about.
As you developed in your musicianship, when did you feel that you achieved your own sound or something that was really distinctively you?
When you’re growing up and you start playing, you listen to a lot of people and they influence you. My first influence was my mother who sang gospel music. So when I started playing—or even before I started playing—my mother would be around the house scatting and I would follow her. Therefore you’re making something up in your own mind even then. Then I started writing lyrics and writing songs and I didn’t even play music yet. I still remember the first song I wrote was called “I Can See The Light.” I never recorded it, but I still remember that song. I remember the first song I ever played on the keyboard was when I was in second grade; I picked out “Crying in the Chapel.” They came running up to the room and couldn’t believe it. I had never even seen a piano before then. Isn’t that amazing?
But getting back to what you were asking, after listening to other people play, you try to emulate them. But how can you emulate them if you don’t know anything about the instrument? You can try, but you have to learn to play the instrument first. Then you think you’re doing it, but you’re not. So I was playing, but I did not know that I had a different sound. I didn’t play the way they did; I just played what I felt. I always had a knack for a slow, easy groove and that became the start of “my thing.” It was a slow, easy groove funk. Francis Wolff like that too, he would start dancing. And if you got him dancing, you knew you had something. As the years went on, I said to him, “I want to do something else.” He says, “Well, maybe later.” He just liked when I did the slow, funky groove. That became me.
I was with Columbia Records first—George Benson and I got signed by John Hammond. But what happened then was that Lou Donaldson needed some musicians and called George Benson and myself. We ended up making Alligator Bogaloo from those sessions. Because of that, they asked me to come over to Blue Note, which was a big deal. At that time, all of the greats were over there. I didn’t tell anyone because I didn’t want to be let down. I was excited on the inside, but I kept it to myself. So they signed me to Blue Note and I couldn’t believe it. That was a great situation thanks to Lou Donaldson.
Did you enjoy your time on Blue Note and being on such a historic label?
Oh did I! Everybody was over there at that time. It was the place to be. I mean, I enjoyed Columbia Records too, but Blue Note got me so quick from them.
Interview by Eric Sandler (@ericsandler)