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.
When you first arrived in New York City doing gigs with George Benson, what was the scene like? Was it competitive?
New York was jumping. I will never forget when George Benson and I hooked up because before that I was with band that played with a lot of Motown groups that would come through town. So I would go down to Ohio and Kentucky and all the little spots with these Motown groups. At this point I had only been playing for less than a year. George [Benson] had gotten my number; so we hooked up and would go to play at a club called Small’s Paradise, Wilt the Stilt’s place. I used to play there and I met Jimmy Boyd over there who was another manager that handled a lot of big groups, but namely Grant Green.
Grant was recording and they wanted me to come in and record with him. I was playing at Small’s, they got my number, and I said sure. They said, “Okay, it’s tomorrow and we’re going to go to Rudy Van Gelder’s at 1pm.” 1pm came and went and I wasn’t at the studio. They come the next night to Small’s and say “What happened to you? Everybody was waiting; we were in the studio.” The next day the same thing happened. I didn’t go because I knew who Grant Green was and I knew that I was only a beginner! He was a big star.
They saw something in me that I didn’t even see. So when George Benson was looking for an organ player, Jimmy Boyd said he knew just the guy. I gave notice to my band in Ohio, went to George’s house in Pittsburgh, and learnt two songs. George says, “Grant Green is playing tonight in New York; if we leave now we can catch them.” We took off for New York and got there before they finished playing. We were brought up to play one song after them and when we were getting ready to get down, Grant Green says, “Don’t you go anywhere.” After that he asked me to play with him constantly. The manager didn’t like that, so he pushed me to stick with George.
New York during that time had a strip on 7th Avenue and there were so many clubs and so much great music—Count Basie’s band, Minton’s Playhouse, Sugar Ray had a place. There were so many clubs and each club had great music. Sometimes they’d let us stay in the clubs playing until daybreak with other musicians coming on and off.
You got discovered with George Benson in a club in Harlem by John Hammond, right?
George and I played in this club that had go-go dancers [laughs]. So when John Hammond came in that night, we jumped up and kicked the go-go dancers offstage to play some tunes. When John heard us, he wanted to sign us right on the spot. So he signed us both to Columbia Records. But after my first record with Columbia, Blue Note got me from them.
Once I got with Blue Note it was kind of strange for me because before that George and I were playing together. Now I didn’t have a group; so I had to take George on the road with me. We enjoyed ourselves, but it still felt funny because it was George. With that record, we also had a hit song. But the funny thing about it all was that the hit song was just a joke! It was “Move Your Hand,” which we also recorded on this new record.
What was the joke behind it?
I first did that song as a joke in Detroit, Michigan. It’s based on a story about a preacher who couldn’t be there one day so he had to get someone to cover for him. He asked one gentleman to take his place and the guy says, “I can’t preach.” So the preacher says, “Don’t worry about it. We’ll have Brother John on the pulpit with you and he’ll feed you what to say. He’ll sit behind you.” So he comes up and tells the congregation that he’s just filling in. He starts repeating what Brother John is saying behind him and the people are getting into it, saying “Amen!” and clapping and applauding. He got excited so he got that growl in his voice and was having a wonderful time. All of a sudden, he notices the guy behind him had fallen asleep with his hands over the scripture. So he says, “Move! Move your hands because I can’t see!”
I loved that story so much that I was joking around with it while I was playing around with a groove. But believe it or not, the audience loved it and kept asking for it. “What’s that song? I like it!” I just started a groove; I didn’t know what I was doing. It became a hit and I had to play it all the time. One time Lou Donaldson was opening for me and he says, “Are you going to play your song?” I said, “I’m not going to play that crap; I want to play jazz.” So Lou goes on and plays the song and he tore it up!
Now, after having worked on Columbia and Blue Note, you opened your own record label. Did that give you more freedom in recording projects like this past record?
Yes, it gives you a lot more freedom. During my career, I had stuff in the can that never came out. With the producers on the big labels, they’d go through songs on a record and pick some out that they didn’t think fit the record. So now you’re stuck with an album that doesn’t have the songs you wanted on it. So now I have the freedom to do anything I want. This is material that comes into your heart that you’ve been dreaming about. Whether it works or not, you are doing what you want to do. That’s a great thing.
Interview by Eric Sandler (@ericsandler)