Dr. Lonnie Smith could’ve made a career out of playing a more portable instrument like the trumpet. Instead he chose the Hammond B3 organ, a beast of an instrument at 400 pounds. The Buffalo native got his start with Pittsburgher George Benson, and went on to become one of the best-known practitioners of what has become known as soul-jazz. He’ll tear it up in Pittsburgh on Saturday, September 19 with his trio at the New Hazlett Theater.
When you hooked up with George Benson, were you here In Pittsburgh long or just here quickly?
It was quicker than that. We were in his mother’s basement. We learned two songs, “Secret Love,” and the other was one we recorded, “Clockwise.” He said, “Hey, [guitarist] Grant Green is playing tonight in New York. If we leave now we can catch him. You wanna go?” I said, “Yeah, let’s go.” We took off for New York.
Grant Green was playing on 125th Street and 7th Avenue. We went in and they called us up to play a tune. It was Grant Green, [organist] Larry Young and [drummer] Candy Finch. And so we sit in and play the number. We were getting off the stage, and Grant Green said, “Don’t you go anywhere.” He wanted me to play another tune with him. And he didn’t want me to get off the stage.
We had the same manager. Everyday Grant would ask me to play with him when he saw me. The manager didn’t like that. He [told Green], “It’s you and Larry Young, and George and Lonnie.” So George and I stayed together. [A short time later] we got signed to Columbia Records, at that same little spot where we sat in. John Hammond walked in from Columbia Records. So he signed George up and he signed me up on Columbia. That was the highlight.
I had met [saxophonist] Lou Donaldson. I rented him an organ one time. One day he was in the studio and he called George Benson and I. We went over and recorded “Alligator Boogaloo.” That was a hit. And when it happened, I had a call from Blue Note Records [Donaldson’s label]. And they told me they wanted me over there.
Even though Columbia was a bigger label, it seems like Blue Note might be a better label for you because they were so supportive of jazz musicians.
Exactly! My thought was, when they called I was happy, very happy. But you wouldn’t believe it because I didn’t sound like I really wanted it. But I was shocked. I had only been playing for about a year. They had all the great organists and the great horn players and [B3 virtuoso] Jimmy Smith – so what do they need me for?
When I recorded, I didn’t realize that it was all a little different style at that moment. At that time, I had a laidback lazy groove, and Frank Wolff [of Blue Note] loved that. And he wanted me to keep playing that kind of style. I wanted to stretch out. “Let me do something else.” He said, “No, just stay right there. Do another one like that.” I was kind of hurt but it worked.
Were you close with Jimmy Smith? He seemed pretty tough.
Sure! If he didn’t like you, he didn’t like you. A lotta guys would tell me, “He cursed me out,” or, “He wouldn’t talk to me.” But he loved me. He’d say, “Ain’t nobody out there but me and you.”
What was it like hauling that organ around?
[Laughs] I still remember it! I don’t have to do it anymore. [The venue provides organs for Smith now.] But I have to sit at that organ. Just by looking at it, I can still feel all that weight.
And then [I remember] traveling with it. Going through Ohio, every time we’d go through, the state troopers were on us, because they want to stop us and find out what we have. And they make you take the equipment out. Now you got all this equipment out on the highway!
But I had a lot of fun during those times. See that’s the great thing about it: I can play those times because I went through it. If you don’t go through stuff like that, how you gonna play it? You don’t know anything about it. The secret in playing it is [there’s] no secret. You play life.
What was it about the B3 that you knew it was the instrument for you?
Everything. I’ve found my other half. The organ is an extension of me. When I heard it, I knew it was it. It has every element in the world, as far as I’m concerned. You have the sun, the rainbow you have water. You have everything right there. The thunder, the rain. See, when I play, I don’t know how other people feel it. It’s how I feel it. It’s like fire. Electricity is going through my body at that moment. It is so beautiful and I’m lost. I’m really lost.
8 p.m. Sat., Sept. 19. New Hazlett Theater, 6 Allegheny Square East, North Side. $30. All ages. 412-322-0922 or newhazletttheater.org