Watching Hammond B3 master Dr. Lonnie Smith work his magic onstage, you get the feeling that no one has ever enjoyed playing music more. And the veteran organist's listeners have little choice but to respond in kind, uplifted by his unreserved playfulness and stunning proficiency in funk, jazz and whatever other styles he chooses to incorporate.
Offstage, Smith's personality is no less vibrant, whether he's sharing anecdotes from the four decades since his Columbia debut, Finger Lickin' Good, or unleashing a sense of humor that borders on the surreal. (When I mention seeing him perform at a jazz festival in San Francisco, he swears it was actually his brother, also named Lonnie.)
"The instrument and I are one," says Smith, whose first B3 was given to him by a music store owner who decided it was time to help out the kid he found haunting his shop every afternoon. "I think I have even more of a passion for it today than I did before."
Of course, once Smith took the shop owner up on his offer if you can get it out of here, you can have it there was still the small matter of hauling it to gigs around town. With the Hammond's dual keyboard, sturdy wooden console and cabinet-sized Leslie speaker, how much fun was that?
"You're wicked you like that," Smith insists. "Oh, I had big fun. I wish you was there, 'cos you would have had to help. I'm serious, when it was time to move that thing, I'd say, 'I have to go to the restroom, I'll be right back.' 'I have to go to the car, I'll be right back.' And they would stand around waiting and waiting."
These days, when touring Europe or America, Smith leaves it to the promoters in each city to have a B3 waiting. But that doesn't mean they actually work.
"Oh man, I'll be playing and they break down," says Smith of the vintage instruments. "Poor little things, they're aging. They don't go to the doctor that much. They wait until I come. 'We waited for you, doc!'
"I say, 'You should have called me earlier, because you've had it, it's too late.'"
Dr. Lonnie Smith began his career without his self-bestowed title or trademark turban. ("We get the turban question every interview," his manager warns, declaring the subject off-limits.) For the record, Smith has reportedly said that he adopted both for "no particular reason."
Growing up in Buffalo, N.Y., he picked up the trumpet as a student and stuck with it when he joined the Air Force. He also sang gospel and doo-wop, and claims to have won dance contests as a teenager "If you know how to dance, you can talk to girls" a talent that would later serve him well when kicking out complex rhythms with his organ's bass pedals. He still doesn't use a bass player.
Early on, Smith actually recorded an album with his vocal group, the Supremes, which was soon eclipsed when, upon signing to Motown, Diana Ross' Primettes adopted the same name. Ironically enough, when Smith went on to play under his own name, he would frequently be confused with another jazz keyboardist, Lonnie Liston Smith.
"It's ridiculous, isn't it?" he says. "I'm gonna change my name one more time, and see what happens. I'm gonna change it to your name."
Smith had been playing his Hammond for just one year when he was approached by Grant Green's manager at a Harlem nightclub.
"I was playing Small's Paradise, and he came up and he says Grant was recording and he wanted me to record with him. So he says, 'Be here tomorrow, we're gonna go to [recording engineer] Rudy Van Gelder's.' And I said, 'OK.'"
Smith drops to a stage whisper: "But I didn't show!"
A day later, the agreement was repeated, with the same result.
"I was afraid," Smith explains. "The guys in the band said, 'How come you didn't go? That was Grant Green!' I say, 'I know, that's why I didn't go!'"
The story doesn't quite end there. In 1965, Smith hooked up with guitarist George Benson.
"We went to his mom's basement in Pittsburgh and we wrote two songs, 'Clockwise' and 'Secret Love,' and then he said, 'If we leave now, we can catch Grant Green playing in New York.'"
The duo ended up sitting in with Green, who extended the first of many invitations for Smith to join his band. His manager insisted he stick with Benson.
"We stayed together, George and I," says Smith of a partnership that continued into the '70s. "We would have go-go dancers up there, and a lot of record companies were trying to sign us. And then John Hammond came by and signed us to Columbia Records."
While Benson would go on to find chart success as a smooth jazz giant condemned to play "On Broadway" for eternity, Smith signed with the Blue Note label (which decades later would recruit Michael Franti to remix one of his tracks). He's gone on to record more than two dozen albums under his own name including full-album tributes to John Coltrane, Jimi Hendrix and Beck (!) as well as nearly a hundred with other artists.
Among musicians and critics, his name now ranks alongside Hammond innovators like Jimmy Smith, Art Neville and Booker T.
"We played opposite each other years ago in Columbus, Ohio," he says of the MG's bandleader, "and he says, 'Ladies and gentlemen, don't expect me to play like that!'"
At age 66, Smith shows no sign of slowing down, either onstage or off. He tours extensively, is spearheading a fund to create a musicians' rest home in New York, and just last month released a critically acclaimed new CD called Rise Up!
After all, he figures, there's always a few hours left in the day: "We used to go into the studio and Blue Note would buy three hours, maybe six hours [of studio time]. So we'd run the stuff down in one take, and that was it. We'd have more time, so sometimes we'd do two albums.
"Today, somebody goes in and records an album, it takes what, six or seven months? Everything has to be perfect.
"But it's not like that. You're supposed to play what you feel in your heart, you know? Play life!"