Musician Dr. Lonnie Smith didn’t come from a wealthy background, but there was no shortage of music in his childhood. He grew up in Buffalo, N.Y., in a family with a passion for singing gospel and classical music. It’s wasn’t until Smith was 9 years old that his curiosity led him to play his first instrument.
“I went to visit my aunt, and she had a piano,” Smith said. “I was in the third grade, I was a little kid. Got up on the stool and you know your feet don’t touch the floor. The first song I played, it was a classic called ‘Crying in the Chapel.’ I still remember the keys and everything. My mother and aunt came running out. They didn’t know who was playing the piano. It was me. They could not believe it.”
Smith couldn’t afford a keyboard of his own then, so he stuck to singing. He continued to captivate his family and friends with his voice until high school where he found another instrument.
“I picked up my friend’s trumpet in class and played it,” Smith said. “He took me down to the band room and pushed me in. The band master said, ‘What can I do?’ I said, ‘I’d like to play an instrument.’ My classmates were peeping through the window. All the saxophones and trumpets were rented out, so he gave me a cornet. Next class, I went to band rehearsal and I played it. He said, ‘Looks like we got a star right here!’”
Smith continued to follow his first passion and became an organ maestro. He eventually linked up with the legendary jazz guitarist George Benson in the mid-’60s. The two played together in the George Benson Quartet with Jimmy Lovelace on drums and Ronnie Cuber on baritone saxophone. Benson went on to win 10 Grammy awards and received his own star on the iconic Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Smith built his career on a vintage Hammond B3 organ. It’s a scarce instrument to see outside of big churches, but it is an instrument that has become a staple for Smith in his performances.
“It’s an extension of me,” he explained. “That instrument gives me all the elements in the world. From the thunderstorm, the rain, the ocean, the sun, the rainbows. It’s an orchestra. Sometimes a pianist will come up, and I’ll say, ‘Have you ever played organ? Sit next to me right here.’ They’ll sit down and I’ll play it. Then I’ll tell them to touch it and say, ‘What do you feel? Don’t you feel that vibration that comes from the Leslie speaker?’ The organ just speaks to you.”
Smith often collaborates with other musicians on his records and live performances. These artists come with their own styles, which add a deeper dimension to each song.
“I can stick with my idea, or I can hear what they’re playing, and we can make music together,” Smith said. “They might play something which inspires me. That’s the greatest thing about musicians. They listen to each other and respond.”
In his free time, Smith teaches young musicians from all around the world about jazz through the Jazz Foundation of America and Jazz Organ Fellowship.
“I think [today’s] musicians are very talented,” Smith said. “The only thing is that they have to play life in their music. How did things go that day? Play that, instead of just simple notes.”
Smith added that while it’s great to know music theory, in order to touch people a musician must play from his heart.
Dr. Lonnie Smith is stopping by New Orleans between Jazz Fest weekends. He will perform at Jazz at the Sandbar on the campus of the University of New Orleans on May 1 and Snug Harbor on May 2. For more information on Dr. Lonnie Smith go to http://drlonniesmith.com/.
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