Few Hammond organ players induce the bar staff of jazz clubs to stop clinking bottles for fear of puncturing a sonic mood of almost inaudible fragility – the ingenious Hammond B3s having started life in the 1930s as portable righteousness-rousing props for holy-rolling preachers on the road – but achieving that effect by dropping his roaring instrument’s volume to a whisper was all in a night’s work for Lonnie Smith.
Smith, who has died aged 79 of pulmonary fibrosis, was the intriguing antithesis of a showman, despite playing an instrument made for bravura and never going public without a colourful turban that carried no discernible cultural or religious significance. Known as Dr Lonnie Smith, he had no better claim to the title of “Doctor” than liking the nickname fans and colleagues had given him for making them feel good.
Like the 60s jazz-organ pioneers Jimmy Smith, Bill Doggett and Brother Jack McDuff, Smith could certainly crank the volume up to 11 when he chose, but his relaxed penchant for taking devious routes to big climaxes on his own hooks and original themes was to endear him to some of the best-known jazz, soul, R&B, pop and hip-hop artists of the six decades to come.
Smith had launched his recording career in the 60s in the company of funky soul-jazz luminaries including the trumpeter Lee Morgan, the guitarist (and eventually soul-singing star) George Benson and the rhythm and blues saxophonist David “Fathead” Newman. In the 60s and 70s he also toured with Dizzy Gillespie and the saxophonists Lou Donaldson and Grover Washington Jr, as well as with the soul artists Gladys Knight and Dionne Warwick.
He went on to spend his 60s and 70s in the live-playing company of genre-fluid originals from Robert Glasper to the jazz, classical and opera singer Alicia Olatuja and – on his 2021 album, Breathe – the punk performer Iggy Pop. Beginning his career as a childhood gospel and doo-wop singer, Smith ended it as a National Endowment for the Arts jazz master – but as a master of a discipline that he had mostly picked up from late-night jams, no-rehearsal recording sessions, and shared wisdom about how exploratory and communally popular ways of music-making can co-exist.
Lonnie was born in the Buffalo suburb of Lackawanna, in New York state, where he was raised by his mother, Beulah Mae Early, and a stepfather, Charles Smith. His mother, grandmother and aunt performed in a gospel quartet. The boy sang in vocal groups around Buffalo, and led an outfit of his own called the Supremes long before that name shook the world when a trio of young Motown singers adopted it.
In addition to singing, Smith played the trumpet and tuba in high school, and hung out at an instrument shop owned by a music fan called Art Kubera. One day the teenager confided to Kubera that he was sure he could support himself from music if he had an instrument of his own. Kubera showed him a new Hammond B3 organ at the back of the shop, and told him that if he could shift the 200-kilo behemoth to some place else, he could keep it.
Smith did just that, taught himself a style fusing church-organ traditions and the jazz of the Hammond pioneers, and within a year was playing professionally at a Buffalo jazz and rhythm-and-blues haunt, the Pine Grill. Among the stars who headlined there were the organist McDuff, the saxophonist Lou Donaldson, and Benson, then a brilliant improvising instrumentalist before his soul-vocals stardom emerged.
Benson hired Smith to partner him on his mid-60s recordings (It’s Uptown and Cookbook) and the organist launched his own career as a leader with the album Finger-Lickin’ Good (1967). He also accompanied Donaldson – an association that brought Smith wider fame through his presence on Donaldson’s million-selling 1967 dance hit Alligator Bogaloo, and subsequently his own deal with Blue Note Records, which between 1968 and 1970 produced the punchy succession of soul-jazz albums Think!, Move Your Hand, Turning Point and Drives.
Think! expanded the familiar jazz-organ trio lineup to include Morgan, Newman and a Latin-jazz percussion section (there was a broader repertoire too, covering hits by Hugh Masekela and Aretha Franklin, as well as fresh originals), and the Blue Note albums sold well with a young rhythm and blues audience as well as a jazz one.
After parting with Blue Note in 1970, Smith recorded for smaller labels, applying his infectious sound, in ensembles from trios to big bands, to the music of the Beatles, the Stylistics, the Eurythmics and other rock and soul stars.
He regularly withdrew from music in the 80s, but returned to recording in 1993 with an impressive jazz tribute to John Coltrane (Afro Blue, featuring the guitarist John Abercrombie), and the same group celebrated the music of Jimi Hendrix on two albums, released in 1994 and 1995. Smith’s stature was on the rise again, nourished by the hip-hop generation’s enthusiasm for quoting his early successes – notably with A Tribe Called Quest’s sample from his 1970 version of Blood, Sweat & Tears’ Spinning Wheel.
As he entered his 60s, Smith became a popular club draw again, now often splicing new original material with more traditionally jazz-rooted standard tunes, sometimes partnering Donaldson, and collaborating with imaginative younger guitarists including the New Yorkers Peter Bernstein and Jonathan Kreisberg.
In 2012 he formed his own label, Pilgrimage Records, but returned to Blue Note in 2015, and crowned a long list of citations with his NEA jazz masters award, in 2017 – the US’s highest jazz honour.
That year, on his 75th birthday engagement at the Jazz Standard, in New York, Smith recorded most of his final album, Breathe, with a classy group including Kreisberg, Olatuja and the saxophonist John Ellis. It was released by Blue Note in 2021, with its live tracklist quirkily bookended by a studio duet with Iggy Pop on songs including Donovan’s Sunshine Superman and Smith’s 1969 hit Move Your Hand. “I like the way he sounded,” Smith told the New York Times last March, in recollection of that encounter. “Natural.”
Smith is survived by his partner and manager, Holly Case, by four daughters, Lani, Chandra, Charisse and Vonnie, and a son, Lonnie Jr. Another daughter, Netta, died in 2016.
• Lonnie Smith, jazz organist, born 3 July 1942; 28 September 2021