Dr. Lonnie Smith, the lauded Hammond B-3 organist who was named an NEA Jazz Master in 2017, has died at the age of 79. His label Blue Note Records confirmed the news, saying the cause of death was pulmonary fibrosis, a form of lung disease.
Smith was born in the Buffalo suburb of Lackawanna, New York on July 3, 1942. His mother introduced him to gospel, classical, and jazz music, and he grew up learning music by ear and playing different instruments in school. In the 1960s, music store owner and accordionist Art Kubera gifted him a Hammond organ, which would prove instrumental in carving out his career. He soon began playing in house bands in the Midwest, New York City, and in Buffalo and was invited to join George Benson’s newly formed quartet.
Shortly after, both he and Benson were signed by Columbia Records and released albums as bandleaders. They were hired to perform on saxophonist Lou Donaldson’s title track to the 1967 album Alligator Boogaloo, which became a hit on the Billboard Hot 100. Smith went on to release five albums for the label in the late ’60s and early ’70s. After leaving Blue Note, he worked with a variety of artists, including a brief stint with Marvin Gaye as well as Etta James, and issued four albums for Palmetto Records in the early 2000s. He self-released two more in 2013 and 2014 before eventually reconnecting with Blue Note in 2016. His final LPs were 2018’s All in My Mind and 2021’s Breathe, which was produced by Blue Note president Don Was and featured multiple collaborations with Iggy Pop.
“Doc was a musical genius who possessed a deep, funky groove and a wry, playful spirit,” Was said in a statement. “His mastery of the drawbars was equaled only by the warmth in his heart. He was a beautiful guy and all of us at Blue Note Records loved him a lot.”
We're deeply saddened to announce that Hammond B3 organ legend Dr. Lonnie Smith passed away today at 79 years old. Doc was one of the funkiest & most inventive organists to ever walk the earth & we were proud to bring this remarkable man's joyous music to fans all over the world. pic.twitter.com/6NgejJsXpW
— Blue Note Records (@bluenoterecords) September 29, 2021