Born in Buffalo, New York, Lonnie was blessed with the gift of music. Through his mother, he was immersed in gospel, blues and jazz at an early age. In his teens, he sang in several vocal groups including his own--the Supremes--formed long before Motown’s eventual iconic act of the same name. Lonnie also played trumpet and other instruments at school and was a featured soloist. In the late ‘50s-- with the encouragement of Art Kubera, who owned a local music store that he would visit daily--young Lonnie was given the opportunity to learn how to play a Hammond organ. By completely immersing himself in the records of organists such as Wild Bill Davis, Bill Doggett and Jimmy Smith, as well as paying rapt attention to the church organ, a young Lonnie began to find his musical voice. “Even though I didn’t know how, I was able to play right from the beginning,” Dr. Smith reflects. “I learned how to work the stops and that was it. It’s a passion for me, so everything else came naturally.” Because of Mr. Kubera’s kindness, Dr. Lonnie often refers to Art as his “angel.”
The Doctor’s first gigs were at Buffalo’s hottest jazz club, the Pine Grill, where he rapidly garnered the attention of folks like Jack McDuff, Lou Donaldson, George Benson and the booking agent Jimmy Boyd. George Benson was looking for an organist for his quartet and enlisted Lonnie. The group soon relocated to New York City, where they quickly established a reputation as innovators in Harlem clubs and throughout the area. After appearing on several Benson albums, Lonnie went on to make his first recording as a leader—Finger Lickin’ Good--for Columbia Records in 1966. Shortly thereafter, Smith was scooped up to record by saxophonist Lou Donaldson, for whom Lonnie would appear on several epic Blue Note LPs, including the million-seller, Alligator Boogaloo. Blue Note clearly liked what they heard and inked the organist to his own recording contract, a deal which would produce the soul jazz classics Think!, Turning Point, Move Your Hand, Drives and Live at Club Mozambique (released many years later).
Since leaving the Blue Note stable in the ‘70s, Dr. Smith has recorded for a slew of record labels, including Kudu, Groove Merchant, T.K., Scufflin’, Criss Cross and Palmetto, ascending the charts many times. His unpredictable, insatiable musical taste illustrates that no genre is safe, as Lonnie has recorded everything from covers of the Beatles, the Stylistics and the Eurythmics, to tribute albums of Jimi Hendrix, John Coltrane and Beck--all by employing ensembles ranging from a trio to a fifteen-piece big band. Moreover, many of Doc’s recent compositions reflect dramatic ethereal qualities and orchestration that elicit movie scores or soundtracks.
Dr. Smith has been amused to find himself sampled in rap, dance and house grooves while being credited as a forefather of acid jazz. When questioned about his consistent interest in music some consider outside the jazz “mainstream,” Lonnie shrugs. “Jazz is American Classical,” he proclaims. “And this music is a reflection of what’s happening at the time… The organ is like the sunlight, rain and thunder…it’s all the worldly sounds to me!”
And worldly awards have followed. Since 1969, when Downbeat magazine named him “Top Organist” of that year, Dr. Lonnie Smith has won a plethora of critics’ polls as the world’s premier organist/keyboardist. Moreover, he was recently inducted into the Buffalo Music Hall of Fame, as well as the Jazz Organ Fellowship’s Hall of Fame. In 2012, Dr. Smith launched his own recording and production company—Pilgrimage Productions—for which he will soon release a blazing new live trio album, as well as the first installment of the Dr. Smith songbook series, a program designed to shed light on the organist’s vast (yet often overlooked) career as a composer.