The Turbanator's jazz: Dr. Lonnie Smith takes old school to 21st century
05:00 AM, Jun 22, 2013
Dr. Lonnie Smith is old-school jazz.
“Musicians these days eat in the club, that wasn’t done back in our day,” he says. “And if we stayed in a hotel room, you always shared a room with someone. And you hoped they didn’t do anything wrong, like smoking or drinking. And if they had company, you had to leave.”
But for a Hammond B3 organist, as is Smith, the job was particularly daunting. The console alone of his instrument weighs 310 pounds. And there’s the accompanying piano bench, pedalboard and the bulky, signature rotating Leslie speaker cabinet.
“You had to get it up all those stairs, and then on the stage,” Smith says.
“I remember Billy’s Hurricane Lounge in Pittsburgh, that also had a counter you had to get it over. And the stage was so small, you had to set the Leslie on the floor, so I couldn’t hear it. That was rough. But the place would be packed,” he says. “And when it was time to move the organ, I’d say something like, ‘I’ve got to go out to the car, I’ll be right back.’ And when I got back, they’d all be gone.”
Yes, a Hammond B3 player knows who his true friends are. And it didn’t end there. Once the organ was loaded safely into a van or trailer a hearse worked as well there was always a good chance they’d be pulled over by the cops.
“They’d make us take everything out, pull everything out,” Smith says. “And then we’d have to load it all back up again. We missed a few jobs because of that.”
Smith is 70 now; it’s been years since he’s moved a Hammond. He now expects it to be onstage greeting him, with that Leslie speaker rotating in anticipation of what’s to come, when he plays Kilbourn Hall at the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival on Saturday.
Smith is an easily recognizable figure in jazz, if only for his trademark turban. Like the “Dr.” of Dr. Lonnie Smith, it is a self-appointed affectation, accessories of character that he’s taken on for no other reason than he likes them. But there’s the compelling personal story as well, and the hide-and-seek career that for decades has seen Smith considered one of jazz’s top organists, despite occasional periods of self-sentenced exile.
“The Turbanator” Smith grew up a poor kid in Buffalo, but in a music-filled home.
“I heard jazz, gospel, R&B, so I had all of that inside of me,” he says. “Listening and singing with my mother. Friends and relatives would come over and sing gospel music. We’d be scatting and singing and making up words. We just had a lot of fun. We sang Nat King Cole, Dinah Washington, so I had a wonderful upbringing. I didn’t know later on I would be playing behind those people.”
He still draws on those experiences.
“As a kid, you don’t know anything about tough,” he says. “If you have it bad, that’s a good thing. To play life, you have to have lived it. You have all those hard times so you can play those blues, tell your story. Without them, you don’t have a story to tell.”
Smith’s best-known story is his moment of Hammond epiphany. He’d sung in vocal groups during his teens and early 20s, until one day in a Buffalo music store owned by Art Kubera.
Smith was at the store every day, renting equipment when he could, Kubera letting him pay after a gig and keep a tab when the pay didn’t cover the whole bill.
“He saw that I had a passion. One day I told him, ‘If I had an instrument, I could make a living.’ He says, ‘Come back here with me.’ He takes me to the back of the store and there’s a Hammond B3,” Smith says. “Brand new. Even then it was probably worth three grand. He says, ‘If you can get it out of here, it’s yours.’ I got it out of there.”
This is perhaps an anecdote that reveals much about Smith. When he is telling a story about getting stopped by the cops and being forced to unload his Hammond B3 from the van, he never suggests it might have been a case of Driving While Black and Getting Pulled Over With a Load of Stuff They Suspect You’ve Stolen.
Likewise, Smith never mentions that Art Kubera was a white man, “He helped a lot of people,” Smith says. “He was my angel. Everyone has an angel. A lot of people don’t know that.”
Like a lot of jazz guys, Smith seems race neutral. If you can play, you’re in the band.
Self taught, Smith quickly became an in-demand sideman, backing Gladys Knight, Dionne Warwick and The Impressions. He moved New York City and met fellow organist Jack McDuff’s guitarist, George Benson. They were nobodies back then they had to wait for the go-go girls to get off the stage before they could play. But they were soon somebodies, The George Benson Quartet. After three albums with Benson, and another with also saxman Lou Donaldson, Smith himself had a record contract, making his debut with 1967’s Finger Lickin’ Good. His sound was unlike anyone else on the Hammond back then. It was groove-oriented, a marriage of funk and jazz.
“Feeling,” Smith says. “You don’t have that, nothing is going to work. The beat. You have to have a heartbeat, that heartbeat gets everyone moving. Babies. Grownups. Foreigners. Aliens. You’ve gotta have a pulse. That’s what disco had. And rappers. Tell your story, mean what you say and have a heartbeat. And have a passion for what you can do, because you can get hurt out there.”
And Smith’s been hurt. He didn’t release any albums in the ’80s, one of several times where he simply dropped out of the jazz machine. “I was frustrated with the business,” he says. “I just left and hid.” He hid in Hawaii, where his friend Benson lived. Florida as well. Smith was still playing, but it was from the shadows. When he would return to New York, he played under assumed names like “The Buffalonian.”
“I changed my name, but when I would play, the people knew who I was,” he says. “I love playing music. The other stuff, the extra things musicians want fame, fortune, glory, women I just love the music. The music is the beauty.”
Always he would be lured back, sometimes by musician friends, sometimes by fans. “When someone told me, ‘You’re selfish,’ ” Smith says, “I didn’t understand what they were talking about.”
Now he does. He loved the music, but it was a love he was supposed to share. “If you’re gonna play for yourself,” he says, “you can play at home.”