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Dr. Lonnie Smith, Lauded Hammond Organist, Dead at 79

Dr. Lonnie Smith, the lauded Hammond B3 organist who was named an NEA Jazz Master, died on Tuesday at the age of 79, as NPR reports. His longtime label Blue Note Records confirmed the news.

“We’re deeply saddened to announce that Hammond B3 organ legend Dr. Lonnie Smith passed away today at 79 years old,” Blue Note Records wrote on Twitter. “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.”

While he became renowned for the Hammond B3 organ, his musical interests developed first while playing brass instruments in school as a teenager growing up in a suburb of Buffalo in the Fifties. Singing was also a forte, and he performed with his doo wop ensemble the Supremes (which predated the famous Motown group).

In the Sixties, he became interested in forging a career path as a musician, but he hadn’t settled on an instrument. He was a fan of Blue Note organist Jimmy Smith, and around this time music store owner and accordionist Art Kubera gifted him a Hammond organ, and Smith’s fate was sealed.

After only about a year, his mastership of the instrument became apparent. He began backing several Midwest groups and by the mid-Sixties George Benson invited him to join his newly formed quartet. Soon after, each of them were signed to Columbia and crafted their own respective albums.

They scored a hit on the Billboard Hot 100 chart when they performed on saxophonist Lou Donaldson’s title track to Alligator Boogaloo from 1967 via Blue Note.

Smith became a band leader signed to the venerable label in 1968. He was a prolific artist, releasing five albums for the label into the early Seventies. For a period he left Blue Note and worked with a variety of artists, including a brief stint with Marvin Gaye and also Etta James.

He reconnected with Blue Note in 2016. Shortly after he was named an NEA Jazz Master and subsequently penned collaborations with artists such as Norah Jones and the Roots.

His final albums were 2018’s All in My Mind and 2021’s Don Was-produced Breathe, which featured several collaborations with Iggy Pop.

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