Dr. Lonnie Smith isn't a real doctor. But he is an expert at playing the Hammond B-3.
A musician, composer, performer and recording artist, Smith has been a master of the organ for half a century. He fronts his "In the Beginning" Octet in concert at 7:30 p.m. Thursday in Penn State's Schwab Auditorium.
Smith has been featured on 70-plus albums—more than 20 as a bandleader—and recorded and performed with many of the greatest jazz, blues and R&B musicians of his time.
In addition to the organist, the octet features trumpeter Andy Gravish, tenor saxophonist John Ellis, alto saxophonist and State College Area High School alumnus Ian Hendrickson-Smith, baritone saxophonist Jason Marshall, guitarist Ed Cherry, drummer Joe Dyson and conga player Kahlil Kwambe Bell.
The octet's name was inspired by the title of a Smith composition on the group's new double-CD release, which features reimagined versions of music the organist originally released during the first decade of his career. Hendrickson-Smith co-produced the new CD set.
Tickets are still available for the Nov. 21 Center for the Performing Arts presentation.
Hear my interview with Smith, which includes an excerpt of one of the tracks on the octet's In the Beginning Volumes 1 and 2.
Read my feature article about Smith.
Smith's mother immersed him in gospel, blues and jazz. He played trumpet in school. As a teen, he was a doo-wop singer. After teaching himself to play the Hammond B-3, Smith began performing in Buffalo, N.Y., jazz clubs, where he caught the attention of guitarist George Benson.
Smith gained recognition as a member of Benson's quartet. He made his first album as a leader—Finger Lickin' Good—for Columbia Records in 1966. From there he recorded several epic Blue Note albums, including the million-seller Alligator Boogaloo, with saxophonist Lou Donaldson. Blue Note soon inked Smith to his own contract, a deal that would produce the soul jazz classics Think!, Turning Point, Move Your Hand, Drives and Live at Club Mozambique.
Smith conveys such joy at the keyboard that it sometimes seems as though the music doesn't come from him but passes through him. "Before I start playing, it's almost like I do not know anything about that instrument. But when I start playing, it's like it draws me to it and expression comes out of me," he said. "… It's like a burning fire. It's like electricity that goes through my body, my whole body, when I play."
Smith, who began using "Dr." before his name in the 1970s, has insatiable musical taste. He's recorded covers of music by the Beatles, the Stylistics and the Eurythmics—plus tribute albums to Jimi Hendrix, John Coltrane and Beck.
Artistic Viewpoints, an informal moderated discussion featuring Smith and Hendrickson-Smith, is offered in Schwab one hour before the performance and is free for ticket holders.