Interview: Dr. Lonnie Smith

March 18, 2016

From the very first note of “Play It Back,” the lead track on Dr. Lonnie Smith’s new Blue Note album Evolution, you know you’re in for a wild ride. Like a funkified lightning bolt from above, the song pulses with kinetic electrical energy, pitting Smith’s audacious organ licks against an ensemble of two drummers, a horn section, and the blues-drenched piano of Nu-Jazz hero Robert Glasper. Let the buyer beware: This ain’t your grandparents’ organ album!

At 73 years old, Smith is as dynamic a live performer today as he was back in the 1960s and ’70s when he came to fame accompanying legendary artists such as George Benson and Lou Donaldson. Fluent in every style from blues to boogaloo and beyond, Smith coaxes near otherworldly textures from the tonewheels of his organ. One minute, he caresses the manuals of his Hammond B-3 with heartfelt care, and the next he’s in full prayer meeting mode, like a preacher possessed. If you’re looking for musical trouble, you’ve come to the right place. Because the Doctor is in and he’s ready to operate!

Smith hadn’t recorded for Blue Note Records for more than four decades—that is, until longtime fan and label president Don Was heard him live and brought him back to the storied imprint. Just ahead of the album’s release, Smith spoke to me via phone about his long association with Blue Note and his unique approach to the mighty B-3.

Evolution is your first recording for Blue Note records in 45 years. Can you talk about what the label means to you and how it feels to return to it?

For me, it feels like being home and, at the same time, like I never was away. It’s like having a first love that you always will love. I feel as if we’ve always been thinking of each other. Blue Note meant so much to me in the beginning. I’ll never forget the wonderful times I had there. It’s such a legendary place, and even after all these years, it still stands for something that’s true. So it feels great to be home.

How old were you when you first recorded for them?

I was in my early twenties. I had just started playing, and it was just gigantic for me to sign to Blue Note. If you can imagine, at that time every musician on the label was a star and really meant something to the music. I was actually recording for John Hammond and Columbia Records at that time. Back in those days, we would read those big, beautiful Blue Note album covers over and over again like you would a book. You almost felt as if you were there with those musicians on the cover! I loved the sound of those records too; the way they sounded when they spun around on a turntable. So when they called me and asked me to record for them, it was totally unexpected. I tried not to get too excited in case it didn’t work out, but inside I was just exploding. It was the beginning of being inducted into a very prestigious company.

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