Can I Kick It? Organ Master Lonnie Smith Can As a bandleader in the 1960s and '70s, Smith wrote timeless music — and secured that label during the '80s and '90s, when hip-hop producers sampled his work left and right. NPR's Arun Rath speaks with Smith on the occasion of a new album that revives the out-of-print gems of a six-decade career.

Can I Kick It? Organ Master Lonnie Smith Can

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Once again, you're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

You can probably count on one hand the number of people who have mastered the Hammond organ in jazz.


RATH: That's Dr. Lonnie Smith. As a band leader in the 1960s and '70s, he wrote timeless music. It safely earned that label during the '80s and '90s when hip-hop producers sampled his work left and right. And he's got a personality as big as any hip-hop star. He's called doctor because, well, he thinks he deserves the title and I'm not going to argue with him.

And for the longest time, I thought he was a Sikh. But his turban and beard are all about style - nothing to do with religion. As you can imagine, with a catalog that reaches back six decades, dozens of his older songs have just been lost to time. Take this one, for example. You're listening to a piece from 1969 called "Turning Point." He hasn't played it in years.

DR. LONNIE SMITH: You got that right. It's been quite sometime.

RATH: That's the now 71-year-old Dr. Lonnie Smith. Recently, he decided to comb through his archives and revisit some old numbers with young musicians.


RATH: This is the new recording of "Turning Point" from Dr. Lonnie Smith's album "In the Beginning."

SMITH: I took a horn, and I slowed up the melody, and I had it also fast at the same time, kind of like a counterpoint. It was really nice - underneath, in other words - what I had going on. And it worked that way at that moment because every time I really play a song, it's hard for me to do it the exact same way. I have a tendency to want to change.

RATH: Right. I mean, when you solo - you have these great, long, improvised solos - and I feel like you're telling a story, but each time it's a totally different story.

SMITH: I hope it goes that way, because I feel that way at the time. I really do. It takes me on a journey.


RATH: We'll listen to another cut off the album. This is one of my favorites. This is "Aw Shucks."


RATH: Now, this, for me, kind of feels like signature Lonnie Smith where you kind of...

SMITH: Yeah.

RATH: can get preachy and churchy and then get nasty in the next breath.

SMITH: For sure. I remember that when I was at Blue Note, I really got known for those really slow and easy grooving songs. I remember I wanted to change up. When I got a way to change up, I asked Frank Wolff...

RATH: Frank Wolff. That's the co-founder of Blue Note Records, right?

SMITH: That's right. I said I wanted to do something a little bit different. You know, he didn't really know how to dance, but he danced his way. So anytime you'd be in the studio and you saw him dancing, you know he loved it. And he would be dancing off this kind of music. He loved it, for sure.

RATH: So you turned the studio into a party.


SMITH: That's what it was.


RATH: I know that you know that you've been sampled by sort of a who's who of artists - you know, Wu-Tang Clan, Beastie Boys, Tribe Called Quest.


A TRIBE CALLED QUEST: (Singing) As the tribe flies high like a dove.

RATH: When did you first become aware that your work was getting sampled?

SMITH: I wasn't.



RATH: How long did it to get to you?

SMITH: Well, look - well, what happened is that you started getting some residuals, and you say: What? And I can't believe it. And I see it, and I say: Mm, that's OK.

RATH: You didn't know till you got the check?

SMITH: No, I did not. I did not. And you wonder, sometimes, because I noticed that there would be people from my era and people from the young era at the same concert, and they'd be enjoying it. And you've got all these people that are so different. And I say, hmm, that's strange. But they seem to enjoy the music that we have done years ago.


RATH: I'm wondering - you're so associated with this instrument. I'm wondering if you remember the first time you actually laid hands on a Hammond B-3 and what...

SMITH: Yes, I do.

RATH: Yeah?

SMITH: Yes, I do. I'll never forget that. I was living in Buffalo. And a friend of mine, Bernard Neely(ph), came across the street, and he says: You have to hear this. Now, I wasn't playing the organ then - at that time. So he took me to his house across the street, and his brother had a Hammond B-3. And his brother was not there, but he played this record, Jimmy Smith. It was - what was it - "Midnight Special." And then I touched that organ.


SMITH: Oh, that felt so great. It felt really great to me. And I had heard organs in the churches, you know, and things like that in record store, but that was the first time I ever touched it. I used to dream about the organ. You know, how young musicians say the way the bass has all the curves reminds them of a woman? Well, the organ, to me, it was beautiful. And I found out the organ was more than that. It was me, and as extension of me. That's what the organ means to me.


RATH: That is Dr. Lonnie Smith. His new album is called "In the Beginning: Volumes 1 and 2." Dr. Lonnie Smith, it has been a blast talking to you. Thank you.

SMITH: Oh, I really appreciate it. Thank you.


RATH: And for Saturday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath. Check out our weekly podcast. Search for WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on iTunes or on the NPR app. Follow us on Twitter: @nprwatc. We are back tomorrow. Until then, consider this: chances are the clothes that you're wearing and the radio or computer or phone that you're using to listen to us came from outside the country. And if it did, it probably came by ship.

DAVE BOATNER: Shoes didn't come by truck from China. They came by sea. It all comes by container.

RATH: And those ships need crews - men and women from the Merchant Marine. But fewer and fewer ships fly the U.S. flag, which means fewer and fewer jobs for American first mates and ship pilots and men like retired Captain Dave Boatner.

BOATNER: The company I worked for, when I started working for them in 1978, they had 50 ships. And now they got four.

RATH: Why U.S. shipping is fighting to stay afloat. That's tomorrow on the program. In the meantime, thanks for listening and have a great night.

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