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Last night, Blue Note Records announced Dr. Lonnie Smith, a master organist and spiritual jazz giant, had died after a battle with lung cancer. He was 79-years-old.
Self-schooled and an early Blue Note devotee, Smith sharpened his chops as a ringer in house bands and touring soul ensembles during the early-60s. Smith earned his first major gig as the organist in a young George Benson‘s quartet, just after the guitarist left his post in Jimmy Smith’s band (at the time, Blue Note’s flagship organ-led group.) Not long after Benson and Smith lit up their residencies at two iconic Harlem clubs (Uptown Cafe and Minton’s Playhouse,) Columbia signed the duo to solo deals, leading to a prolific run as leaders of their own groups. After just one album with Columbia (1967’s Finger Lickin’ Good Soul Organ,) Smith was hired along with Benson to back Lou Donaldson on the saxophonist’s Alligator Boogaloo, which not only became a rare chart placement for Blue Note, but turned the label’s attention to Smith. A full-circle moment for the Hammond B3 wizard, Smith went on to record four studio projects and a live album for Blue Note before leaving the label in 1971.
From there, Smith adopted the “Dr.” prefix as a way of distinguishing himself from fellow keyboardist Lonnie Liston Smith and became a pivotal practitioner of a cosmic jazz strain. Pivoting from soul-jazz just as organ-led bands began to fall out of popularity, Smith’s next chapter was defined by his spirituality on and off record. And the albums Smith recorded over the following decade — spacious and far-reaching improvisational suites anchored by electric piano grooves, sprawling synth programs and, ferocious funk — have been repurposed by innumerable rap greats.
To celebrate the late keyboardist’s legacy and his towering impact on rap, we’re back with a new episode of In Hip-Hop and Beyond, exploring how Smith’s sound has been borrowed and bent into the source code for some of hip-hop’s most decorated anthems.
Stream a new installment of In Hip-Hop and Beyond below.