Rolling Along: Jimmy Smith Takes His Hammond Down ‘Ol’ Man River’

The ‘Show Boat’ tune became one of the master organist’s dozen appearances on the Hot 100.

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Jimmy Smith ‘Ol’ Man River' artwork - Courtesy: UMG
Jimmy Smith ‘Ol’ Man River' artwork - Courtesy: UMG

The definitive jazz Hammond organ sound of Jimmy Smith usually found its home on a series of seminal albums, not to mention some notable session appearances with Frank Sinatra, Michael Jackson and others. But on a dozen occasions between 1962 and 1968, the brilliant instrumentalist from Norristown, Pennsylvania found his way into the Billboard Hot 100. That’s where he was in September 1962 with a song from the Oscar Hammerstein & Jerome Kern musical Show Boat.

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In June of that year, Smith climbed to his highest-ever ranking on that chart with the title number from the Laurence Harvey-Jane Fonda film Walk On The Wild Side. After that release, credited to Jimmy Smith and the Big Band, reached No.21, Verve swiftly followed up with his 45rpm recording of “Ol’ Man River.” It was singularly one of the grooviest versions of the already venerable tune, first heard in the 1927 musical version of Show Boat.

A hit between the wars

The song was a bestseller in 1928 for Paul Whiteman and his Orchestra, in a rendition with vocals by Bing Crosby and cornet by Bix Beiderbecke. Al Jolson, Paul Robeson, and the Revelers were all popular with their discs of it that same year. Smith’s reading was on his memorable first album for Verve, Bashin’, The Unpredictable Jimmy Smith, which had come out in May 1962.

Listen to uDiscover Music’s Jimmy Smith Best Of playlist.

His single entered the US chart at No.100 on September 1, then fell to No.105 in the magazine’s “Bubbling Under” section. It re-entered the official countdown at No.99 on September 15. A week later, it was nowhere to be seen, and its strange chart pattern continued when it re-entered the Hot 100 at an apparently stronger No.82 – before disappearing again for good.

Smith returned to the chart the following spring with one of his signature pieces, “Hobo Flats.” He never again made the top half of the 100, although he came as close as could be in 1966, when his version of “Got My Mojo Workin’” peaked at No.51. 

Buy or stream “Ol’ Man River” on Jimmy Smith’s Verve Ultimate Cool album.

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