People way too often overlook Jimmy Smith. His Hammond organ playing influenced just about everyone that followed him in jazz and in rock, and it is all too easy to downplay his achievements in taking the electric organ out of the lounges and bars and putting it center stage. Born on December 8, 1928, he broke down the barriers between the genres to get people listening to his Hammond B3. Jon Lord of Deep Purple acknowledged the influence of Smith, as did Peter Bardens, Brian Auger, Rick Wakeman, and Keith Emerson. Without Smith, Booker T would not have developed his sound; he influenced Gregg Allman, and Greg Rolie of Santana.
The shock that people felt on hearing Jimmy’s Hammond organ in full flight is impossible to measure today. We’ve become so used to every kind of synthesized sound that we take for granted that with today’s keyboards we can make anything sound like anything. When Jimmy came along, his playing was revolutionary.
“It took me two and a half weeks to find my sound and when I did I pulled out all the stops, all the stops I could find.” – Jimmy Smith
James Oscar Smith’s father had a song-and-dance act in the local clubs, so it was perhaps no surprise that as a young boy his son took to the stage at six years old. Less usual though was that by the age twelve, he had taught himself, with occasional guidance from Bud Powell who lived nearby, to be an accomplished “Harlem Stride” pianist. He won local talent contests with his boogie-woogie piano playing and his future seemed set, but his father became increasingly unable to perform and turned to manual labor for income.
Smith left school to help support the family and joined the Navy when he was fifteen years old. With financial assistance from the G.I. Bill of Rights, set up in 1944 to help Second World War veterans rehabilitate, Smith was able to return to school in 1948, this time studying bass at the Hamilton School of Music in Philadelphia. At this point, he was juggling school with working with his father and playing piano with several different R&B groups. It was in 1953 while playing piano with Don Gardener’s Sonotones that Smith heard Wild Bill Davis playing a Hammond organ and was inspired to switch to the electric organ.
His timing was perfect. As a kickback against the cool school, jazz was returning to its roots, leaning heavily on the blues and gospel that infused Smith’s upbringing. At the time, Laurens Hammond was improving his Hammond organ model A first introduced in 1935 by refining the specifications and downsizing it from two keyboards and an excess of foot pedals and drawbars, to the sleeker, more sophisticated B3 design.
Smith got his first B3 in 1953 and soon devised ways to navigate the complex machine: “When I finally got enough money for a down payment on my own organ I put it in a warehouse and took a big sheet of paper and drew a floor plan of the pedals. Anytime I wanted to gauge the spaces and where to drop my foot down on which pedal, I’d look at the chart. Sometimes I would stay there four hours or maybe all day long if I’d luck up on something and get some new ideas using different stops.”
Developing his playing style independent from any outside influence, by cutting himself off from the outside world for three months, was perhaps the key to his singular success. His technique, steeped in the gospel tradition, with rapid runs across the keyboard using the palm of his hand and quirky use of the pedals to punch out entire bass lines, was like nothing ever heard before; there is not a single organist since that does not acknowledge a debt to the incredible Jimmy Smith.
Smith began playing Philadelphia clubs in that same year, taking in a young John Coltrane for a short two-week stint at Spider Kelly’s, “It was Jimmy Smith for about a couple of weeks before I went with Miles – the organist. Wow! I’d wake up in the middle of the night, man, hearing that organ. Yeah, those chords screaming at me.” Remembers Coltrane.
Shortly afterward Smith left Philly behind, heading for his New York debut. From his first gig in Harlem, it was patently obvious that this was something quite new, and it was not long before his novelty was attracting considerable attention, not least from the Blue Note label owner Alfred Lion, who offered him a record deal. Smith had almost instantaneous success with the presciently titled A New Sound… A New Star… This launched Smith’s hugely successful career and gave Blue Note a much-needed income from a steady stream of albums over the next seven years. Albums such as The Sermon (1958), Prayer Meetin’ (1960), and Back at the Chicken Shack (1960) all secured the label hit jukebox singles: a rarity for many jazz artists.
Smith’s Blue Note sessions partnered him with Kenny Burrell, Art Blakey, Lee Morgan, Lou Donaldson, Stanley Turrentine, Jackie McLean, and many others, before he move to Verve in 1962 where he immediately released a critical and commercial success in the form of Bashin’: The Unpredictable Jimmy Smith, which included the hit track “Walk On The Wild Side.” A song written by Elmer Bernstein, it was the title track to a movie. The album benefited greatly from the arranging skills of Oliver Nelson and “Walk On The Wild Side” made No. 21 on the Billboard pop chart and was the biggest hit of his career.
Bashin’… made the Billboard album chart in June 1962 climbing to No. 10, and for the next four years, his albums rarely failed to chart. Among his biggest successes were Hobo Flats (1964), Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf (1964), The Cat (1964), Organ Grinder Swing (1965), and Jimmy & Wes – The Dynamic Duo (1967).
Following the last of a series of European tours in 1966, 1972, and 1975, rather than continuing to travel to play, Smith chose to settle down with his wife in the mid-1970s and run a supper club in California’s San Fernando Valley. Despite his regular performances, the club failed after only a few years, forcing a return to recording and frequent festival appearances, albeit not to the kind of acclaim that he had received previously. In fact, it wasn’t until the late 1980s that Smith produced several well-reviewed albums.
He also received recognition for a series of live performances with fellow organ virtuoso Joey DeFrancesco, and his reinvigorated profile even led producer Quincy Jones to invite him to play on the sessions for Michael Jackson’s album, Bad in 1987; Smith plays the funky B3 solo on the title track and it went on for more than 20 minutes in the studio; it was edited on the final track to just over a minute. At the other end of the pop spectrum, he played on Frank Sinatra’s L.A. Is My Lady album in 1984 produced by Quincy Jones.
As his reputation grew again, Smith toured afar, playing with small groups in Japan, Europe, and the United States, helped by hip-hop DJs spreading his name by sampling Smith’s funky organ grooves, exposing him to a new generation of fans through the Beastie Boys, Nas, Gang Starr, Kool G Rap and DJ Shadow. Returning to Verve in 1995, Smith recorded the album Damn! and Dot Com Blues in 2001, featuring legendary R&B stars, including Etta James, B. B. King, Keb’ Mo’, and Dr. John.
After moving to Scottsdale, Arizona, Smith died in 2005, less than a year after his wife. His final recording, “Legacy” with Joey DeFrancesco, was released posthumously. DeFrancesco dedicated the album, “To the master, Jimmy Smith—One of the greatest and most innovative musicians of all time.” It’s time for a reappraisal of The Incredible Jimmy Smith who did as much to popularize jazz as almost any of his contemporaries.