The Incredible And Influential Jimmy Smith

People way too often overlook Jimmy Smith today, and that’s been true for far too long. His Hammond organ playing influenced just about everyone.

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Jimmy Smith
Photo: Francis Wolff, Copyright: Blue Note Records, Courtesy of Blue Note Records

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

Listen to the best of Jimmy Smith on Apple Music and Spotify.

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 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.”

Midnight Special (Rudy Van Gelder Digital Remaster/2007)

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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.

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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.

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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.

Listen to the best of Jimmy Smith on Apple Music and Spotify.



  1. Prince Moretsele

    May 18, 2015 at 1:45 pm

    I am a huge fan of Mr.Smith I want his collections I am staying in South Africa I do have some of his albums like the best,back at the chicken shack,the boss,prayer meeting only and its too difficult to get all his collections maybe recommend me to s!ome record companies in SA that i can buy the other albums from

  2. Leonardo

    May 18, 2015 at 9:13 pm

    A primeira vez que ouvi Jimmy foi no disco (, a velocidade de suas frases e o repertório de frases foi o que me chamou atenção no som desse mestre. RIP

  3. Paul

    May 19, 2015 at 9:32 pm

    In the late 90s, I worked security for the Syracuse, NY jazz fest. I caught his show and got to meet him and the band. The were cool guys. I even had to load his Hammond B and a lezlie into his personal tricked out van that he traveled is from gig to gig. I only learned later what a musician he was and his lineage. At the time I just thought he was just a cool jazz master. It was a great show.

  4. Alain Mechoulam

    June 4, 2015 at 2:34 pm

    I discovered Jimmy Smith at age 12 when my grandmother gave me the record “Any number can win”, …. what a strange present for a 12 year old boy ?!? … but it was a revelation to me !!! Since then, I acquired all Jimmy’s records and only listened to his music practically all day long. Eventually playing on rented B3’s or spending literally the whole day at local Hammond stores on the mythical B3, an organ I couldn’t afford then.
    I gave many concerts as a teenager and was compared to Jimmy Smith …. an obvious outrage to this Master of Jazz Organ as I could eventually perform only 1% of his music.
    When I moved to Boston, at age 19, to attend Berklee, the very first day I got there, Jimmy Smith was performing at the Jazz Workshop, I just couldn’t believe it !?! I went to the Club in the afternoon and waited for hours to see my idol. When he finally walked down the street towards me, my heart stopped …. but I had the courage to approach Jimmy and introduce myself.
    He immediately “adopted” me and I spent the whole month with him, sitting next to him on his B3 bench, before his performances … he literally taught me everything about the mysteries of his B3 playing: cords, left hand patterns, kicking pedal technique, right hand Jazz licks, everything … I owe Jimmy every single note I play today … many concerts in many countries … 🙂
    Many years later I spent a whole week with Joey de Francesco, Jimmy’s pupil, who helped me improving my playing technique, in Jimmy’s style of course !!!
    I attended as many Jimmy’s concerts I could, the last one was in Milan in 2004. It was the day of my birthday and Jimmy, with no warning, sang in front of the audience “Happy Birthday to my friend Alain” …. you can imagine how excited and touched at the same time I was.
    I flew from Rome (Italy), where I was then living, to Philadelphia about a year later, to pay a last tribute to my Master, so sad … Jimmy I miss you …

  5. Bill Stevenson

    June 9, 2015 at 7:26 pm

    I think my first Jimmy Smith LP was “The Cat”. I was 12 or 13 years old when it came out. It still knocks me out and I am on about my 5th copy. My wife of 46 years and I went to hear Jimmy Smith at Lenny’s on the Turnpike, in Peabody, MA on our very first date. That was in 1968. Lenny’s was one of Jimmy’s regular performance venues and I was literally a regular customer whenever Jimmy came to town. I was not old enough to drink, and it never occurred to me that my visits were probably not welcomed. No one ever treated me with anything but respect. One thing that perhaps is not well known is that Jimmy was very tough on drummers. His music was funky but complex at the same time. He hated a drummer who rushed the beat, but not doing so with such an infectious sound was easier said than done. I love his music.

  6. phil johnson

    March 17, 2016 at 4:20 pm

    I met Jimmy several years ago at the 5 spot in NY…After his set he took me up to his organ and showed me some blues chords in F. Being that I play as well, I knew the chords he was doing…His last chord was so hot all i could do was laugh..His smile afterwards said it all. He called me his nephew and told the bartender to give me a drink on him.(although i don’t drink)…Never will forget that. His wife Lola was also kind to me….Miss them both…

  7. John

    May 18, 2016 at 7:38 pm

    Been following jimmy since I was a preteen. Used to hitch-hike to a record shop in Niagara Falls with my good friend Tim & thumb through his albums, looking for the latest. Good Times!

  8. Joe Williams

    May 22, 2016 at 4:27 pm

    Obviously I’m not the famous Joe Williams. However, As a 19 year old DJ growing up in Chicago in the late 60’s I was introduced to Jimmy Smith, after hearing the “Sermon” I was hooking on what I thought was the most energetic and inspiring piece of music I had ever heard. A few years later I discovered a live version that took the piece to yet another level. A few years before Jimmy passed I had an opportunity to see him live at the old Catalina Bar & Grill on Cahangu. This was a night when Jimmy’s guitar player couldn’t get it right and Jimmy fired him on the spot. After which time, he walked off the stage with the audience waiting and didn’t return for almost an hour, when he did return he brought along with him guitar player Phil Upchurch to finish the gig. It was unfortunate and crazy for the fired guitar player but what a win for the B3 fans in the audience that night.

  9. Sridhar Lakshmanan

    December 8, 2017 at 9:23 am

    My absolute favorite … I remember hearing him for the first time with Detroiter Kenny Burrell and Stanley Turrentine … these cats cooked … the tune was Back at the Chicken Shack … it was on WFCR radio … I was on my beat up old 1978 Chevy Malibu station wagon that my friend Chee Sun Won had left behind when he graduated … I got so excited I almost rear ended the car in front of me on North Pleasant Street near UMass Amherst! Lol

  10. AL Ferdinand. Woods

    December 8, 2017 at 9:29 pm

    When my recall is on; we, i heard Dr. Smith, organize in Seattle in Spring or Summer of 1969, wow.
    Nana. Oduno, easy coast & texas

  11. Juan Rossi

    December 9, 2019 at 4:12 am

    Wow! I’m now with 61 years – keyboardist and choir conductor – and have recently acquired a Mojo Crumar with Hammond 20 pedals. Unfortunately, had no money to buy good monitors, just 2 chinese 8′ amplified ones. With my 9 years earned my piano and was introduced in an old 78-rpm LP to Mozart. I was trying to be maybe a dead composer with my pieces in drawers. But discovered Earl Grant in Ebb Tide and Jimmy Smith in very slow Autumn Leaves, quickly astonished got with these marvelous creations and began to get passioned by Hammond. With a little luck perhaps could have some Jimmy’s lessons in USA, but stayed in Brasil and he passed away, for my desperation. Think about formidable Dennerlein in Germany to have still some classes. But comes my age! Never could improvise as well as Smith on Hammond, that’s a revelation that came in those last years!

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