Hammond legend Lonnie Smith still gets fired up playing music
After the usual hellos, if you tell Hammond B3 icon Dr. Lonnie Smith you’re doing just fine, he’ll respond, gleefully, “I’m doing better than that.” And also: “It’s Detroit’s fault.”
What? “Detroit started me off,” the jazz organ maestro explains. “That was my first big gig. And when I made my solo album (‘Finger Lickin’ Good’ in 1967) , it hit there first. It was something back then, Detroit.”
Now Smith, 72, is playing Detroit again, closing out the Detroit Jazz Festival at 6:15 p.m. Monday. “Detroit was the mecca, so much talent came out of there,” Smith says. “When my solo album came out, I played at Masonic Temple, Cobo Arena. Everybody used to come by, the Tops, David Ruffin, James Jamerson would sit in, all the guys.”
In concert, Smith appears to be in an advanced state of bliss when he’s pounding away on the Hammond B3. “The organ is like an orchestra,” he says. “It’s a big band, it’s bass, it has all the amenities that you want. It’s everything in the universe to me — the storm, the birds, rain, sunshine, it has all of those things... It’s like electricity that goes through my body, fire. It’s like the sky is opening up.”
Smith received his first Hammond B3 from his “angel,” a Buffalo music store owner named Art Kubera, who gifted him with an organ when he noticed him hanging around his music store. “When I got that organ, ohhh it was a gift,” Smith says.
He ended up in New York as a professional musician, where he formed the George Benson Quartet with Benson in 1966. Among his many solo albums was the 1970 Blue Note release “Live at Club Mozambique,” recorded at the fabled Detroit club.
Detroit is also to blame for his hit song, “Move Your Hand.”
“ ’Move Your Hand’ was a joke,” Smith says with a sigh. It’s a long, involved joke about how a preacher had a guy reading scripture for him out of the Bible. One of them had to tell the other to “move your hand” because he couldn’t see the page.
Smith had been telling the joke to the guys in his band one time at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge on Livernois. “I was teasing them about it, and I started a groove, just playing that for myself. I said, ‘Move your hand ‘cause I can’t see,’ the guys in the band started laughing. After it was over, the people in the audience said, ‘What’s the name of that song? Play it again.’ They loved it, and I started doing it.”
Over the years, the recording of “Move Your Hand” became one of his most-requested tunes. But don’t ask him to play it in concert. “I give them a little of what they heard, something so they can feel their love,” he says. But not that one.
Smith likes to surprise his audience. “I might do Jimi Hendrix, I might do Beck, I might do John Coltrane.” Then again, he might do an avant-garde number you’ve never heard.
Last year, Smith recorded an album with some younger musicians, and he doesn’t mind being sampled. “No. 1, they are keeping me alive, and they put another twist on it. The only thing I don’t like is the cursing, the profanity ... that’s what you think of life?”
Dr. Lonnie Smith’s “In the Beginning” Octet
6:15-7:30 p.m. Monday
Carhartt Amphitheater Stage