Jimmy Smith Biography

James Oscar Smith, 8 December 1925 (1928 is also cited by some sources), Norristown, Pennsylvania, USA, d. 8 February 2005, Scottsdale, Arizona, USA. The sound of the Hammond Organ in jazz was popularized by Smith, often using the prefix ‘the incredible’ or ‘the amazing’. He became the most famous jazz organist of all times and possibly the most influential.

Brought up by musical parents, Smith was formally trained on piano and bass and combined the two skills with the Hammond while leading his own trio. He was heavily influenced by Missourian Wild Bill Davis. By the mid-50s Smith had refined his own brand of smoky soul jazz, which epitomized laid-back ‘late night’ blues-based music. His vast output for the ‘soul jazz’ era of Blue Note Records led the genre and resulted in a number of other Hammond B3 maestros appearing, notably, Jimmy McGriff, Brother Jack McDuff, ‘Big’ John Patton, Richard ‘Groove’ Holmes and ‘Baby Face’ Willette. Smith was superbly complemented on these recordings by a number of outstanding musicians. Although Art Blakey played with Smith, Donald Bailey remains the definitive Smith drummer, while Smith tackled the bass notes on the Hammond. The guitar was featured prominently throughout the Blue Note years and Smith used the talents of Eddie McFadden, Quentin Warren and Kenny Burrell. Further immaculate playing came from Stanley Turrentine (tenor saxophone), Lee Morgan (trumpet) and Lou Donaldson (alto saxophone). Two classic Blue Note albums from the late 50s were The Sermon and Home Cookin’. On the title track of the former, Smith and his musicians stretch out with majestic ‘cool’ over 20 minutes, allowing each soloist ample time.

In 1962 Smith moved to Verve Records where he became the undisputed king of the Hammond, regularly crossing over into the pop bestsellers and the singles charts with memorable titles such as ‘Walk On The Wild Side’, ‘Hobo Flats’ and ‘Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf’. These hits were notable for their superb orchestral arrangements by Oliver Nelson, although they tended to bury Smith’s sound. However, the public continued to put him into the charts with ‘The Cat’, ‘The Organ Grinder’s Swing’ and, with Smith on growling vocals, ‘Got My Mojo Working’. His albums at this time also made the bestseller lists, and between 1963 and 1966 Smith was virtually ever-present in the album charts, with many making the US Top 20. Smith’s popularity had much to do with the R&B boom in Britain during the early 60s. His influence was notable in the early work of UK artists such as Steve Winwood, Brian Auger, Georgie Fame, Zoot Money, Graham Bond and John Mayall. Smith’s two albums with Wes Montgomery were also well received; both allowed each other creative space with no ego involved.

As the 60s ended Smith’s music became more MOR-orientated and he pursued a soul/funk path during the 70s, using a synthesizer on occasion. Organ jazz was in the doldrums for many years and although Smith remained its leading exponent, he was leader of an unfashionable style. After a series of low-key and largely unremarkable recordings during the 80s, Smith delivered the underrated Off The Top in 1982. Later in the decade the Hammond organ began to come back into favour in the UK with the James Taylor Quartet and the Tommy Chase Band, and in Germany with Barbara Dennerlein. Much of Smith’s seminal early work was remastered and reissued on compact disc during this period, vindication for a genre that went so far out of fashion it had almost disappeared.

A reunion with Turrentine, Burrell and drummer Grady Tate resulted in the release of 1990’s Fourmost. Smith and Burrell then worked together on the 1993 live recording The Master, featuring reworkings of classic trio tracks, and further renewed interest in Smith’s career came the following year when he returned to Verve forDamn!. On this album he was joined by some of the finest young jazz players, many of whom were barely born at the time of Smith’s 60s heyday. The stellar line-up on this, one of the finest albums of his career, comprised Roy Hargrove (trumpet), Mark Turner (saxophone), Ron Blake (saxophone), Nicholas Payton (trumpet), Abraham Burton (saxophone), Art Taylor (drums), Tim Warfield (saxophone), Mark Whitfield (guitar), Bernard Purdie (drums) and Christian McBride (bass). The 2001 recording Dotcom Blues enlisted the likes of B.B. King, Taj Mahal, Dr. John and Keb Mo, turning the session into a blues vocal album on which Smith was only occasionally allowed to show his prowess. His last recording was made with one of his greatest fans; the similarly talented Joey DeFrancesco. They recordedLegacy a few months before he died. UK R&B organist Zoot Money commented upon his death; ‘organists owe him the revelation that such a clumsy all-round instrument could sound so good. All organists strive for that Jimmy Smith sound, but they never get it.’

Smith is deservedly regarded as the Frank Sinatra of the jazz organ, being remembered as both the instrument’s greatest ambassador and its finest interpreter.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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