Born: December 16, 1933 | Died: June 4, 1997 Primary Instrument: Organ, Hammond B3
Johnny Hammond Smith was part of the golden age of jazz organ that flourished for about 15 years, beginning in the mid-1950s. His own record label alone, Prestige, boasted such top organists as Shirley Scott, Brother Jack McDuff, Don Patterson, and Charles Earland. And looming over the entire crowded field of B-3 pilots was Jimmy Smith (no relation).
Born John Robert Smith in Louisville, Kentucky, December 16, 1933, he has a mildly musical background: “My mother sang in the choir, my sister and others in the family were musical, but I’m the only one who became a professional.”
“My influences were Charlie Parker, Dizzy, Bud Powell, Art Tatum, all the people who were really happening in the mid-1940s. I guess you could say I made my professional debut at 15. I had a buddy who also played piano, and we’d both slip into a little club down the street and take turns playing for whatever they’d put in the kitty.”
Smith was 18 when he left Louisville. For a while, he lived in Cleveland, playing with groups led by saxophonist Jimmy Hinsley and guitarist Willie Lewis.Around the time he came of age, his ears were captivated by the sound of Wild Bill Davis, who had just begun to show the possibilities of transferring modern jazz sounds to the electric organ. Inspired by Davis, and also to some extent by Bill Doggett, Johnny gradually made the changeover from piano to organ himself.
“I was the first jazz organist in Cleveland, or to put it another way, the first jazz musician in Cleveland even to own an organ. I began working around in small combos.Believe it or not, I was playing from the very start pretty much the way I’m playing now. I played single lines then, then built up to shout out-choruses with big chords and so forth, just the way I do today. The only difference at first was that I hadn’t turned the vibrato off the organ, whereas Jimmy Smith had. Later, around 1957, I began turning it off.”
Shortly after Hammond’s acquisition of an organ, Wild Bill Davis left the Chris Columbus group in which he had been working. Johnny got the job with Columbus and went almost immediately to New York. From that point on, he shuttled between New York and Cleveland as alternate homes.
In 1958, he had his first opportunity to extend his popularity through records. “I was working in Columbus, Ohio, with Nancy Wilson who was more or less unknown at that time. Some man came in, heard the group and offered us a contract. He said, ‘I’ll give that girl a deal, too.’ But Nancy said, ‘No, when I sign a contract, I’m going to sign with a big company.’ She was smart. Only a year later, she had a contract with Capitol.”
Johnny went ahead and recorded for the independent label. Soon afterward, in 1959, recommended by tenor saxophonist Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, he was offered a deal with Prestige, an association that would last through 1970 and produce highlights like “That Good Feelin',” “Talk That Talk,” “Black Coffee,” “Open House,” “Ebb Tide,” and “Soul Talk,” among others.
During that time, he played in some of the more popular New York organ rooms, such as Count Basie’s, Minton’s, and the Shalimar. Whatever his claims about having played the same style all along, he certainly managed during those years to develop and strengthen the basic characteristics of his style.
Among the problems that seem to confine too many of the present-day school of organists is that they tend to work almost exclusively out of two alternating bags. One is the blues-funk-soul style, the other is a ballad approach that lapses all too often into virtual somnolence. Smith seemed to have overcome these restrictions. Certainly he knew as well as anyone how to play on the audience’s emotions through an inspired and ingeniously planned crescendo, with admirable use of his considerable technique. But his uptempo and ballad performances seem to be all of a piece, products of the same inventive mind, rather than opposite musical poles. In his albums, and in his performances, he invariably shows that harmonic ideation, rhythmic sensitivity, and melodic values can be applied to every number he plays.
As time passed, Smith's style got progressively funkier, and in 1971, then with CTI Hammond recorded five jazz- funk albums over the next three years, including “Breakout,” “Wild Horses/Rock Steady,” and “Gambler's Life.” In 1975, Hammond moved to Milestone and recorded the culmination of his move into jazz-funk, “Gears.”
Johnny “Hammond” Smith connected with his audience, whether they’re sitting in their living rooms listening, or in a nightclub or concert hall. Hammond’s virtuosity and talent cuts through every time, he played with tremendous feeling, which is the very most that can be said about anyone!
Johnny “Hammond” Smith died June 4, 1997.
Source: James Nadal