Born James Oscar Smith in Norristown, Pennsylvania, USA. Smith was influenced by both gospel and blues. He first achieved prominence in the 1950s where his recordings became popular on jukeboxes before there were commonly used terms to describe his unique musical flavor. In the sixties and seventies he helped create the jazz style known as 'funk' or 'soul jazz'.
There had been earlier limited use of the electronic organ in jazz (notably by Fats Waller and Count Basie), though these early examples sometimes had a novelty feel. Smith is widely recognized as introducing the electric organ as a legitimate musical instrument, capable of virtuoso improvisation.
Smith employed a unique technique to emulate a string bass player on the organ. Although he played walking bass lines on the pedals on ballads, for uptempo tunes, he would play the bass line on the lower manual and use the pedals for emphasis on the attack of certain notes. His solos were characterised by percussive chords mixed with very fast melodic improvisation with the right hand. He generally used a drawbar registration of 868000000 or 888000000 on the lower manual, which he used for the bass line and comping chords. He used a similar registration on the upper manual, which he used for soloing, but with the addition of the Hammond's percussion circuit.
Smith was a prolific recording artist. He first recorded with the Blue Note label in 1956. His early albums with Blue Note sold very well, improving its financial viability and aiding the label's efforts to promote other artists. They include Home Cookin' , The Sermon!, Midnight Special, Prayer Meetin' , and Back at the Chicken Shack.