You can probably count on one hand the number of people who’ve mastered the Hammond organ in jazz. Dr. Lonnie Smith can claim that distinction and more. As a bandleader in the 1960s and ‘70s, he wrote timeless music — and it secured that label during the ‘80s and ‘90s, when hip-hop producers sampled his work left and right. (That tasty organ riff that anchors A Tribe Called Quest‘s “Can I Kick It?” That’s him.)
Smith also has a personality as big as that of any hip-hop star. He’s called “Doctor” because … well, he thinks he deserves the title. And though a stranger might reasonably mistake him for a Sikh, his turban and beard are all about style, nothing to do with religion.
With a catalogue that reaches back six decades, dozens of his songs have been lost to time. Now 71, Smith recently decided to comb through his archives and revisit some old numbers with some young musicians. The result is the new album In the Beginning, which finds him leading an octet alongside Ian Hendrickson-Smith of Sharon Jones’ Dap Kings.
Smith spoke with NPR’s Arun Rath about rediscovering his out-of-print work, falling in love with the Hammond B3 and the complete surprise of learning his music was being sampled. Hear their conversation at the audio link.