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American Routes Shortcuts: Dr. Lonnie Smith

Dr. Lonnie Smith
Dr. Lonnie Smith

The late Dr. Lonnie Smith of B-3 organ fame was a native of Buffalo, NY, where he got noticed sitting in with Jack McDuff.  Lonnie Smith moved to New York City to join George Benson’s quartet and scored a solo record deal with Columbia. “Doc” Smith mixed jazz, soul, blues and pop in his own compositions, as well as covers of Coltrane, Hendrix and Beck. Growing up, Lonnie Smith sang gospel songs in church and at home. His brothers played guitar and drums. Lonnie’s first instrument came to him magically, he says, “almost like in a movie.”

Lonnie Smith: I went to this music store every day, Kubera Music Store, in Buffalo. And I used to sit and sit, until the closing time. One day, he closed the store, and he says, "Why do you come in every day to closing time?" I said, "Well sir, if I had an instrument, I could work. If I could work, I could make a living." And he says, "Come with me." He took me in the back where he had a house, and he opened the door, and I could hear the music. I saw a brand new Hammond B-3. He says, "If you can get this out of her, it’s yours."

Nick Spitzer: They are rather heavy and large to move, over 400 pounds, right?

LS: Yes. You ever see an ant move stuff on his back?

NS: Yeah, like a huge leaf.

LS: Yeah. I got my brothers, we got a pick-up truck. I got on the back and hugged that organ all the way to the house. It was snowing in Buffalo.


LS: Now I’m still playing at this little club. I think it was called Little Paris. We got a job there, and they had an organ. A Spinet. Spinet is a baby organ. Thirteen pedals and whatnot. And what happened, Jack McDuff came by.

NS: Ahh!

LS: He said, "I heard you had a B-3." It wasn't in that club because I was still playing the Spinet because I didn't know anything about the B-3, right? It was brand new. Guess who the musician he was trying to rent it for? Lou Donaldson.

NS: Aha!

LS: I’m still waiting for my $25.


LS: They had a club called the Bon Temps in Buffalo. Everybody used to come there, all the big acts. McDuff came, and I'd sit in. They were playing, and he slid over, and I kept playing the song.

NS: Nice.

LS: People loved it, and Joe Duke was there and George Benson.

NS: Great guitar player.

LS: Yeah, he was playing with Jack then. I loved George's playing. He says, "Hey man, let's get a group.” So we took off to New York.

NS: Were you ever sorry to leave Buffalo and your family and where you grew up?

LS: Are you kidding me, Nick? My father said, "You never did like this place." I wanted to get out of Buffalo.

NS: I’ve heard “Shuffle Off to Buffalo,” this is “Shuffle Out of Buffalo.”

LS: Shovel, not shuffle!

NS: Shovel Out of Buffalo!


LS: We got signed with Columbia Records about a week or two after we got to New York. John Hammond heard about us, and he came by. He wanted to sign us right on the spot.


LS: Now, Lou Donaldson was recording. And he called George and I and Idris Muhammad on drums, and we played "Alligator Bogaloo." We locked in so beautifully


To hear the full program, tune in Saturdays at 5 and Sundays at 6 on WWNO, or listen at americanroutes.org.