Jazz legend Dr. Lonnie Smith, organist and NEA Jazz Master, died on Tuesday in his home in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He was 79. His label, Blue Note Records, reported the news, noting that the cause was pulmonary fibrosis.
Smith grew up in the suburbs of Buffalo, New York, and began playing music at a young age, joining a vocal group called the Teen Kings, which also featured Grover Washington Jr. The owner of a local music shop gifted Smith a Hammond B-3 organ shortly thereafter, which became his instrument of focus throughout the rest of his career.
In 1966, Smith joined the George Benson Quartet, and after recording two albums with the group, made his own debut with 1967’s Finger Lickin’ Good Soul Organ. After recording with Lou Donaldson on the Alligator Boogaloo album, Donaldson connected Smith with Blue Note Records, which then released five of Smith’s albums, including 1969’s Think! and 1970’s Move Your Hand.
Smith continued to record and perform for the next five decades, eventually returning to Blue Note with the release of 2016’s Evolution. His last album was this year’s Breathe, which featured collaborations with Iggy Pop.
“Doc was a musical genius who possessed a deep, funky groove and a wry, playful spirit,” says collaborator and Blue Note president Don Was in a statement. “His mastery of the drawbars was equaled only by the warmth in his heart. He was a beautiful guy and all of us at Blue Note Records loved him a lot.”