Philly native a master of the Hammond B3
When the inventor Laurens Hammond was awarded the Franklin Institute’s John Price Wetherill Medal in 1940 for masterfully creating the Hammond electric organ, he probably could not have predicted that it would one day become central to the novel jazz-soul-funk sound of Jimmy Smith, the “incredible” African-American organist from Norristown.
After all, when Smith was only about 6 years old, HDPPRQG KDG LQ 1934 fiOHG a patent for the instrument, then uniquely capable of making a variety of musical sounds, with the help of an Episcopal organist back in Illinois, where he had by age 14, designed an automatic transmission for automobiles. In fact, Hammond was destined to invent a noiseless spring-driven clock, as well as an early form of 3D glasses and a “polyphonic” synthesizer, just several of the 90 patents KH fiOHG Ey WKH WLPH KH GLHG in 1973, according to a variety of online sources.
vet, one of his most extraordinary inventions that a young man, James lscar Smith, would fall in love with was the Hammond B3, an instrument that jazz impresario Fats Waller earlier mastered, according to The Washington Post. Smith, after discovering the instrument’s versatility, found an empty Philadelphia warehouse, according to sources, and was able to morph the B3’s sounds exponentially in a variety of heavenly ways that he once described as “thunder and lightning!”
The maturing young man, a genius in his own right, tapped into the Hammond’s deep core to create a new music genre with a spirit that could soothe, instigate and even inspire soulful joviality via unsurpassed keyboard dexterity. With KLV wKLUOLQJ fiQgers hitting the white and black keys, Smith could almost catch the HDPPRQG RQ fiUH.
Born Dec. 8, 1928, (depending on the source), Jimmy, at just 9 years old, entered and won a boogiewoogie piano contest hosted by a Philly radio station, a forecast of great things to come.
Eventually, Smith’s wizardry on the organ earned him the titles of “Emperor of the Hammond B-3 lrgan” and the “incredible Jimmy Smith,” as he created that new genre of music fusing elements of rhythmand-blues and jazz with a good dose of “funk.”
And although I had fumbled around on a multikeyboard organ as a gradeschool student at the nearby oowen Elementary in West lak Lane, where I took lessons after regular school hours during the mid-1960s, you can bet my sound was absolutely wretched compared to Jimmy Smith’s.
That dude was a National Endowment for the Arts’ Jazz Master, America’s “highest honor in jazz,” according to the Post, whose protégés included WKH PDJQLfiFHQW Jimmy Mcdriff and Joey DeFrancesco, both incorporating Smith’s up-tempo style at concerts as near as the Keswick Theater in dlenside.
After being discharged in 1947 from the Navy where he played the bass and piano, an instrument he learned from his father musician, Smith used the dI Bill to attend the renowned Hamilton and lrnstein music schools in Philly, focusing again on the bass and piano.
After hearing Wild Bill Davis playing, Smith was completely sold on the organ, permanently taking up that instrument in 1954. He’d start his own Philadelphia trio in 1955 before debuting at Club Bohemia and Birdland in New vork and eventually the Newport Jazz Festival.
It wasn’t long before Blue Note oecords’ Alfred Lion heard Smith playing in Philly and signed him, leading to the classic albums, “A New Star: Jimmy Smith at the lrgan” and “The Champ,” with Jimmy along the way picking up the title, “The Incredible Jimmy Smith.” He reportedly recorded 30 albums for Blue Note, leaving there in 1962. He then signed to the serve label, recording with the likes of deorge Benson, Stanley Turrentine, Lee Morgan, BB King and Etta James, just to name a few.
He collaborated too with such popular musicians as nuincy Jones, Frank Sinatra and Michael Jackson.
The martial-arts practitioner married his beloved wife, Lola, and they had several children, as well as opened a club in California before moving in 2004 to Scottsdale, Ariz., where she passed away.
Jimmy Smith was found lifeless by his manager, oobert Clayton, apparently dying in his sleep of “natural causes” on Feb. 8, 2005, wiping out plans to go on a national tour and promote a new album, “Legacy,” for Concord oecords.
The “Emperor” was enshrined at Merion Memorial Park cemetery in Bala Cynwyd, the same place where my maternal grandparents are resting, perhaps with a bit of toe-tapping and spirited organ jams to help pass the time away.
Don ‘Ogbewii’ Scott, a Melrose Park resident, can be reached at dscott9703@ aol.com.
A Place in History Donald Scott