The blues have always been a strong strain in the music of Jimmy Smith. Yet for Sum Serious Blues, his third album for the Milestone label, the world’s foremost jazz organist digs into an especially deep blues bag. It marks a reunion between Smith and producer-arranger Johnny Pate, who last collaborated on a 1970 ballad album for MGM entitled The Other Side of Jimmy Smith. Pate, long based in Chicago and currently living in Las Vegas, knows more than a thing or two about the blues, having crafted hit records over the years for such artists as B.B. King, Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, Peabo Bryson, Shirley Horn, and Ruth Brown.
Pate’s meaty horn charts on Sum Serious Blues surround the B-3 master with a power reminiscent of Smith’s groundbreaking 1962 Bashin’ album with arranger Oliver Nelson (the one that yielded the hit “Walk on the Wild Side”), yet have a more intimate quality, somewhat akin to that of the old Ray Charles small band. Besides Smith’s no-nonsense, intensely swinging organ work, the album features biting improvisations by two of his regular cohorts—tenor saxophonist Herman Riley and guitarist Philip Upchurch—and guest vocals by Marlena Shaw and Benard Ighner. In her sassy monologue and heartfelt vocal on “You’ve Changed,” Shaw places her distinctive stamp on the Billie Holiday-associated ballad. She returns to duet with Ighner (best known as the composer of the contemporary standard “Everything Must Change”) for a compellingly playful reading of the blues “(I’d Rather) Drink Muddy Water.”
The album also marks Smith’s debut as a serious blues singer. He’d applied his gravelly voice to the blues in the past, on such recordings as “Hoochie Coochie Man” and “Got My Mojo Working,” but those were treated more as novelty numbers. For the new album’s “Hurry Change, If You’re Comin’,” a bluesy ballad previously recorded by Ruth Brown, he emerges as a vocal stylist of considerable warmth and conviction. Whether or not this performance will launch a new career for Smith as a singer remains to be seen. “Maybe I’ll have to start carrying throat spray to the gigs,” quips Lola Smith, his wife and manager. Jimmy Smith continues, however, to be the undisputed heavyweight champ of the jazz organ.
The Hammond B-3 organ, the instrument whose role in modern jazz was single-handedly defined by Smith, was the subject of much derision by jazz critics during its peak of popularity in the Sixties. It subsequently fell from fashion to the extent that the Hammond Organ Company even stopped manufacturing the model. Yet by the late Eighties, the B-3 had come back into vogue and achieved a new level of respectability in straight-ahead jazz circles, as well as in the blossoming British “acid jazz” scene. Jimmy McGriff, Charles Earland, and other Smith-influenced organists who had turned to synthesizers during the Seventies are again grinding at their B-3s and enjoying renewed success. Now, with his Milestone recordings, the father of ’em all is back at the head of the B-3 class.
Born on December 8, 1928 in Norristown, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia, James Oscar Smith was self-taught on piano and string bass and never learned how to read music. “When you’ve got a gift from God, you don’t need that,” he explains. He was playing the “William Tell Overture” at age seven and, two years later, won the nationally broadcast Major Bowes Amateur Hour playing boogie-woogie.
“I went there to blow everybody away,” he says of the Major Bowes show. “I’ve had this attitude since I found out I could play. My mother didn’t have to tell me to get up there. I’d walk up to the piano and just start playing.”
In 1942, Smith teamed up with his father in a song-and-dance routine around Philadelphia. After a stint in the Navy during World War II, he returned home, plastering houses with his father during the week and playing piano with local groups on weekends. A proliferation of out-of-tune and broken pianos in nightclubs caused his to consider taking up the electric organ.
Smith bought his first organ in 1953 following an encounter with Wild Bill Davis, one of several former swing-era pianists (including Bill Doggett and Milt Buckner) who had begun to popularize the organ in jazz during the later Forties and early Fifties. Smith met Davis at a club in Atlantic City.
“He told me that it would take me four years just to learn the [foot] pedals alone,” Smith recalls. “It was a challenge.” Smith practiced secretly in a warehouse for four months, then returned to see Davis. “I was like a maniac,” he remembers. “I was like Glenn Ford in The Fastest Gun Alive. I went down to hunt for Wild Bill Davis.
“I’m playing like Bud [Powell] in my left hand and throwing some Bird licks on him. Then I showed him how to play brass the real way—full brass, not just one hand.”
Smith landed a gig at the nearby Cotton Club in Atlantic City three days later. Forming his own trio, he signed a contract with Blue Note Records in 1954 and went on to record such popular titles as “The Sermon,” “Midnight Special,” and “Back at the Chicken Shack” for the company. The first musician to translate the language of modern jazz to the organ, Smith became an immediate sensation and went on to influence an entire generation of organists.
He enjoyed much mass popularity during the Sixties when he recorded for Verve Records with Creed Taylor as his producer. Smith’s smoldering treatment of the Elmer Bernstein movie theme, “Walk on the Wild Side,” was a Top 40 hit in 1962 and was soon followed by “Hoochie Coochie Man” featuring his distinctively gruff vocals. Smith’s popularity was so huge that Down Beat magazine introduced the organ category to its readers’ poll in 1964. Smith has won every year since by a two-to-one margin.
On albums for Mercury and his own Mojo label, Smith dabbled in synthesizers and electric piano but never left the straight-ahead B-3 jazz featured on mid-Eighties albums for the short-lived Elektra Musician label and the reactivated Blue Note company. “The synthesizers and all that junk were coming in a few years ago,” he explains, “but now the people want pure jazz.”
Smith signed with Quincy Jones’s Qwest label in 1984. Although Jones used the organ master on two diverse sessions—Frank Sinatra’s L.A. Is My Lady and Michael Jackson’s Bad—he never found time in his busy schedule to produce a Jimmy Smith album. His Qwest contract finally expired, Smith joined the Fantasy/Prestige/Milestone/Stax family and cut Prime Time, the first in his series of Milestone albums.
After being based for many years in Southern California, Jimmy and Lola Smith purchased a 12-and-a-half acre estate near Nashville during the late Eighties, but have since relocated to Northern California, for proximity to his record company and band members, as well as to afford him the chance to tutor other musicians. There was also the matter of weather. “They said it never snows [in Nashville],” he explains. “Jimmy Smith moves there and they have a blizzard. So I had to come back to California.”
And back, of course, to classic B-3 form and down with Sum Serious Blues.
Jimmy Smith died February 8, 2005.