Johnny "Hammond" Smith
When Johnny Hammond signed with Milestone Records in the summer of 1975, he was reuniting himself with his old record catalog. Except for the years 1971-75, Hammond recorded exclusively for Prestige and Riverside Records, under his real name, Johnny Smith. Johnny’s nickname was Hammond, named after the instrument he helped to popularize—the Hammond organ. There are currently eight albums by Johnny in the Prestige catalog.
"I dropped the Smith—not because I didn’t like the name, but because I got tired of being confused with Jimmy Smith. We’re both organists, and we’ve both made our mark on the music. It’s just that Johnny is too close to Jimmy—if you get what I mean!” Hammond smiles.
It should be stated that Hammond does not concentrate entirely on the organ. The truth is that Hammond is a total keyboard player. A good listen to Forever Taurus will afford one with a healthy dose of Hammond’s talents on the electric piano and the synthesizer.
Born John Robert Smith in Louisville, Kentucky, December 16, 1933, he has a mildly musical background: "My mother sang in the choir, my sister and others in the family were musical, but I’m the only one who became a professional.”
He studied piano at a local music school and—more valuably, he says—with a private teacher, Elizabeth Minnis.
"My influences were Charlie Parker, Dizzy, Bud Powell, Art Tatum—all the people who were really happening in the mid-1940s. I guess you could say I made my professional debut at 15. I had a buddy who also played piano, and we’d both slip into a little club down the street and take turns playing for whatever they’d put in the kitty.” Not long after that, Johnny joined a band led by Kenny Hale, a Kenton-style group. "Hale is a first cousin of Don DeMicheal, the critic who became editor of Down Beat; in fact, sometimes Don would sit in with us on drums.”
Smith was 18 when he left Louisville. For a while, he lived in Cleveland, playing with groups led by saxophonist Jimmy Hinsley and guitarist Willie Lewis.
Around the time he came of age, his ears were captivated by the sound of Wild Bill Davis, who had just begun to show the possibilities of transferring modern jazz sounds to the electric organ. Inspired by Davis, and also to some extent by Bill Doggett, Johnny gradually made the changeover from piano to organ himself.
"I was the first jazz organist in Cleveland—or, to put it another way, the first jazz musician in Cleveland even to own an organ. I began working around in small combos.
"Believe it or not, I was playing from the very start pretty much the way I’m playing now. I played single lines then, then built up to shout out-choruses with big chords and so forth, just the way I do today. The only difference at first was that I hadn’t turned the vibrato off the organ, whereas Jimmy Smith had. Later, around 1957, I began turning it off.”
Shortly after Hammond’s acquisition of an organ, Wild Bill Davis left the Chris Columbus group in which he had been working. Johnny got the job with Columbus and went almost immediately to New York. From that point on, he shuttled between New York and Cleveland as alternate homes.
In 1958, he had his first opportunity to extend his popularity through records. "I was working in Columbus, Ohio, with Nancy Wilson who was more or less unknown at that time. Some man came in, heard the group and offered us a contract. He said, ‘I’ll give that girl a deal, too.’ But Nancy said, ‘No, when I sign a contract, I’m going to sign with a big company.’ She was smart. Only a year later, she had a contract with Capitol.”
Johnny went ahead and recorded for the independent label. Soon afterward, in 1959, recommended by tenor saxophonist Eddie "Lockjaw” Davis, he was offered a deal with Prestige.
If the mid-Seventies are "the age of the synthesizer,” then the mid-Sixties were "the age of the organ.” Johnny Hammond helped make it happen.
During that time, he played in some of the more popular New York organ rooms, such as Count Basie’s, Minton’s, and the Shalimar. Whatever his claims about having played the same style all along, he certainly managed during those years to develop and strengthen the basic characteristics of his style.
Among the problems that seem to confine too many of the present-day school of organists is that they tend to work almost exclusively out of two alternating bags. One is the blues-funk-soul style, often with elaborate "look-ma-no-limit-to-the-notes-I-can-play” overtones. The other is a ballad approach that lapses all too often into virtual somnolence.
Johnny Hammond seems to have overcome these restrictions. Certainly he knows as well as anyone how to play on the audience’s emotions through an inspired and ingeniously planned crescendo, with admirable use of his not inconsiderable technique. But his uptempo and ballad performances seem to be all of a piece, products of the same inventive mind, rather than opposite musical poles.
In his albums, and in his performances, he invariably shows that harmonic ideation, rhythmic sensitivity, and melodic values can be applied to every number he plays.
"Can be applied” is the important phrase here, rather than "must be applied.” On some tunes, he hovers around a single chord for several minutes, without even bordering on monotony. On others, he concentrates on a display of his exceptional technical command of the console.
Gears, Hammond’s Milestone debut LP released late last year, was his second collaboration with producers Larry and Fonce Mizell. For this new LP, Forever Taurus, he teamed with top LA arranger Wade Marcus and they’ve come up with a very strong, commercial, danceable, musical album.
Johnny gets his music across to his audience—whether they’re sitting in their living rooms listening to an LP or in a nightclub or concert hall. Hammond’s virtuosity and talent cuts through every time—he plays with tremendous feeling, which is the very most that can be said about anyone!
Johnny "Hammond” Smith died June 4, 1997.