Jimmy Smith’s father had a song-and-dance act in the local clubs, so it was perhaps no surprise that as a young boy he took to the stage at six years old. Less usual though was that by the age twelve, he had taught himself, with occasional guidance from Bud Powell who lived nearby, to be an accomplished “Harlem Stride” pianist. He won local talent contests with his boogie-woogie piano playing and his future seemed set, but his father became increasingly unable to play and turned to manual labour for income. Smith left school to help support the family and joined the Navy when he was fifteen years old.
With financial assistance from the G.I. Bill of Rights, set up in 1944 to support Second World War veterans rehabilitate, Smith was able to return to school in 1948, this time studying bass at the Hamilton School of Music in Philadelphia, and a year later, piano, theory and harmony at the Leo Ornstein School of Music. At this point he was juggling school with working with his father and playing piano with several different R&B groups. It was in 1953 while playing piano with Don Gardener’s Sonotones that Smith heard Wild Bill Davis playing a Hammond organ and was inspired to switch to the electric organ.
His timing could not have been more perfect. As a kickback against the cool school, jazz was returning to its roots, leaning heavily on the blues and gospel that infused Smith’s upbringing. At the time, Laurens Hammond was improving his Hammond organ model A first introduced in 1935 by refining the specifications and downsizing it from two keyboards and an excess of foot pedals and drawbars, to the sleeker, more sophisticated B3 design.
Smith got his first B3 in 1953 and soon devised ways to navigate the complex machine: ‘When I finally got enough money for a down payment on my own organ I put it in a warehouse and took a big sheet of paper and drew a floor plan of the pedals. Anytime I wanted to gauge the spaces and where to drop my foot down on which pedal, I’d look at the chart. Sometimes I would stay there four hours or maybe all day long if I’d luck up on something and get some new ideas using different stops.’
Developing his playing style independent from any outside influence, by cutting himself off from the outside world for three months, was perhaps the key to his singular success. His technique, steeped in the gospel tradition, with rapid runs across the keyboard using the palm of his hand and quirky use of the pedals to punch out entire bass lines, was like nothing ever heard before; there is not a single organist since that does not acknowledge a debt to the incredible Jimmy Smith.
Smith began playing Philadelphia clubs in that same year, taking in a young John Coltrane for a short two-week stint at Spider Kelly’s. Coltrane remembers: ‘It was Jimmy Smith for about a couple of weeks before I went with Miles [Davis] – the organist. Wow! I’d wake up in the middle of the night, man, hearing that organ. Yeah, those chords screaming at me.’
Shortly afterwards, Smith left Philly behind, heading for his debut on the New York scene. From his first gig in Harlem, it was patently obvious that this was something quite new, and it was not long before his novelty was attracting considerable attention, not least from the Blue Note label owner Alfred Lion, who had no hesitation in offering him a record deal. Smith recorded his own organ trio for Blue Note that very same year, scoring an instant success with the presciently titled A New Sound… A New Star… This launched Smith’s hugely successful career, and gave Blue Note a much-needed income from a steady stream of albums over the next seven years.
Smith’s Blue Note sessions partnered him with Kenny Burrell, Art Blakey, Lee Morgan, Lou Donaldson, Stanley Turrentine, Jackie McLean and many others. His debut for Blue Note was A New Sound… A New Star… Jimmy Smith at the Organ, Volume 1 in 1956, followed by Volume 2 the same year. Other highlights of his time with the label included Groovin’ at Small’s Paradise (1957), Back At The Chicken Shack (1960) and Prayer Meetin’ (1963).
Jimmy Smith moved to Verve in 1962 where he immediately released a critical and commercial success in the form of Bashin’: The Unpredictable Jimmy Smith, which included the hit track “Walk On The Wild Side”. A song written by Elmer Bernstein, it was the title track to a movie. The album benefited greatly from the arranging skills of Oliver Nelson and “Walk On The Wild Side” made No. 21 on the Billboard pop chart and was the biggest hit of his career.
Bashin’… made No. 10 in the album charts, and for the next four years his albums rarely failed to chart. Among his biggest successes were Hobo Flats (1964), Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf (1964), The Cat (1964), Organ Grinder Swing (1965) and Jimmy & Wes – The Dynamic Duo (1967).
Following the last of a series of European tours in 1966, 1972 and 1975, rather than continuing to travel to play, Smith chose to settle down with his wife in the mid-1970s and run a supper club in California’s San Fernando Valley. Despite his regular performances, the club failed after only a few years, forcing a return to recording and frequent festival appearances, albeit not to the kind of acclaim that he had received previously.
In fact, it wasn’t until the late 1980s that Smith produced several well-reviewed albums. He also received recognition for a series of live performances with fellow organ virtuoso Joey DeFrancesco, and his reinvigorated profile even led producer Quincy Jones to invite him to play on the sessions for Michael Jackson’s album Bad in 1987; Smith plays the funky B3 solo on the title track. At the other end of the pop spectrum, he played on Frank Sinatra’s L.A. Is My Lady album in 1984 produced by Quincy Jones.
As his reputation grew again, Smith toured afar, playing with small groups in Japan, Europe and the United States, helped by hip-hop DJs spreading his name by samplingSmith’s funky organ grooves, exposing him to a new generation of fans through the Beastie Boys, Nas, Gang Starr, Kool G Rap and DJ Shadow. Returning to Verve in 1995, Smith recorded the albums Damn! and Dot Com Blues in 2001, featuring legendary R&B stars, including Etta James, B. B. King, Keb’ Mo’, and Dr. John.
After moving to Scottsdale, Arizona, Smith died in 2005, less than a year after his wife. His final recording, Legacy with Joey DeFrancesco, was released posthumously. DeFrancesco dedicated the album, ‘To the master, Jimmy Smith—One of the greatest and most innovative musicians of all time.’ It’s time for a reappraisal of The Incredible Jimmy Smith who did as much to popularize jazz as almost any of his contemporaries. He broke down the barriers between the genres to get people listening.
Compared to his earlier Blue Note recordings, organist Jimmy Smith's outings for Verve are not as strong from a jazz standpoint. Certainly his renditions of the "Theme from Joy House," "The Cat," and the "Main Title from The Carpetbaggers" are not all that significant. However, this set has some tasteful arrangements for the big band by Lalo Schifrin, and some good playing by the great organist on a variety of other blues-oriented material. Also, the combination of organ with a big band is sometimes quite appealing, making this album worth picking up despite its commercial focus.
Words: Scott Yanow
“Scintillating”, is the best way to describe Jimmy Smith’s Hammond B-3 sound for this live set; staccato crispness embellished with soaring accented notes. Choppy, attacking but groovy licks glide across the keyboard, like a puck on ice, while the bass machinery in his organ oscillates and throbs. It’s heated, but very cool. A perfect companion for Eddie McFadden’s warm, bluesy tone and Donald Bailey’s plump drumming. Given Smith’s outlandish, funeral parlour playing on “My Funny Valentine”, a marriage made in Heaven might not be too far wrong. A technical note: something was either amiss with the Hammond’s harmonic percussion switch, or Smith deliberately varied his typical settings, hence the particularly harsh sound, and lack of percussive growl accompanying his notes on that night. Different to the running order on the original album, “Imagination" is a surprisingly slow piece to open the CD version, however, it is classy, and the pace is soon stepped up for the mid- tempo swinger “Walkin’”. The deranged, Wurlitzer-like introduction to “I Can't Give You Anything But Love” is alone worth seeking out the reissue, its “out there”-ness transcended perhaps only by the wild, akimbo paying on “Slightly Monkish”, which is indeed Monk-ish. Very highly recommended.
Words: Julian Derry
Back at the Chicken Shack is one of organist Jimmy Smith's classic Blue Note sessions, and the first to draw attention to tenor saxophonist Stanley Turrentine. Recorded in 1960 with Kenny Burrell on guitar, Donald Bailey on drums, and Turrentine, the group reaches the peak of funky soul jazz that all other challengers of the genre would have to live up to. Included on this uptempo session is a reworking of "When I Grow Too Old to Dream" (a feature for Turrentine), Turrentine's "Minor Chant," two Smith compositions, "Messy Bessie" as well as the set's notable title cut. Smith's Midnight Special album was recorded at these same sessions, and is also exceptional.
Words: Al Campbell
Creed Taylor matched two of his most famous artists, Wes Montgomery and Jimmy Smith, on this session (Montgomery's last for Verve), and the results are incendiary -- a near-ideal meeting of yin and yang. Smith comes at your throat with his big attacks and blues runs while Montgomery responds with rounder, smoother octaves and single notes that still convey much heat. They are an amazing pair, complementing each other, driving each other, using their bop and blues taproots to fuse together a sound. The romping, aggressive big band charts -- Oliver Nelson at his best -- on "Down by the Riverside" and "Night Train," and the pungently haunting chart for Gary McFarland's "13" (Death March)" still leave plenty of room for the soloists to stretch out. "James and Wes" and "Baby, It's Cold Outside" include drummer Grady Tate and conguero Ray Barretto, with Smith's own feet working the organ pedals. The Verve Master Edition reissue also includes an alternate take of "O.G.D." with Tate and Barretto, a track previously surfacing on a long-gone Encyclopedia of Jazz anthology LP from the '60s -- a neat bonus that makes this the preferred version.
Words: Richard S. Ginell
The Hammond B-3 organ wasn't a major instrument in the world of jazz before Jimmy Smith got hold of it. Smith's rich, blues-influenced style, which owed as much to horn players as other keyboard artists, was unique when he rose to fame in the '50s, and he became a favorite with jazz fans as well as the general listening public, scoring a hit single in 1963 with the song "Walk on the Wild Side." Though much of Smith's best known work was recorded for the influential jazz label Blue Note Records, he was signed to Verve Records from 1963 to 1972, and came back to the label in 1995; this volume in the Verve Ultimate Cool series features a dozen selections from Smith's Verve catalog, including "Walk on the Wild Side." This may not be Smith at his very best, but it's certainly representative of his work for Verve, and this is cool, soulful, groove jazz suitable for parties at your swinging bachelor pad, with Smith winding his way through a set of standards ("Satin Doll," "Blues in the Night"), contemporary hits ("Satisfaction," "This Guy's in Love with You"), and tunes of his own ("Stay Loose"). As an introduction to the hip, happening world of Jimmy Smith, Verve Ultimate Cool isn't perfect -- a cross-licensed sampler featuring highlights from his Blue Note and Verve catalogs would be ideal -- but what's here is great music, bold and engaging, and the remastering sounds fine, making this a fun sampler for fans and not a bad way for beginners to get a taste of his work.
Words: Mark Deming
The debut of organist Jimmy Smith on records (he was already 30) was a major event, for he introduced a completely new and very influential style on the organ, one that virtually changed the way the instrument is played. This LP features the already-recognizable organist in a trio with guitarist Thornel Schwartz and Bay Perry on drums. Highlights of this very impressive debut include "The Way You Look Tonight," "Lady Be Good" and Horace Silver's "The Preacher." Blue Note in 1997]
Words: Scott Yanow
Midnight Special is a perfect complement to Back at the Chicken Shack, which was recorded the same day. Organist Jimmy Smith, tenor saxophonist Stanley Turrentine, and guitarist Kenny Burrell always make for a potent team, and with drummer Donald Bailey completing the group, the quartet digs soulfully into such numbers as the groovin' "Midnight Special," "Jumpin' the Blues," and "One O'Clock Jump." Highly recommended.
Words: Scott Yanow
Most of organist Jimmy Smith's recordings for Verve during the mid-to-late '60s were with big bands, making this trio outing with guitarist Kenny Burrell and drummer Grady Tate a special treat. This CD reissue is a throwback to Smith's Blue Note sets (which had concluded two years earlier) and gives the organists the opportunity to stretch out on three blues and three standards. This release shows that, even with all of his commercial success during the period, Jimmy Smith was always a masterful jazz player.
Words: Scott Yanow
Of all of organist Jimmy Smith's big-band albums recorded for Verve, this is one of the most imaginative ones. Oliver Nelson arranged a variety of themes from Prokofiev's Peter & the Wolf into a swinging suite featuring the great organist Jimmy Smith. Although there is no verbal narrative on this LP, Nelson's liner notes tell the story (which can actually be followed through the music) and Smith pays respect to the original melodies while making strong statements of his own. A classic of its kind.
Words: Scott Yanow
Smith recorded most of his most popular sides for Verve, and this double CD contains 25 tracks taken from his recordings for the label between 1962 and 1973, in both small-combo and big-band settings. There are a few Jimmy Smith compilations out there, and this isn't necessarily the best; anthologies that focus on his early and mid-'60s prime might be better values overall. It does have his most famous performances -- "Walk on the Wild Side," "Got My Mojo Working," and a couple of his great duets with guitarist Wes Montgomery. It's a decent enough pickup if you just want one or two Smith albums for your library, though not so definitive that it's worth getting if you already have some Smith compilations that cover the Verve era.
Words: Richie Unterberger