Success takes the right people, with the right skills, at the right time and the right place. You can’t copy or replicate success.
And so it was that in 1965, having left Jack McDuff’s Quartet, George Benson set out on his own. Benson hired Buffalo NY native, Lonnie Smith to play organ in his quartet, along with Ronnie Cuber on baritone saxophone, and Jimmy Lovelace on drums.
Within 2-years, both Benson and Smith had been signed to leader contracts with Columbia Records. Their break came when doing live sets, Benson was introduced by Harlem comedian Timmy Roger, to producer and activist John HammondJohn Hammond (record producer) – Wikipedia.
While still under contract to Columbia, both Benson and Smith would play with Lou Donaldson on his self-penned, 1967, smash hit “Alligator Bogaloo“Lou Donaldson – Alligator Bogaloo | Releases | Discogs. Along with Benson and Smith, joining them was little known drummer, Leo Morris, who would later become Idris Muhammad. The result, a classic R&B style jazz album which would include the Smith penned “Aw Shucks“, which gave Smith, Benson, Donaldson and Melvin Lastie the opportunity to lay out what some 40-years later be totally recognized as acid-jazz.
In the years between 1967 and 1971, Lonnie Smith would record a number of albums for Blue NoteLonnie Smith | Discography | Discogs. Their combined success lead them both to Creed Taylor, Benson in 1968 for A&M/CTI and Smith in 1971 for CTI/KUDU.
While Benson’s best was yet to come, Smith, despite his funky, post bebop R&B style had a problem, the Hammond Organ was becoming a legacy sound, old-fashioned in 1971. Electronic music, mostly guitar but increasingly combo organs were exploding across the genres, especially in rock and pop, Smith’s sound was out of place. In many ways, the Hammond Organ was at the heart of jazz’s perception problem when Creed Taylor started CTI in 1970.
Lonnie Smith’s only Creed Taylor produced album was the little known, even today, “Mama Wailer“. From that album, the breakout track was the title track, a heavy funk/R&B style jazz featured both Smith on clavinet and vocals. Surprisingly, the album didn’t include George Benson, instead Robert Lowe would feature on electric guitar, as well as Billy Cobham – drums, Airto – percussion and the omnipresent Ron Carter on bass. On, sax, including the solo on “Mama Wailer” was Marvin Cabell, with Dave Hubbard also on tenor sax.
The “Mama Wailer” recording sessions were in July 1971. Grover Washington Jr. wouldn’t recorded his first KUDU album, “Inner City Blues” until September 1971. However, this was his chance to shine, Grover arranged all the tracks, and demonstrated his agility by playing flute as well as the sax’ we would come to know him for.
While the track “Mama Wailer” wasn’t recorded until 1971, Lonnie Smith actually wrote and copyright the track in 1967. According to the 1967 Musical Copyright listing index it was copyright © Roosevelt Music Co. Inc. on 29th May 1967Catalog of Copyright Entries – Google Books.
Of course, 1967 was the same year of Lonnie’s first album as a leader for Columbia “Finger Lickin’ Good“, and the same time he wrote “Aw Shucks” for Lou Donaldson.
It wasn’t until 1975 that Smith would re-appear, releasing the seminal dance music classic “Afro-desia“. Initially the album, released on Sonny Lester’s independent Groove Merchant label appeared to have a totally different artist lineup with the exception of Ron Carter. However, it soon becomes obvious that here again is longtime collaborator George Benson. Listed on the credits simply as “Compliments of A Friend”, presumably for legal/contractual reasons. The title track, Afrodesia (minus the hyphen) had a clear lineage from Mama Wailer, and is a 9+ minute hypnotic dance track which mixes latin and fusion with R&B.
Over the years, Afro-desia has been released many times, in many formats, which variously are album releases, or compilations of work done after the Afro-Desia sessions for Groove Merchant. and Lester Radio Corp. (LRC) both of which were Sonny Lester labels at the time. Many of the releases included the same original artwork from Afro-Desia, but contained only two tracks from the album. The same albums variously named the track “Favors” flavors. One of the original vinyl pressings was also missing the vocal track from the title track which completely changes the tracks appeal.
The compilation albums combine tracks from two albums, the original, and the LRC 1977 album, Funk Reaction. The current version of the album available for streaming(Apple, Tidal, Spotify etc.) is probably the best musically of all the Afro-Desia/Afrodesia release. Most confusing though it includes includes the track “It’s Changed” which is classic Benson-style guitar, but played by Richie Hohenberger. This would confuse most people, since the cover has George Benson’s name on it.
The one to avoid though is the non-USA 1979 release “Lonnie Smith”Lonnie Smith – Lonnie Smith | Releases | Discogs. Initially again appears a different album. It is essentially the original album with tracks with new names, cast onto vinyl minus the 15-minute “Spirits Free” track. Confusing or what?
Smith again stopped doing headline recording until the mid-90’s when his back was adopted by the then Acid Jazz movement. The electrification of music was here to stay, and nostalgia for Smith’s sound made him popular again. He continued to record and perform/tour as a sideman even up until recently.
Perhaps one of the enduring examples of Dr Lonnie Smith and his classic Hammond Organ sound come from the 2021 Blue Note CD, “Breathe“. It’s a majority live album, but contains a great cover of Timmy Thomas hit “Why Can’t We Live Together”, with vocals from non-other than Iggy Pop.
The other track on the album with Iggy Pop, a cover of Donovan’s sixties hit, “Sunshine Superman” is to be avoided at all cost.
Doug Payne has a great review of Dr. Lonnie Smith’s recording, and the significance of “Mama Wailer” and is recommended readingLONNIE SMITH: MAMA WAILER (dougpayne.com).
Dr Lonnie Smith transitioned on 28th September, another farewell, but not goodbye.
Sept. 29th, 2021 11pm – Added copyright entry detail, plus Record World review image.