Artist Biography by Mark Deming
Jimmy Smith wasn’t the first organ player in jazz, but no one had a greater influence with the instrument than he did; Smith coaxed a rich, grooving tone from the Hammond B-3, and his sound and style made him a top instrumentalist in the 1950s and ’60s, while a number of rock and R&B keyboardists would learn valuable lessons from Smith’s example.
James Oscar Smith was born in Norristown, Pennsylvania on December 8, 1928 (some sources cite his birth year as 1925). Smith’s father was a musician and entertainer, and young Jimmy joined his song-and-dance act when he was six years old. By the time he was 12, Smith was an accomplished stride piano player who won local talent contests, but when his father began having problems with his knee and gave up performing to work as a plasterer, Jimmy quit school after eighth grade and began working odd jobs to help support the family. At 15, Smith joined the Navy, and when he returned home, he attended music school on the GI Bill, studying at the Hamilton School of Music and the Ornstein School, both based in Philadelphia.
The Incredible Jimmy Smith at Club Baby Grand, Vol. 1
In 1951, Smith began playing with several R&B acts in Philadelphia while working with his father during the day, but after hearing pioneering organ player Wild Bill Davis, Smith was inspired to switch instruments. Smith bought a Hammond B-3 organ and set up a practice space in a warehouse where he and his father were working; Smith refined the rudiments of his style over the next year (informed more closely by horn players than other keyboard artists, and employing innovative use of the bass pedals and drawbars), and he began playing Philadelphia clubs in 1955. In early 1956, Smith made his New York debut at the legendary Harlem nightspot Small’s Paradise, and Smith was soon spotted by Alfred Lion, who ran the well-respected jazz label Blue Note Records. Lion signed Smith to a record deal, and between popular early albums such as The Incredible Jimmy Smith at Club Baby Grand and The Champ and legendary appearances at New York’s Birdland and the Newport Jazz Festival, Smith became the hottest new name in jazz.
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