It’s unclear who gave Johnny “Hammond” Smith his middle nickname. In all likelihood, it was Smith himself, to ensure that no one confused him with Johnny Smith, the jazz guitarist. “Hammond” Smith was born in Louisville, Ky., in 1933 and began recording on the organ in the late 1950s, just after working as singer Nancy Wilson’s early club accompanist.
In the 1960s, Smith recorded steadily for Prestige as a sideman and leader, and in 1971 he signed with Creed Taylor’s Kudu label. Smith’s Break Out album in 1971 was Kudu’s first release. Then he recorded several significant albums for Milestone starting in the mid-1970s. During my many conversations with Creed over the years, I asked him about his affinity for Smith. Creed said he loved Smith’s soul and huge energy on the organ, likening it to a swinging freight train.
Smith’s sound certainly was robust. And funky. And hard-charging. You can hear his mounting intensity on virtually all of his albums—from All Soul (1959), his first Prestige date, to his CTI recordings and Gears (1975), a masterpiece on Milestone. Smith’s last recording was a live performance at the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago in May 1997. He died a month later at age 63.
Recently, I had an opportunity to ask Smith’s wife, Cheryl, about the organist and their special relationship [Photo above of Cheryl and Johnny Smith on their wedding day in July 1988, courtesy of Mrs. Cheryl Smith]…
JazzWax: Where and when did you and Johnny first meet?
Cheryl Smith: Johnny and I met in January 1988 at California Polytechnic State University. He was an artist-in-residence teaching several jazz classes. One of them was a class in jazz vocal stylings. He brought in Nancy Wilson to teach it with him. Can you imagine? They were great friends from the days before either of them had a record deal. I auditioned for the class and got in.
JW: What did you sing?
CS: I sang a song called Love Dance, and it was just me, with Johnny accompanying and Nancy listening. I brought a lead sheet, but he hated to sight-read. It was quite funny, because he was struggling with the chart I gave him. Thankfully, Nancy knew the song and somewhat directed Johnny. It made me feel better because I thought he might blow the audition for me. I was so nervous. But it all worked out. During the semester, Johnny liked my vocal style, and a month into the class he started coaching me. I was the vocalist in a band he put together. We performed at a couple of concerts at Cal Poly and at a couple clubs in L.A. Norman Brown was the guitarist. Johnny was working on getting him noticed by people in the record industry. [Photo above of Johnny “Hammond” Smith at Cal Poly University, courtesy of Cheryl Smith]
JW: When did your relationship turn romantic?
CS: Over the months that followed, we grew closer and began dating. We were married in July 1988. There was a 30-year difference between us. After we were married, we lived in Ontario, Calif., and moved the following year to Hesperia.
JW: Just curious, how did that class work with Nancy?
CS: Each week, Students selected a song and worked on it with Johnny during the week. Then we performed the song for Nancy the following week. I was critiqued by her twice in the class. Then there was a big concert at the end of the semester. At the concert, I sang Quiet Fire, a song Johnny had written for me. The concert was amazing. So many people were there. When Nancy heard me sing the song, she wanted to record it and did. It was the single off of her Nancy Now album in 1988.
JW: Where did Johnny learn to play the organ? In church in Kentucky?
CS: Actually, Johnny taught himself to play. He grew up in a family that didn’t have much money, but he had a heart for music. He practiced constantly and learned to mimic other artists by listening to their records and slowing them down on the turntable. He did this for hours a day. In fact, the part of his family’s house where the piano was had no heat. During the winter, he’d put on an overcoat and a hat and wear gloves with the finger tips cut off so he could still practice.
JW: What was he like as a person?
CS: Johnny was passionate about everything. He was diligent, worked hard and was a master of his craft. He would do anything for his family. He spent long hours working in our home studio recording and writing. He kept a diary and always spent time reading the Bible and praying each evening. [Photo above of Cheryl and Johnny Smith with their children, from left, Kristia, Mandela and Kenyatta, courtesy of Cheryl Smith]
JW: What family event stands out?
CS: Just before bedtime, we had a ritual. After our three kids had their baths and were ready for bed, we would all sit in my oldest son’s room on the floor with the kids either in our laps or just in a circle. We’d sing Sunday school songs, clapping to the beat. We did the same ones each night, so they’d learn how they went and they’d remember the order. Then we would have prayer. After that, they would each go to their rooms, and we would alternate saying goodnight to each one of them. It was a very special time for all of us. He was a very good dad.
JW: From your perspective, how does his organ differ from so many other jazz organists of the period?
CS: Johnny was a killer when it came to making an entrance into a song. He always was “big” in his playing. But his ballads were what set him apart from the others. He could play in a way that made you feel he was telling a story, but without the words. His phrasing was amazing. Not only was he influential in the artistry of organists, but he played a huge role in the careers and styles of other jazz musicians. He told me that a young Tony Williams came over to his house in the late ’50s to understand how to play jazz time on the drums. Johnny introduced Tony to unconventional time signatures, like 5/4 and 7/4. Johnny loved going against the grain, and this is what placed him one step ahead of other organists.
JW: Did Johnny play the organ at home?
CS: He did from time to time, and it was always exciting. He loved the instrument. When he played, it was for his own enjoyment. What he played most of the time, though, was his Fender Rhodes electric piano. That was his baby when it came to writing. He spent long hours at the Rhodes working out ideas for his next recording project.
JW: Did his organ playing ever make you want to learn?
CS: No. I just sat in awe and appreciation of his talent and passion for playing. What it did create in me was a greater love of his music and of him. It also made me more aware of my own talents and instilled in me my own drive and determination to excel as a songwriter. He taught me to think beyond the obvious and to take chances in life when it came to my own abilities. He was truly a teacher in all aspects of life and always loved to share his knowledge and life’s lessons.
JW: Which artist introduced to you by Johnny excited you most?
CS: Nancy, of course, but Grover Washington Jr., too. As you may know, Johnny brought him to CTI/Kudu. He wanted to use Grover on Break Out, his first album for the label. Producer Creed Taylor thought a bigger-name saxophonist like Hank Crawford might be a better bet in terms of visibility and radio airplay. They went back and forth, and finally Creed agreed, provided Hank was used as well. Johnny agreed. That was the start of Grover’s career at CTI. Johnny pushed for him.
JW: When did you first meet Grover?
CS: In the late 1980s, shortly after Johnny and I were married, Grover called to let Johnny know that he was going to be in L.A. performing at the Hollywood Bowl and wanted to know if we’d like to come see him. So Johnny and I, along with my parents, went to the show. The show was great. Then after the show, Johnny and I went back to see Grover in his dressing room. This the first time I met Grover. He was very kind. At one point, Grover and Johnny were laughing and joking with each other. Then Johnny told Grover he needed to tell him something.
JW: What did he say?
CS: Johnny pulled him over to the side and whispered in his ear, “We just found out Cheryl’s pregnant.” Johnny was so happy and proud. I had just found out the day before. I didn’t know what Johnny was saying at that moment, but it was obvious when Grover started grabbing Johnny, hugging him and laughing with joy. The two of them came over to where I was standing and Grover put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Cheryl, you have to promise me one thing. Please send me a video of this old man running down the street trying to teach this kid how to ride a bike. He won’t be able to run two steps I’ll bet.” The two of the them loved to tease each other. Johnny said playfully, “Shut up, man. I’m not that old.” Of course all kidding aside, Grover was very excited for us, and Johnny was so proud, telling everyone we were expecting. [Photo above at the moment Johnny “Hammond” Smith told Grover Washington Jr., right, that Cheryl Smith was expecting; photo courtesy of Cheryl Smith]
JW: And that video?
CS: Fast forward some six years. Johnny was teaching our oldest how to ride a bike, running down the street holding the back of the bike seat to keep him balanced. I shot the video and sent Grover a copy. He absolutely loved it.
What’s Goin’ On (1971). The title song is one of my favorites, and I love his approach and rendition.
Gears (1975), especially Los Conquistadores Chocolatés. I love this era of Johnny’s music. The funk is awesome, and his playing is incredible.
Higher Ground (1987), especially his Big Sur Suite, which has been sampled by many artists, including Dr. Dre, Black Sheep and the Beastie Boys.
Have You Heard (1958). Johnny was young and hungry then. You could hear that in his music. It was a young Johnny, untainted by the business, just raw talent. His rendition of Imagination always left me speechless. It was so pure, and I just loved it and still do.
JW: You met Johnny in 1988 and married the same year. How did you know he was the one?
CW: I was only 18 when we met, but I was very mature, having been an only child and raised by parents who were very open and honest about life. They expected a lot from me in terms of being a responsible person. When I heard on the radio about the class Nancy was teaching, I knew I had to audition. It was right up my alley. So off I went, and when I made it into the class, I was overjoyed. [Photo above of the Smith siblings today—from left, Mandela, Kristia and Kenyatta, all in their 20s, courtesy of Cheryl Smith]
It seemed that Johnny was the one who knew I was “the one.” I was clueless. I just wanted to sing. It’s actually funny now, looking back on it. One thing I did know was that our relationship was growing and I liked it. I just went with the flow. He was very kind and considerate, and always made me feel safe, as though there was nothing in life standing in the way of me doing whatever it was I wanted to do.
After many long conversations, we married. We hardly argued. I had to learn what it was to be married, and once I got that, the rest was a breeze. Then came kids, life and Johnny’s cancer. That was a tough one. I didn’t see that coming. But I did know that I was supposed to work through it. That’s what married couples do. They pull their socks up and deal with it. And we did, together and with faith in God. It was hard, sure, but we were together and our children were great kids. I learned a lot in the nine years we were married. I’ve often said to myself that life with Johnny was preparation for life without him.
JazzWax clips: Here’s Smith playing Goin’ Places…
Here’s A Portrait of Jennie…
Here’s Opus de Funk, with Freddie McCoy on vibes…
Here’s What’s Goin’ On, with Grover Washington, Jr. on tenor saxophone, before he recorded Inner City Blues (CTI)…
And here’s It’s Too Late from Break Out, with Hank Crawford and Grover Washington Jr. on saxophones…
JazzWax notes. Cheryl Smith is undertaking a funding campaign to raise money to release Johnny’s previously unissued recordings. Go here.
Also, Cheryl recently wrote a whimsical book on the connection between women’s psyches and their choice of panties. Go here.
Cheryl will soon release a book of Johnny’s journals. As Cheryl notes, “You’ll discover that Johnny was truly a forward thinking person and very much in touch with himself and the world.”
Finally, Cheryl uploaded Johnny playing and singing The Days of Wine and Roses, which he recorded while “messing around” in his home studio…