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Influential Organ Player Dr. Lonnie Smith Has Died At Age 79

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The Hammond organ makes a singular jazz sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOU DONALDSON'S "ALLIGATOR BOGALOO")

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

And nobody rocked it harder than musician Lonnie Smith. He died this week at the age of 79 after a music career that spanned decades and inspired a new generation of musicians in a different genre.

FADEL: Smith learned to play music by ear as a teenager in the 1950s, but he didn't take up the organ until later, after a brief stint in the Air Force. In a 2013 interview with NPR, Dr. Smith, as he named himself, spoke about the first time his neighbors showed him how to use the instrument.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

LONNIE SMITH: And then I touched that organ. Oh, that felt so great. It felt really great to me. And I had heard organs in the churches, you know, and things like that and record store (ph). But that was the first time I ever touched it. I used to dream about the organ. It was me and as an extension of me. That's what the organ means to me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAPIRO: In 1964, Smith broke onto the scene making music with guitarist George Benson. It took only a few years for the influential label Blue Note to sign him. Within two years, he'd made five albums for the label, two of which earned spots on the Billboard charts.

FADEL: Even as the popularity of Smith's music faded, Smith continued to work and win awards. And some three decades after he burst on the scene, Smith's sound inspired an entirely different genre of music.

(SOUNDBITE OF A TRIBE CALLED QUEST SONG, "CAN I KICK IT?")

SHAPIRO: Hip-hop artists like A Tribe Called Quest have sampled bits of his music. And as Smith told NPR in that 2013 interview, it all came as a surprise.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ARUN RATH: You didn't know till you got the check?

SMITH: No, I did not. I did not. And you wonder sometime because I noticed that there would be people from my era and people from the young era at the same concert.

SHAPIRO: Generations of people enjoying the music of Hammond organ master Dr. Lonnie Smith.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.