James Oscar Smith was born on December 8th of either 1925 or 1928 in Norristown, PA. Smith grew up in a musical family and learned piano from both of his parents. When Jimmy was twelve years old he won a stride piano competition and worked professionally as a teen with his father as a song and dance duo. Smith went to the Navy and after discharge in 1947 was able to attend the Hamilton School of Music and the Ornstein’s School of Music in Philadelphia thanks to the GI Bill.
After school Jimmy Smith joined Din Gardner’s Sonotones and began to experiment with the Hammond B3 Organ. Smith heard Wild Bill Davis playing organ at Club Harlem in New Jersey and bought a Hammond B3 and warehouse space and went to the shed. Thought Davis inspired him to try out the organ, he was trying to emulate the sounds of Coleman Hawkins, Don Bias and Arnette Cobb on it. Jimmy says "I copped my solos from horn players. I don't listen to keyboard players. I can't get what I want from keyboard players." A few years later he brought his new sound to New York City and Smalls Paradise. Soon after Jimmy signed with Blue Note Records and appeared at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival. Smith’s first record on Blue Note, ‘A New Sound, a New Star: Jimmy Smith at the Organ’, did not disappoint. In his eight years with Blue Note, Smith recorded about 40 sessions for the label. Some other notable records from this time include ‘The Sermon’, ‘Midnight Special’ and ‘Back at the Chicken Shack’.
In 1962 Jimmy Smith signed with Verve Records and recorded his first album backed by a big band called ‘Bashin’. He also recorded ‘The Dynamic Duo’ with Wes Montgomery during this period as well as albums with guitar greats Kenny Burrell and George Benson. During the 1950s and ‘60s Smith also worked with Stanley Turrentine, Grant Green, Lee Morgan, Jackie McLean, Lou Donaldson and Donald Bailey. Smith toured throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s before opening up his own supper club in Los Angeles and moving there with his wife. In the 1980s Smith revived his career by making his first record in over ten years called ‘Off The Top’. He continued to tour in the ‘80s and ‘90s and during this period of his life he also played with Quincy Jones, Frank Sinatra, Michael Jackson, B.B. King, Etta Jones and Joey DeFrancesco. Jimmy’s final record was a duo with Joey DeFrancesco called ‘Legacy’ released in 2005 shortly after Smith’s passing.
In 2005, Smith was given the NEA Jazz Masters Award from the National Endowment for the Arts. Smith was by far the most influential jazz organ player in history and has changed the way every jazz musician will approach playing the organ.
"Jimmy was one of the greatest and most innovative musicians of our time. I love the man and I love the music.” – Joey DeFrancesco
“Three months. I was playing the organ for three months. It was a challenge for me in the beginning.”
“And then when I found my sound, it took me two and a half weeks to find my sound and when I did I pulled out all the stops, all the stops I could find.” – Jimmy Smith.
Jimmy Smith - The Sermon (1964)