You may notice that the contestants in the last SMACKDOWN of 2010 have very similar names. In fact, keyboardists Dr. Lonnie Smith and Lonnie Liston Smith are often mistaken for one another, given their similar styles and the coincidental timing of their successful careers. Just yesterday I credited a track by Dr. Lonnie Smith to Lonnie Liston Smith, and I’m supposed to know what I’m doing.
If you are a baseball fan, you may be disappointed that we’re not going to include journeyman outfielder and base stealer Lonnie Smith, most famous for the drug problems that often sidelined his career and for being traded by the Cardinals only to play on the team that beat them in a contentious World Series the very next year.
Locals may also remember Lonnie Smith as the dumb bastard duped by Greg Gagne and Chuck Knoblach in the seventh game of the 1991 World Series, costing Atlanta the winning run.
That Lonnie Smith is alive and well and living in Atlanta, so they must have forgiven him at some point.
Who are these Lonnie Smiths, and why are there so many? I can’t tell you how many letters we get asking questions like this. As soon as we get one I’ll let you know.
The interactive Baby Name Voyager graph shows a precipitous drop in the name Lonnie after a peak around 1940. Click on its name to visit the Baby Name Voyager, but if you’ve never tried this before be ready to waste the next hour of your time typing every name you’ve ever thought was funny. Maybe its from the old German Alonzo (“Ready for battle”) or the old Alsatian name Alonicycle (“You better leave my bike alone”), or maybe its the result of actor Lon Chaney’s popularity, but there were once a lot of Lonnies. There are already a lot of Smiths, so I don’t have to explain the rest to you. The only remaining question is whether they’re all going to be famous black guys with sideburns, and the answer is yes. Yes they are.
BEST RECORDING AS A SIDEMAN:
Tough competition here. Lonnie Smith started his career with the George Benson Quartet, playing piano on Its Uptown and The George Benson Cookbook – The two soul jazz classics Benson recorded for Columbia in 1966. Columbia was a little behind its competitors in terms of quality soul jazz records but made up for lost time by signing the young guitarist Benson for his second and third albums. You have probably overlooked these records because your Mom likes George Benson, but they’re still great.
Here’s “Benson’s Rider” from The George Benson Cookbook, complete with an especially great Hammond B-3 solo by Dr. Lonnie, followed by “Clockwise” from Its Uptown:
These two great records with Benson’s group on Columbia earned Dr. Lonnie a deal to record his 1966 debut with the label, so his career as a sideman was brief.
Lonnie Liston’s first appearance on wax may be on Roland Kirk’s Here Comes the Whistleman, the first of many albums Rahsaan would eventually record for Atlantic. Here’s the title track from that gem:
Lonnie Liston continued to perform and record with Kirk and appeared on an instrumental track tacked to the end of the peculiar Roland Kirk/Al Hibbler collaboration A Meeting of the Times.
The very best work Lonnie Liston did with Rahsaan was that same year on the Verve album Now Don’t You Cry, Beautiful Edith. Here Kirk laid out the high energy exploratory soul jazz style that was going to define his work for years, and Lonnie Liston was an essential component. Listen to how Lonnie Liston supports Kirk’s exciting solo on the first track, “Blue Rol”:
Unfortunately, these records are relatively obscure (If nonetheless great). I don’t even know if these three Roland Kirk titles are in print anymore. Lonnie Liston’s career as a sideman took off in 1968, when he was working in Pharaoh Sanders’ band. Read an interview here to learn about the day he discovered the Fender Rhodes piano, which he would play in the opening to one of Pharaoh’s finest Impulse! album, Thembi. Here’s “Astral Traveling”, written by Lonnie Liston Smith:
Lonnie Liston continued to play with the Pharaoh Sanders group, appearing on the acid jazz classic “The Creator Has a Master Plan”. On Pharaoh’s 1970 album Summun, Bukmun, Umyun Lonnie Liston arranged a side-long adaptation of the gospel standard “Let Us Go Into the House of the Lord”.
The Winner: Lonnie Smith was out of line for claiming it was the Metrodome’s white roof that faked him – You can tell he was taken by the Gagne/Knoblauch fake. As for the records, Lord knows I love those George Benson albums but you can’t beat Now Don’t You Cry, Beautiful Edith and “The Creator Has a Master Plan”. Play the whole stack of albums this afternoon and the Rahsaan and Pharaoh albums make the George Benson records look like Lonnie Smith stumbling at second base.
This round goes to Lonnie Liston!
Dr. Lonnie and Lonnie Liston are, of course, jazz musicians. They don’t really have hits. Both are most heard in the form of samples. One of the most-heard Dr. Lonnie tracks in its original form is “Move Your Hand”, the groovin’ title track from his fourth Blue Note album – As a Blue Note, its going to get a lot more play than his other records no matter how bad it is, but this is actually a whole lot more original and exciting than your average late 60s Blue Note. A bonus, Dr. Lonnie’s wispy vocals:
Lonnie Liston’s “Expansions” is so well known that its featured in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, a video game that features (Because I believe everything I read in the newpaper) raping, prostitution and junkies. Sometimes even raping prostitutes and junkies, I assume. Seems a fitting feature for a song in which Lonnie Liston pleads for us to expand our minds “to understand / We all must live in peace.”
Aside from this auspicious notoriety, “Expansions” is a favorite of late-night acid jazz radio programs. Its a great introduction to this loosely defined genre and the highlight of the albums by Lonnie Liston Smith and the Cosmic Echoes.
“Space Princess” by Lonnie Liston Smith and the Cosmic Echoes from the album Exotic Mysteries was a minor dance floor hit. Its a pretty great track:
And the winner is: Lonnie Smith played in the World Series four times (Four different teams, the last being Atlanta) and in the ’91 series hit three home runs. If he hadn’t lost game seven he might have been the series MVP instead of its goat. The truth is, while he had a greatest blunder he never had a greatest hit, and neither did Dr. Lonnie or Lonnie Liston.
I do love Lonnie Liston’s recordings on the Fender Rhodes, however. He’d win the round if I didn’t sing “Move Your Hand” far more often. We’re going to have to split this round 50/50.
GODDAMN CRAZIEST HAT:
The winner: He really made it a lot worse by trying to blame his mistake on the Metrodome’s white roof. You could tell he didn’t lose track of the ball but was faked by Chuck Knoblach’s clever ruse. Sure, its not a Bill Buckner moment but its awfully close, and there’s no shame in admitting your mistakes. Knoblach was rookie of the year, after all. A genuine star. Maybe Lonnie Smith wouldn’t have had to change hats a few more times if he’d had the courage to take responsibility for his mistake. This round of our smackdown, meanwhile, is going to come down to Dr. Lonnie’s Sikh headgear or Lonnie Liston’s seed stitch knitted caps. I’m going to ask Laura to make me this exact rainbow striped skull cap, but Dr. Lonnie’s is altogether weirder.
Take a look. Here’s Dr. Lonnie Smith and here’s Lonnie Liston Smith.
The Winner: There are a few people who have benefited more from Major League Baseball’s bizarre non-presence on the internet. They won’t let us watch Bill Buckner miss that grounder on Youtube and we can’t see Lonnie Smith blow the winning run of the seventh game of the 1991 Series either. Christ, its only the greatest World Series of all time. Wouldn’t it be nice if Major League Baseball would use its website to let us watch game seven of the best ever World Series, instead of another tedious interview with a so-so pitcher renewing his contract with an overpaid expansion team?
The other Lonnies? Dr. Lonnie womps Lonnie Liston in this round. He gets an extra point for funkiness.
BEST SIDEMAN TO APPEAR ON HIS RECORDS:
Dr. Lonnie’s album Afro-Desia features horns by Joe Lovano and Greg Hopkins, as well as bassist extraordinaire Ron Carter and Ben Riley, the subtly expressive drummer most known for his great work in the middle-60s Thelonious Monk Quartet.
Lovano and Hopkins have great solos on the title track, although its really a showcase for Dr. Lonnie’s keys.
Anything else special about this album? Yes, it also lists as guitarist that’s been keeping the groove together as “compliments of a friend”. Who, oh who, could this friend be? Whose guitar playing swing and rocks so delightfully? Its none other than George Benson!
Lonnie Liston spent years recording as Lonnie Liston Smith and the Cosmic Echoes, so he was saddled with a pretty consistent group. At first the Cosmic Echoes featured expatriates of Pharaoh’s early Impulse! group, top drawer out there jazzmen like Cecil McBee and percussionist James Mtume. The Comic Echoes never became the new Jazz Messengers, however, and talent didn’t stream through the band readily. The overlooked virtuoso bassist Marcus Miller, however, passed through the group before going on to perform with everyone from Grover Washington Jr. to Luther Vandross. He also wrote “Tutu” for Miles Davis when he wasn’t busy.
Here, for instance, is Marcus Miller rounding out a smooth jazz supergroup of Grover Washington Jr.’s 1980 album Skylarkin’. With him on this hip shakin’ session are Washington, Eric Gale, Richard Tee, Idris Muhammed and Ralph MacDonald. The track is “Snake Eyes”:
The winner: You could argue its all a moot point anyway, because eventually the Twins won. Maybe Lonnie Smith blew the Braves’ best chance in the 9th inning, but its not his fault they choked in the 10th. Still, there he was, the winning run, waiting on 3rd base when he should have scored.
Marcus Miller is awesome enough, but you can’t beat having George Benson on your record.
MOST LAME SAMPLES FOUND ON “WHO SAMPLED?”:
For a guy who played on three teams that won the World Series you’d think he could just own up to his mistake. So he didn’t play on four World Series winning teams – Its his own fault.
Take a look at their listings on “Who Sampled?”. Here’s Dr. Lonnie and here’s Lonnie Liston. Lonnie Liston wins, but the samples of Dr. Lonnie’s “Spinning Wheel” are better.
Another upset as Dr. Lonnie takes more rounds than the often sampled, often played Lonnie Liston. Both have made a stack of records I’d gladly spend all day playing, so I suppose the real winner is all of us.
AND THE WINNER OF THIS SMACKDOWN IS…
Seriously, were you paying attention just now? – The real winner is all of us. Dr. Lonnie and Lonnie Liston each made a big pile of great records and its wrong to make this into a competition of any kind. What’s wrong with you people?
As for Lonnie Smith, let’s try to forget the fact that he cost his team the World Series and remember some of the other humorous highlights of his career, like his drug problems or his aborted plan to murder Kansas City Royals General Manager John Schuerholz. Like Lonnie Liston sang, “We all must live in peace”.