I became a Jimmy Smith fan by way of my love of the soundtrack for Joy House, a 1964 French Alain Delon/Jane Fonda crime drama scored by Lalo Schifrin. Later that same year Smith and Schifrin, together, recorded an album titled The Cat featuring two of the film’s main themes with the Argentinian composer/conductor orchestrating a big band supporting Smith’s inventive organ playing. The results are classic. The next Smith album I picked up was his 1965 set Monster, which featured covers of “Goldfinger” (DO click on that link and listen) and the theme tunes from The Munsters and Bewitched filtered through his mighty Hammond B-3. Along with The Sermon! and his 1972 live in concert Root Down (famously sampled by the Beastie Boys) these albums are all great places to start with Smith.
I had the great pleasure of seeing the incredible Jimmy Smith in concert sometime in the early 90s in a small basement jazz club in Manhattan (I forget the name). He was great, but he did something incredibly awkward near the start of the show: There was a group of about ten older, obviously wealthy, Japanese men seated in a VIP area next to the stage. After this first number Smith—who seemed like he had a pretty good buzz on—addressed the men and thanked his “great friends” from Japan for coming to the show and then he pulled his eyes back, made like he had buck teeth and started repeating “Hong Kong Phooey! Hong Kong Phooey!” and bowing frantically towards them like it was the funniest thing in the world. No one laughed and these gentlemen just froze with that fake smile thing that the Japanese are famous for when they’re caught in uncomfortable moments just like this one.
It was a small room and I think that—drunk or not—Smith knew that he’d made a bit of an ass of himself and showman that he was, endeavored to make the crowd forget about his little “Hong Kong Phooey!” faux pas. The rest of the set astonished and getting to see HOW he played, up close, was a revelation: Smith’s feet walked back and forth across the pedals playing the bass line the entire time. By the end of his show he was drenched in sweat, having gotten quite a full aerobic workout, I can assure you. The guy played the shit out of his organ, even hitting the keys with his nose when just two hands and two feet weren’t enough.
In this half hour set taped in front of a subdued audience in 1965, Smith and his sidemen tear the place apart to but merely “polite” applause. He doesn’t try to hide his surprise at the quiet reaction to a particularly raved up version of “The Sermon.” Watch his face, it’s like he’s wondering “What more can I do for you people?”
Set list: “Theme from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” “The Sermon,” “Theme from Mondo Cane,” Wagon Wheels”