JIMMY MCGRIFF: GIANT OF THE ORGAN


(Editor’s Note: This comes from Matt Rogers, one of the contributing editors at Wax Poetics and someone who I thought could do an excellent retrospective on the late Jimmy McGriff (who we lost earlier this year). With his death, alongside that of Jack McDuff and Jimmy Smith, one of the greatest sets of jazz organists to ever come through are now gone. Rogers pays proper tribute to one of those masters. –O.W.)

Written by Matt Rogers:

    “This is what we call the love instrument,” Jimmy McGriff said to me once during an interview for this. At the time, he was sitting at the helm of the 400lb lovechild of pipe organ and furniture-piece, better known as the Hammond B-3 that, along with its Leslie speaker, occupied a significant chunk of the man’s living room. “If you love it and play it like you mean it, it will work for you.” And work for him “the Beast” (as it’s often referred to by many of its devotees), most certainly did, propelling a sixty-year professional music career in which McGriff loved and played the indefatigable instrument in clubs and concert halls the world over, all the while greasing heavyweight grooves onto a plethora of albums for numerous record labels–including Sue, Solid State, Blue Note, Capitol, Groove Merchant and Milestone–that would be sampled by hip-hop heads for years to come. Sadly, on May 24th, 2008, the great Jimmy McGriff died–aged 72–just outside his hometown of Brotherly Love, the cause complications from multiple sclerosis, which he’d battled the last two decades of his life.

    James Harrell McGriff Jr. was humble, reserved, confident; one of the last of his ilk, that is, a “jazz” musician who in the ‘60s and ‘70s took jazz and slapped it silly with funk. Whereas many jazz artists (let alone critics) decried such “debasing” of jazz, Hammond organists—who had a virtual orchestra under their fingertips and heels–seemed a natural fit. Born April 3rd, 1936–not long after the first Hammond organs were being rolled off of Chicago assembly lines–into a family steeped in the thick sacred and secular Philadelphia music scene, McGriff grew up in the Germantown neighborhood known as the Brickyard, where it wasn’t uncommon for folks such as Count Basie to be jammin’ at the McGriff household and encouraging Jimmy Jr. to take a taste. And he did, sampling piano, violin, drums, and vibes before landing his first gig at 13 playing bass for singer Big Maybelle. Officially bit, McGriff then picked up sax gigs with Hammond organ-based groups, most notably organist Richard “Groove” Holmes’s, who insisted Jimmy–now earning his bread as a city police officer (he’d given Miles Davis a parking ticket)–was misfiring his talents and sternly sat him down at the organ bench. Thusly, McGriff became smitten with the Hammond in a town seemingly minting world-class organists daily, including Doc Bagby, Milt Buckner, Bill Doggett, Shirley Scott, Trudy Pitts and, of course, the incomparable Jimmy Smith.

    “Jimmy Smith is the king of the jazz,” McGriff would say years later in a radio interview, “but when it comes into the blues thing, we got a little different outlook on things.” True enough, throughout his career McGriff routinely insisted he was not a jazz organist but rather a blues organ player, and he found his voice in melding gospel, blues and jazz like no organist before him or after. One could probably attribute part of his claim to his desire (and need) to differentiate himself from the long, thick shadow cast by the Tiger Woods of jazz organ–Jimmy Smith–as well as critics/publicity folk/stores who needed to categorize his efforts. However, one must only look at McGriff’s vast record of records to know that the man knew what he was talking about. According to McGriff, his two biggest influences were indeed Ray Charles and Count Basie, and like Basie, McGriff was more concerned not with the speed and number of notes one could play, but where they were placed. His M.O. from the get go was to combine his love for gospel stomp and big band swing into something new, call it jazz, soul jazz, funk, whatever you want. The bottom line: whatever he played, whether original tune or cover, he usually made it groove.

    I’ve Got A Woman
    From I’ve Got A Woman (Sue, 1962)

    Kiko
    From Jimmy McGriff at the Organ (Sue 1964)

    Jungle Cat
    7″ (Jell, 196?)

    Where It’s At
    From Where the Action Is (Veep, 1965ish)

    Motoring Along
    From Step 1 (Solid State, 1968)

    Jimmy Smith: Motoring Along
    From Home Cookin’ (Blue Note, 1958)

    [Sidenote: McGriff’s first single, “Foxy Do,” for the White Rock label in 1960 features a young Charlie Earland on sax. If you’ve ever heard it, please holla’. McGriff would end up mentoring Earland on organ like “Groove” Holmes had done for him. Probably not a coincidence all three were some of the funkiest of their peers. The tunes covered in this overview lean in that direction.]

    McGriff’s first smash single, a cover of Ray Charles’ “I’ve Got a Woman,” was recorded first for his manager’s record label, Jell Records, in ’61, then picked up by Juggy Murray’s Sue Records, which was distinctly a very un-jazzy label, focusing more on the likes of Ike and Tina Turner and Baby Washington. A full-length LP, I’ve Got a Woman followed in ’62, as McGriff would proceed to lay down seven LPs for Sue from ’62-’64, all heavily soaked with gospel, blues and jazz. “Kiko, ” a sped-up kissing cousin of Bill Doggett’s smash, “Honkytonk,” was another hit for McGriff and became a calling card for his live shows.

    Before Jimmy McGriff moved onto the next phase of his career, in which he was scooped by producer and A&R man Sonny Lester, McGriff recorded “Jungle Cat (pt.1),” a 45-only release on Jell; it’s notable as it features his brother Hank McGriff on bongos. Whereas “Jungle Cat” may have been recorded live, “Where It’s At” certainly was, in Newark, NJ, itself a hotbed for Hammond organists, featuring the rhythmic guitar wonder Thornell Schwartz, who’d share time between Jimmy Smith’s and McGriff’s bands. Ironically, McGriff wasn’t the first one to record one of his own songs. Jimmy Smith beat him to the punch, recording McGriff’s “Motoring Along” in ’58, well before McGriff had any record deal, and ten years before McGriff would set his own version to wax.

    Tequila
    From Cherry (Solid State, 1966)

    I Got the Feelin’
    From Honey (Solid State, 1968)

    The Worm
    From The Worm (Solid State, 1968)

    A Thing to Come By, Pt. 2
    From A Thing to Come By (Solid State, 1969)

    Chris Cross & The Bird Wave
    From Electric Funk (Blue Note, 1969)

    Ain’t It Funky Now
    From Soul Sugar (Capitol, 1971)

    Jimmy McGriff’s association with Sonny Lester lasted fifteen years, as McGriff essentially became Lester’s linchpin for two significant record labels he would create, the first being Solid State in ’66, the second being Groove Merchant in ‘71. Lester’s eye was always trained on the jukebox and he saw McGriff as someone who could place many 45s there. After allowing McGriff to fulfill a lifelong dream of recording an album with Count Basie’s band, Tribute to Basie, Lester threw a slew of pop tunes at him, including “Tequila,” as well as soul tunes such as “Respect” and “We’re a Winner.”

    In fact, McGriff told stories about how over the years James Brown, no stranger to the Hammond organ, would harass him for organ lessons anytime he would bump into him at a gig. Maybe the requests had something to do with McGriff’s take on the Godfather’s work. Regardless, McGriff embraced soul and funk as the decade wore on, and would frequently feature the horn work of Blue Mitchell and Arthur “Fats” Theus. Theus, an astute study of Eddie Harris’s Varitone sax technique, would pen McGriff’s hit, “The Worm, ” the title track from his ’68 LP (which also contained the nugget, “Blue Juice”). “A Thing to Come By, Pt. 2” showcases McGriff’s simultaneous piano and organ bass work. With ’69’s Electric Funk, McGriff slathered his Blue Note debut with the assistance of arranger/composer/pianist Horace Ott, Stanley Turrentine and an uncredited Bernard Purdie. With tunes like “Chris Cross” and “The Bird Wave,” McGriff’s funk bag was cemented.

    Jimmy McGriff & Junior Parker: No One Knows (What Goes On When The Door Is Closed)
    From Jimmy McGriff & Junior Parker (United Artists, 1971)

    Jimmy McGriff & Junior Parker: Drownin’ On Dry Land
    From Good Things Don’t Happen Every Day (Groove Merchant, 1971)

    Tiki
    From Let’s Stay Together (Groove Merchant, 1972)

    Jimmy McGriff & “Groove” Holmes: Beans
    From Giants of the Organ in Concert (Groove Merchant, 1973)

    Jimmy McGriff:The Main Squeeze
    From The Main Squeeze (Groove Merchant, 1974)

    Stump Juice
    From Stump Juice (Groove Merchant, 1975)

    Two of the most interesting collaborations McGriff ever did in his career were with the blues singer Junior Parker and fellow organist Richard “Groove” Holmes. McGriff recorded two albums with Parker before he tragically died of cancer at 38; one, recorded live at McGriff’s Newark club, the Golden Slipper, the other recorded in-studio. These albums would be released under varying titles both on Capitol and Sonny Lester’s new label, Groove Merchant. Groove Merchant did exactly what it’s name implied: sold the groove. McGriff, along with folks like Lonnie Smith, Reuben Wilson, Carmen McRae, as well has his close friend and mentor, “Groove” Holmes, became the label’s premier acts. McGriff continued to churn out soul jazz, funk jazz, jazz funk, whatevah, via a host of albums like Fly Dude, Groove Grease and Let’s Stay Together. McGriff and Holmes also recorded a pair of albums together, the first in-studio, the other a torrid double LP recorded live at Paul’s Mall in Boston. One of McGriff’s favorite efforts, you can compare and contrast student and teacher’s styles on this jam-laden nugget, as McGriff is panned to your left and Holmes to your right. The shortest cut, “Beans,” lends itself to such aural taste tests.

    As synthesizers began elbowing their way onto wax, McGriff held the funk mantle while embracing the new technology, as illustrated on cuts like “Stump Juice, that would serve an eventual death knell for the soon-to-be bankrupt Hammond organ company. At the height of the synth-craze, McGriff’s partnership with Sonny Lester sputtered, and he’d forge a new relationship with producer Bob Porter in 1980, moving back to his blues-based roots for the remaining two decades of his recording career. But he never forgot his love for the funk. “Funk had been good to me,” McGriff told me once. “And me and that organ had been good to funk.”



Jerry Wexler: 1917 – 2008

It’s been a bad week. More to follow.

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