Lonnie Smith – Son of Ice Bag


By Bob “The Record Guy” Paxon

Jazz fans are album listeners and album buyers. When someone talks about a favorite jazz record, they are talking about an LP. Jazz started as PERFORMANCE music, not recording music – it was performed in New Orleans for many years before the Original Dixieland Jass Band cut two sides in 1917 (really, a second-generation group, and all White musicians!).

That record, and all jazz records to come for the next 30 years, were singles. 78 RPM, but singles. Eventually these were collected into groups and sold in book-like folders similar to photo albums and the term “album” started to be used, but they were still singles.

Blue Note Records was formed in 1939 and thus was a singles-only label for over 10 years. Blue Note Records is today THE jazz label.. there is Blue Note, and there’s everything else. At least to collectors, and crate diggers looking for rare grooves and samples, and entry-level fans. Blue Note is a brand and a style, to the point that those two words are virtually synonymous with “modern jazz.”

As I said, today’s fans are album fans but it wasn’t always so. After the early Louis Armstrong years, the Swing records of the war years enjoyed great popularity as dance music — which is inherently singles-oriented. The Bebop years continued like this; although some Bebop strikes our ears today as not conducive to dancing, Dizzy Gillespie and others had hits that were jukebox staples for party listening and dancing.

This continued right through the 1960s. Blue Note never stopped issuing tracks as singles and issued hundreds, on almost all their artists. And they did so for the same reason any “pop” label did — they were looking for a hit. They enjoyed enough sales to continue this approach for the life of the label.

The Soul Jazz trend of the 1960s was highly conducive to this use as it’s perfect dance music. Which brings us to today’s 45. “Son Of Ice Bag” (written and previously recorded by Hugh Masekela) paired with “Think” (written/recorded by Aretha Franklin). Both tracks were instrumentals taken from Lonnie’s 1968 LP “Think.”

The full album credit is ‘Lonnie Smith (With Lee Morgan and David Newman)’. And indeed those two distinguished gentlemen are prominent on the album, although equally prominent on THIS track is guitarist Melvin Sparks. Lonnie’s recording career was affiliated with guitarists since his 1966 start with George Benson; the George Benson Quartet Featuring Lonnie Smith had recorded two albums and the same group plus Sparks recorded Lonnie’s first album as a leader, 1967’s “Finger Lickin’ Good”.

“Think” was Lonnie’s first Blue Note album, with three more to follow. Jazz fans will remember that Lee Morgan’s career was cut short less than four years after this, when the 33-year old was shot to death at New York City’s jazz mecca Slug’s Saloon by his common-law wife. The story is that his injuries were not immediately fatal, but the ambulance service was reluctant to go into the club’s bad neighborhood, causing him to bleed to death.

David Newman is the “Fathead” Newman who had achieved fame with jazz/soul pioneer Ray Charles, so funky grooves were old hat to him!

Listening to this 45, you can imagine how great it would have sounded on the jukebox at the local bar on a hot summer night when people are out looking for fun – which is the essence of jazz.

Lonnie of course went on to a long and wonderful career which continues to this day, encompasing many labels, but always funky and fun. I wrote quite a bit about Lonnie’s earlier in an earlier article about his late 1950s R&B vocal group 45 with The Supremes. I’ll recap that briefly because there’s some info I’ve learned since.

Lonnie was born in Lackawanna in 1942. His first performances had been singing in the church with his relatives. At age 15 he and his brother formed a vocal group called the Smith Brothers “and made $14 on our first gig! I could hardly believe it – that was a lot of money in 1957.”

At 16 he joined forces with Grover Washington Jr. to form The Supremes. Grover may have been singing at first, but his sax quickly became a feature. Lonnie’s brother Daryl was the drummer, and Barbara St. Clair and Lonnie were strictly vocalists.

The story gets a little confused at this point. The group was also known as the Teen Kings and some sources state they recorded under that name. Although there are 45s by various “Teen Kings” around the country, none have obvious signs of being by this local group.

It’s sometimes stated that Buffalo’s Supremes changed their name to the Teen Kings AFTER the Diana Ross Motown group issued their records and became popular.  “We had already made a record and I was gonna sue to prevent her from using the name” Smith says, “but I never did.” The Detroit group was The Primettes in 1959 and became The Supremes in January of 1961, though they didn’t actually have hits for a couple of years. By that time, Lonnie had already moved onto his jazz career.

My belief is that they were maybe the Teen Kings first, before they were The Supremes. Lonnie remembers the Teen Kings working for “six dollars a night,” which probably wouldn’t have happened for a group such as The Supremes, who were a recording group under the wing of a legendary local DJ (Lucky Pierre).

It was probably soon after cutting this 1958 single for Mark Records that Lonnie’s interest in playing an instrument resumed. He had previously played the trumpet, learning by ear, but advancing to soloist in the high school band – Bennett High School, I think. He had also worked in the street, shining shoes and playing the trumpet for tips. He’d taken a break from playing an instrument during his time in the Supremes, though he took note of a spinet organ when visiting Grover’s house. Lonnie had never played an organ, never even played piano, but somehow the subject of playing an organ came up during a conversation with a local club owner – he was offered a job if he could get an organ.

Which brings us to the often-told story of the kid who was hanging around Art Kubera’s music store, wishing he could afford to buy a Hammond B3, telling Art he was sure he could make enough money to pay for one ‘if only…’. And the big-hearted music store owner who took a chance on him and let him take one home with just a simple promise to pay for it when possible. Art Kubera recently passed away but Lonnie’s story is one example of his many acts of generosity to local musicians.

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