Before he started wearing a turban and styling himself as “Doctor”, Lonnie Smith was a leading light among the many soul-jazz organ players that emerged in the late 60s. Signed to the Blue Note label he produced some of the more original and interesting albums of the genre and spun his sound on discs by George Benson and Lou Donaldson, eventually being voted number one organist of 1969 by Downbeat magazine. Forging James Brown funk with street-wise jazz and occasional forays into African rhythms, all coated with his multi-hued, freewheeling Hammond style, his albums were engaging celebrations that highlighted the inventiveness and humour of the man.
Drives was his final Blue Note studio recording and contains much of his best work for the label. The cover shot of a resplendent looking Smith and a fine leading-lady leaning through the sun-roof of a shining new Cadillac against a brilliant blue sky signals the aesthetic of the music within. Ideally programmed for righteously hip summer in the city cruising and windows down insouciance, even the honkiest of uptight fools will soon resolve into loose-limbed groovers. ‘Twenty-Five Miles’ has the roll of the freeways built into the insistent horn bursts and snare licks, the scenery speeds past as the Doctor eases into the corners with one hand on the wheel and a heavy-lidded smile while he sings “I got greens, I got beans, I got taters, hey! And also ‘matos.” then starts a drawling countdown to oblivion. Reconstructed versions of ‘Spinning Wheel’ (which features a lively sax solo and a rattling coda that is nearly the best thing on the album) and ‘Seven Steps To Heaven’ are fed through the Lonnie Smith filter emerging completely invigorated. ‘Psychedelic Pi’ has a relaxed groove, some rawboned mod-guitar and waves of cosmic organ colouring backed by Smith’s yelping vocalese, and the spiky ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ finds him tastefully fiddling with the tone knobs on his Hammond during an extended solo exploration while a dutiful horn section keeps steady time. With so many goodies packed into just thirty-five minutes, if you can hitch yourself a lift it will be certainly worth your while.