Voices at Large

Jimmy McGriff Gets To You


Over this past Memorial Day holiday weekend the legendary Hammond B-3 organist and soul jazz icon Jimmy McGriff passed away after a long battle with MS. He was 72.

McGriff was born in Philadelphia, on April 3rd, 1936. He started playing drums at age eight, and by the time he had finished high school he had also learned to play alto saxophone, vibes, piano, and acoustic bass. While holding down a day gig as a law enforcement officer with the Philadelphia police force in the mid-'50s, McGriff worked nights as a bassist, accompanying vocalists such as Carmen McRae and Big Maybelle.

As the Hammond organ was surging in popularity in Philadelphia and jobs playing bass were becoming harder to come by, McGriff started studying the organ with Richard "Groove" Holmes. And the rest, as they say, is (soul jazz) history. A few years later, in 1958, he made his first recording -- the single "Foxy Due" on the White Marsh label. It featured a fledgling saxophonist named Charles Earland, who subsequently studied the organ with McGriff and also went on to become a popular and enduring purveyor of the instrument's soulful sounds. In the early-'60s the Sue label issued McGriff's first album, which included the Top 5 R&B hit single "I Got a Woman" -- an instrumental reworking of the Ray Charles anthem.

McGriff continued to record regularly in the '60s and '70s on the Solid State, Blue Note, and Groove Merchant labels, before landing at Milestone where -- from the early-'80s into the new millennium -- he continued to cement his reputation as one of the funkiest organists on the planet. Amongst many highlights on Milestone are the McGriff-led all-star recordings Blue To The Bone (featuring Al Grey, Bill Easley, Melvin Sparks, and Bernard Purdie) and The Dream Team (featuring Purdie, David "Fathead" Newman, Red Holloway and Mel Brown). "He always stepped up in good company," noted McGriff's Milestone producer Bob Porter.

With soulful saxophonist Hank Crawford, McGriff co-led one of the most bluesy, grooving, and funky partnerships in jazz, recording many memorable albums on Milestone (for a tasty sampling, check out The Best Of Hank Crawford & Jimmy McGriff) as well as two now-classic sessions on Telarc in the mid-'90s (Right Turn On Blue and Blues Groove).

"I know Jimmy thought of himself as a blues player," reflected Porter. "But to me he was just as much a jazz guy as Richard 'Groove' Holmes, Charles Earland, or Jack McDuff. His music was very satisfying. He always played with great feeling and it would get to me every time."

Indeed, McGriff's timeless recordings are certain to continue to "get to" all that listen.

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