Jimmy McGriff; Jazz, Blues Organist

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Jimmy McGriff, 72, a jazz and blues organist who helped popularize the funky soul-jazz sound of the 1960s, died May 24 at Voorhees Center Genesis, a nursing facility in Voorhees, N.J. He had multiple sclerosis.

From the early 1960s, when he scored his first hit with an instrumental version of Ray Charles's "I've Got a Woman," Mr. McGriff was a widely acclaimed performer who unabashedly called himself "the king of the blues organists."

Part of a long tradition of jazz organists from Philadelphia, he went on to earn worldwide fame for his distinctively earthy sound on the Hammond B-3 organ and for his ability to send listeners racing to the dance floor.

As a child, Mr. McGriff began to play the organ in church, but he tried several other instruments and lines of work before settling on the organ in his early 20s. By then, Philadelphia had become renowned as a hotbed of organ talent, with such masters as Jimmy Smith, Shirley Scott and Richard "Groove" Holmes.

After hearing Holmes play at his sister's wedding, Mr. McGriff sought his advice and spent six months mastering the unwieldy Hammond B-3, which has two banks of keyboards and dozens of pull-out stops as well as pumps and pedals for the feet.

By 1960, Mr. McGriff was working in local combos, and two years later his performance of "I've Got a Woman" reached No. 5 on Billboard's R&B chart. He followed it with other top-selling albums, including "Blues for Mister Jimmy" (1965) "A Bag Full of Soul" (1966), "A Bag Full of Blues" (1967), "The Worm" (1968) and two recordings with members of the Count Basie Orchestra.

Mr. McGriff was a conservatory-trained musician who never lost the common touch. As he peered through his glasses at the audience, he would smile and turn up the heat of his bluesy music.

"I learned something a long time ago," he said in a short film directed by Daniel Peacock. "When you go into a club to work, look for the guy or the woman that's not smiling, then play to that person. Once you've got that person, you've got the whole club."

James Harrell McGriff was born April 3, 1936, in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia. He began playing the piano at age 5 and soon turned to the organ in his family's church. At 8 or 9, he was sneaking out of the house to listen to music emanating from local nightspots.

Before he completed high school, he was proficient on the bass, vibes, drums and saxophone and found regular work as a bassist. He served in the Army in Korea, then returned to Philadelphia, where he was on the police force for more than two years.

All that time, however, he missed music, and Holmes urged him to return to his first love. Mr. McGriff studied at the Juilliard School of Music in New York and at a Philadelphia conservatory, but he maintained that his most influential training came at the Eastern Star Baptist Church in Philadelphia.

"They talk about who taught me this and who taught me that, but the basic idea of what I'm doing on the organ came from the church," he said in an interview with the All About Jazz Web site.

Mr. McGriff had a wide-ranging style that included American songbook standards, jazz tunes, original blues and, in the 1970s, electronic experiments that veered into the realm of disco and funk. He toured with drummer Buddy Rich from 1969 to 1972, owned a nightclub in Newark and, for a time, gave up performing to raise horses in Connecticut.

By the 1980s, Mr. McGriff had returned to his original style, when the classic Hammond B-3 sound made a comeback. For the next 20 years, when he wasn't in the recording studio, he was on tour, spreading his groove-based gospel sound.

He began to work extensively with saxophonists Hank Crawford, David "Fathead" Newman and Eric Alexander, and by the time of his final recording, 2006's "Live at Smoke," he had more than 100 albums to his name. He gave his final performances last year.

"I began as a blues player, and that's what I am to this day," he told the Chicago Tribune in 1991. "Jimmy Smith is king of the jazz organ -- I'll even say that. But blues organ is another thing altogether, isn't it?"

Survivors include his wife of 14 years, Margaret McGriff of Voorhees; two children from an early relationship, Donald Kelly of Philadelphia and Holiday Hankerson of Newark; his mother, Beatrice McGriff of Germantown; and five grandchildren.

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