He was born in Lackawanna, New York, into a family with a vocal group and radio program. Smith says that his mother was a major influence on him musically, as she introduced him to gospel, classical, and jazz music. He was part of several vocal ensembles in the 1950s, including the Teen Kings which included Grover Washington Jr. on sax and his brother Daryl on drums. Art Kubera, the owner of a local music store, gave Smith his first organ, a Hammond B3.
Smith's affinity for R&B melded with his own personal style as he became active in the local music scene. He moved to New York City, where he met George Benson, the guitarist for Jack McDuff's band. Benson and Smith connected on a personal level, and the two formed the George Benson Quartet, featuring Lonnie Smith, in 1966.
After two albums under Benson's leadership, It's Uptown and Cookbook, Smith recorded his first solo album (Finger Lickin' Good Soul Organ) in 1967, with George Benson and Melvin Sparks on guitar, Ronnie Cuber on baritone sax, and Marion Booker on drums. This combination remained stable for the next five years.
After recording several albums with Benson, Smith became a solo recording artist and has since recorded over 30 albums under his own name. Numerous prominent jazz artists have joined Smith on his albums and in his live performances, including Lee Morgan, David "Fathead" Newman, King Curtis, Terry Bradds, Blue Mitchell, Joey DeFrancesco and Joe Lovano.
In 1967, Smith met Lou Donaldson, who put him in contact with Blue Note Records. Donaldson asked the quartet to record an album for Blue Note, Alligator Bogaloo. Blue Note signed Smith for the next four albums, all in the soul jazz style, including Think (with Melvin Sparks, Marion Booker, Lee Morgan and David Newman) and Turning Point (with Lee Morgan, Bennie Maupin, Melvin Sparks and Idris Muhammad).
Smith's next album Move Your Hand was recorded at the Club Harlem in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in August 1969. The album's reception allowed his reputation to grow beyond the Northeast. He recorded another studio album, Drives, and another live album unreleased at the time, Live at Club Mozambique (recorded in Detroit on May 21, 1970), before leaving Blue Note. Dr. Smith became a part of the Blue Note family once again in March 2015. He released his first Blue Note album in 45 years titled Evolution which was released January 29. 2016 featuring special guests Robert Glasper and Joe Lovano.
Smith toured the northeastern United States heavily during the 1970s. He concentrated largely on smaller neighborhood venues during this period. His sidemen included Ronnie Cuber, Dave Hubbard, Bill Easley and George Adams on sax, Donald Hahn on trumpet, George Benson, Perry Hughes, Marc Silver, and Larry McGee on guitars, and Joe Dukes, Sylvester Goshay, Phillip Terrell, Marion Booker, Jimmy Lovelace, Charles Crosby, Art Gore, Norman Connors and Bobby Durham on drums.
Smith has performed at several prominent jazz festivals with artists including Grover Washington Jr., Ron Carter, Dizzy Gillespie, Lou Donaldson, Ron Holloway, and Santana. He has also played with musicians outside of jazz, such as Dionne Warwick, Gladys Knight, Etta James, and Esther Phillips.
He was named the "Organ Keyboardist of the Year" in 2003, 2004, 2005, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2013, and 2014 by the Jazz Journalist Association. Recipient of the 2017 NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) Jazz Masters Fellowship, the highest honor that the U.S. bestows on jazz artists. Selected as a living legend making exceptional contributions to the advancement of jazz.
Lovingly referred to as "Dr." by fellow musicians because he likes to "doctor" up the tunes with his unique improvisational stylings. He is known worldwide as an unparalleled musician, composer, performer and recording artist that truly loves and appreciates his loyal fans who look forward to his appearances.1967: Finger Lickin' Good Soul Organ (Columbia)1968: Think! (Blue Note)1969: Turning Point (Blue Note)1969: Move Your Hand [live] (Blue Note)1970: Drives (Blue Note)1970: Live At Club Mozambique (Blue Note) [released 1995]1971: Mama Wailer (Kudu/CTI)1975: Afro-Desia (Groove Merchant)1976: Keep On Lovin' (Groove Merchant)1977: Funk Reaction (LRC/Lester Radio Corporation)1978: Gotcha (LRC/Lester Radio Corporation)1980: When The Night Is Right! (Chiaroscuro)1991: The Turbanator (32 Jazz) [released 2000] -with Jimmy Ponder1993: Afro Blue: A Tribute To John Coltrane (MusicMasters)1993: The Art Of Organizing (Criss Cross) [released 2009]1994: Foxy Lady: A Tribute To Jimi Hendrix (Pt. 1) (MusicMasters)1995: Purple Haze: A Tribute To Jimi Hendrix (Pt. 2) (MusicMasters)2002: Boogaloo To Beck: A Tribute (Scufflin')2004: Too Damn Hot! (Palmetto)2006: Jungle Soul (Palmetto)2008: Rise Up! (Palmetto)2010: Spiral (Palmetto)2012: The Healer [live] (Pilgrimage)2013: In The Beginning, Vol. 1 & 2 (Pilgrimage) 2CD2016: Evolution (Blue Note)
With Eric AllisonMean Streets Beat (Contemporary, 1996)After Hours (Contemporary, 1997)
With George BensonIt's Uptown (Columbia, 1966)The George Benson Cookbook (Columbia, 1967)
With Bobby BroomModern Man (Delmark, 2001)
With Karl Denson's Tiny UniverseThe Bridge (Relaxed, 2002)
With Lou DonaldsonAlligator Bogaloo (Blue Note, 1967)Mr. Shing-A-Ling (Blue Note, 1968)Midnight Creeper (Blue Note, 1968)Everything I Play Is Funky (Blue Note, 1970)Caracas (Milestone, 1993)Play The Right Thing (Milestone, 1994)Sentimental Journey (Columbia, 1995)Relaxing At Sea...Live On The QE2 (Chiaroscuro, 2000)
With Richie HartRemembering Wes (Compose, 1989)Greasy Street (Zoho, 2005)
With Red HollowayRed Soul (Prestige, 1966)Coast To Coast (Milestone, 2003)
With Ron HollowayStruttin' (Milestone, 1995)
With Javon JacksonA Look Within (Blue Note, 1996)Easy Does It (Palmetto, 2002)Have You Heard (Palmetto, 2004)Now (Palmetto, 2006)
With Rodney JonesSoul Manifesto (Blue Note, 2001)
With Jimmy McGriffState Of The Art (Milestone, 1985)McGriff's House Party (Milestone, 1999)
With Jimmy PonderSo Many Stars (Milestone, 1985)Come On Down (Muse, 1990)To Reach A Dream (Muse, 1991)
With Alvin QueenLenox And Seventh (Black & Blue, 1985) -with Melvin Sparks
With Akira TanaSecret Agent Men (Sons Of Sound, 1992)
With Bruno Carr, Jimmy Ponder and Harold Ousley as Harlem Art EnsembleLive in New York (1990; rel. 2007 explorerecords EXP0027)