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Jimmy McGriff: Philly’s Own

May 28, 2008


From today’s Philadelphia Inquirer Obituary, written by music critic Dan DeLuca:

James H. “Jimmy” McGriff Jr., 72, a master of the Hammond B-3 organ who scored gospel-powered 1960s instrumental hits with Ray Charles’ “I’ve Got a Woman” and his own “All About My Girl,” died of complications from multiple sclerosis on Saturday at Voorhees Center Genesis.
Mr. McGriff’s hard-driving, funky playing was pivotal in making Philadelphia the capital of the jazz-organ world. His sound put him in the company of such other Philadelphia-area jazz organ greats as Camden’s Richard “Groove” Holmes, Norristown’s Jimmy Smith, and Philadelphians Bill Doggett, Trudy Pitts, Shirley Scott, and Joey and “Papa John” DeFrancesco.

Yet Mr. McGriff was always quick to note the gospel and blues elements in his music.

“They talk about who taught me this and who taught me that,” the musician, who grew up worshiping at Eastern Star Baptist Church in East Germantown, told AllAboutJazz.com in 2000. “But the basic idea of what I’m doing on the organ came from the church. That’s how I got it, and I just never dropped it.”

Mr. McGriff’s many collaborators included saxophonist Hank Crawford, drummer Bernard “Pretty” Purdie, and bluesman Junior Parker. “They’ve always considered me a jazz organist, which I am not,” he once said. “I’m more of a blues player. That’s what I really feel.”

Born in Germantown, Mr. McGriff played the piano at 5 – both parents played – and later took up drums, vibes, bass and saxophone. He served in the Army in Korea during the Korean War, and after his discharge he was a member of the Philadelphia Police Department for two years, riding with a motorcycle unit while moonlighting with a band.

In 1956 he bought his first Hammond B-3 organ. He studied at the Juilliard School in New York, Combs College of Music in Philadelphia, and Temple University.

“Jimmy absorbed the sound of the B-3 organ,” Pitts, who will perform at a memorial for Mr. McGriff on Sunday, said yesterday in an interview.

“And he brought something to it that was unique because of his church background, that was about what was in your spirit, and what he had to share. He had that hallelujah gospel feeling.”

In 1961, McGriff and his trio recorded Charles’ “I’ve Got a Woman,” a song that was also a hit for Elvis Presley and would go on to be the basis for Kanye West’s 2005 hit “Gold Digger.”

He would go on to record almost 100 albums and perform in clubs and at concerts all over the world. He played with Count Basie, Wynton Marsalis and Dizzy Gillespie, and toured and recorded with Buddy Rich for two years in the ’70s.

Mr. McGriff grew up in Germantown and graduated from Simon Gratz High School. He later lived in New York City; in Connecticut, where he boarded a horse; and in Newark, N.J., where he owned a supper club. For the last 20 years he had lived in Voorhees.

In 1994 he married Margaret Norfleet. Though his multiple sclerosis was diagnosed in 1996, Mr. McGriff performed until last year, his wife said, and recorded four albums since becoming ill, including McGriff Avenue in 2002 and Live at Smoke in 2006. In 2004 he performed at an organ summit in Toronto and toured Japan with Joey DeFrancesco and Reuben Wilson. He got around on his motorized scooter and “played his buns off,” his wife said. “Audiences loved him.”

Mr. McGriff had fun and was easygoing when he was doing a gig, she said. When he wasn’t working he was a homebody, she said. He ate breakfast at a diner where everyone knew his name, then spent the day playing games and creating music on his computer.

In addition to his wife, Mr. McGriff is survived by two children from previous relationships, Donald Kelly and Holiday Hunter Hankerson; his mother, Beatrice; a brother; two sisters; and five grandchildren.

A musical tribute to Mr. McGriff will begin at 4 p.m. Sunday at Harold O. Davis Memorial Baptist Church, 10th Street and Roosevelt Boulevard, Philadelphia. Friends may call from 6 to 9 p.m. Monday at the Bradley Funeral Home, 601 Route 73 S., Marlton, and after 9 a.m. Tuesday at the church, where a funeral will begin at 11 a.m

I always confused Jimmy McGriff with Jimmy Smith (who worked with the Beastie Boys) so when I once mistakenly bought one of his records I was pleasantly surprised and ended up including some of his funky Hammond funk tracks into my DJ mixes. Coincidentally, Jimmy Smith and McGriff were childhood friends.

Philly’s Some Velvet Blog has posted some tracks including a Tribe Called Quest track with a McGriff sample.

The amazing Funky16Corners has more tracks and info on the man.

More at Electric Roulette.

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