15 Of The Most Famous Hammond Organ Players You Should Know

Written by Robert Jackson
Last updated

The earliest organs first appeared in the third century BC, and the modern-day organ is one of the most recognizable instruments out there. The Hammond organ, in particular, has become extremely popular since its debut in the 1930s.

The Hammond organ has found its way into countless genres, thanks to the incredibly skilled musicians who have taken hold of this instrument. 

Here, we’ll look at 15 of the most famous Hammond organ players, exploring their lives and careers over the years.

1. Jimmy Smith

One of the greatest of all time, JimmySmith is a revered jazz organist who grew up in Norristown, Pennsylvania.

Originally taught how to play piano by his parents, he took to the piano quickly and even began performing with his father when he was still young.

In 1948, Smith attended the Hamilton School of Music and then continued at Ornstein’s School of Music to hone his skills. 

Smith is also known for revolutionizing the way people play the Hammon organ. He invented a new registration for the organ and set an example by playing the horn parts with his right hand and removing the tremolo from his organ.

Over his 49-year career, he recorded a whopping 111 albums and left a huge mark on the Hammond organ repertoire and scene.

2. Joey DeFrancesco

Many people credit the resurgence of the jazz organ in the 80s to Joey DeFrancesco after its popularity dipped in the mid-70s. 

Raised in Philadelphia, Joey began playing the organ very young as his father was also an organist.

Through his father,DeFrancesco met many other influential organists who encouraged him to pursue a career in music. 

Over the years, he has toured with both his own group and an impressive roster of famous musicians, including Van Morrison, George Benson, and many others.

DeFrancesco has received Grammy nominations four times and been inducted into the Hammond Organ Hall of Fame. 

3. Cory Henry

Next on the list, we have well-known modern musician Cory Henry who grew up in Brooklyn, New York.

His mother raised him and shared her love of music with him. She is an incredibly prolific musician who plays five instruments and serves as the choir director at their church.

Thanks to her influence, he began playing music for his church’s various masses and bible studies at just five years old. 

Cory Henry spent many nights at the Village Underground, and they eventually chose him to be the resident organist.

From there, various celebrities and musicians who frequented the venue recruited him including playing with Snarky Puppy, Jacob Collier, Imagine Dragons, and Kanye West.

He has been featured on a Grammy-winning album, ranked top five with his own project “First Steps,” and appeared on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert Series. 

4. Lonnie Smith

Lonnie Smith was born in Buffalo, New York, and he was steeped in music from day one by his mother. He sang in a few vocal groups when he was in his teens.

Later on, he learned how to play the Hammond organ and soon caught the attention of some famous musicians in the Buffalo jazz scene, including famous guitarist George Benson who selected him to be the organist in his quartet.

In 1966,Smith released his first project called “Finger-Lickin’ Good” through Columbia Records. Since 1970, he has recorded for many other labels, been sampled by various rappers, and created his own label called Pilgrimage in 2012. 

5. Jimmy McGriff

Born in Philadelphia in 1936, Jimmy McGriff is another important Hammond organist who started early with piano lessons from his parents. He later became inspired by Richard “Groove” Holmes to try the organ.

After returning from the military,McGriff bought a Hammond B-3 and contacted Holmes, asking for lessons. He then practiced diligently for six months while serving as a policeman.

McGriff was then discovered by a talent scout while playing in New Jersey. After recording an original arrangement of Ray Charles’ “I’ve Got a Woman,” he was offered a record deal by the Sue record label. 

Over his entire career, he released 63 albums, 57 singles, and 31 compilations

6. Ethel Smith

Born in Pittsburgh, another famous organist with the surname Smith, EthelSmith studied music at Carnegie Tech and became the “First Lady of the Hammond Organ.” 

Finding herself in California at the end of a spontaneous 28-week Schubert show tour, she was asked at the last second to play the Hammond organ for the first time.

She became a sensation immediately. 

After her residency at St. Regis in New York, Hammond Studies contracted her to play at the Copacabana Club in Rio. There, she fell in love with Latin music.

Her rendition of the music she heard, which she named “Tico-Tico,” became a smash hit, and she later appeared on the Your Hit Parade radio show, on Broadway, in various movies, and on many stages. 

7. Booker T. Jones

Booker T. Jones was born in Tennessee. By chance, his neighbor famous jazz pianist Phineas Newborn exposed him to music.

Every time he passed by Newborn’s home on his paper route, he became inspired by the music he heard.

Booker got his break when Rufus and Carla Thomas asked him to play the saxophone for their recording. When Rufus and Carla decided to turn their record store into a Stax Records record label, Booker joined as a session musician and recorded with Eddie Floyd, Albert King, and others.

Booker recorded his own material between sessions and eventually formed Booker T & the MG’s. So far, Booker has released 38 albums.

In 1991, Booker T. & the MGs were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

8. Jon Lord

No list of famous organists would be complete without a spotlight on Jon Lord who was born in Leicester, England and began playing the piano at only six years old. 

Lord got his first organ in his 20s and played with Red Blood and his Bluesicians and the Atwoods.

Progress was slow with the Atwoods, so he pivoted to working as a session musician, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Elton John, The Kinks, and many others.

In 1967, Jon Met Richie Blackmore, and Deep purple was born, paving the way for countless other hard rock and metal bands. 

9. Richard Groove Holmes

Born in New Jersey, Richard “Groove” Holmes was a self-taught organist known for his incredibly diverse range and quick transitions, switching between vastly different moods in his music with ease.

This ability earned him quite a bit of notoriety in the New Jersey and Philadelphia jazz scenes.

In the early 60s,Holmes signed with Pacific Jazz and began rubbing shoulders with Jimmy McGriff, Ben Webster, and other greats in the jazz world. 

His most well-known work was his rendition of “Misty,” which he released in 1965.

10. John Medeski

John Medeski is a pianist, keyboardist, and organist known for his skill in improv music and delving into all manner of genres.

Medeski was born in Kentucky, and his father was the first to expose him to the piano as a child. After years of lessons, he began his music career by playing for local theaters. 

After he moved to NYC in 1988 he helped form the famous jazz trio Medeski, Martin, & Wood, with who he played for over 20 years.

He has received an NEA award and has worked on over 300 projects.

11. James Taylor

James Taylor’s early life is relatively private. However, he exploded onto the scene in Kent, England, with his band The Prisoners in 1982.

The Prisoners disbanded, and James veered off to form his own jazz quartet, as he wanted to move away from rock.

The James Taylor Quartet or JTQ, entered the London jazz scene at the perfect time, seeing as their brand of jazz-funk was just gaining in popularity. 

So far, Taylor has 251 credits to his name, spanning his own works, works with his quartet, and many others. 

12. Shirley Scott

Shirley Scott played the piano and the trumpet in school before getting her hands on a Hammond.

Her break came in the 50s when she collaborated with Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, and their song “In the Kitchen” became a huge hit. 

Scott was known for her unique blend of jazz, bebop, and blues, with a hint of gospel layered over it all.  She married tenor sax player Stanley Turrentine, and the two often recorded together.

She fell off the map after the 70s, but she resurfaced in the 80s when organs became popular again. Over her career, she had a total of 122 releases

13. Billy Preston

Billy Preston, born in Houston, Texas, was a fantastic musician from the beginning, playing with the likes of Nat King Cole and Mahalia Jackson before he was even a teenager. 

He toured with the likes of Little Richard, and Sam Cooke’s SAR Records later signed him.

Preston met the Beatles while on tour with Little Richard, but they wouldn’t work together until Ray Charles ran into him at a concert.Preston performed live with them and appeared on two of their albums.

He enjoyed a successful solo career while also playing with greats like The Red Hot Chili Peppers and The Rolling Stones.

14. Barbara Dennerlein

Barbara Dennerlein was born in Germany and became fascinated by the Hammond organ from an early age.

When she was eleven, she received an organ for Christmas, and the rest is history. 

Dennerlein performed in clubs when she was a teenager and began to gain global traction, making headlines in publications like the LA Times. 

She is known most for her jazz, but she also loves swing, blues, Latin, soul, and other genres.

So far, she has released 27 albums and has 116 credits to her name.

15. Larry Goldings

And last but by no means least, Larry Goldings is another legendary Hammond organist that needs to be on our list.

He began learning music after his father encouraged him to take piano lessons at an early age, but it wasn’t until he became a teenager that he became interested in jazz. 

Goldings began his own trio after attending the jazz program at The New School in New York. Later, he signed with Warner Bros. and released two albums with his trio and various guests. 

After his deal with Warner Bros. ended,Goldings went on to play as a sideman with a list of huge names including John Scofield, John Mayer, James Taylor Madeleine Peyroux, Norah Jones, and many, many more.

He has even received a Grammy nomination.

Summing up our List of the Greatest Hammond Organists

No matter the genre, the Hammond organ has made a lasting impact in the music world when in the hands of these incredibly skilled and talented musicians.

We hope you have enjoyed learning about these musical greats who changed how we look at music.

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Robert is a professional pianist and writer who's been playing the piano for over 20 years. He studied music education at college and now works as a full time musician and piano teacher all over the country.