Jimmy McGriff, Jazz and Blues Organist, Dies at 72
By BEN RATLIFF
Jimmy McGriff in 2001.
Jimmy McGriff, who since the early 1960s was one of the most popular jazz and blues organists, died on Saturday in Voorhees, N.J. He was 72 and lived in Voorhees.
The cause was complications of multiple sclerosis, said his wife, Margaret McGriff.
Like other jazz organists of his time, Mr. McGriff spent much of his career working in the clubs of the East Coast organ circuit, including the Golden Slipper in Newark, a club he owned in the early ’70s. He played jazz as dance music, whether it was music by Count Basie, Charlie Parker, Ray Charles or James Brown. Over swing, shuffle and funk rhythms, he played in a focused blues language that built gospel-like intensity through his solos.
Mr. McGriff was born in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia, which became a jazz organ mecca in the 1950s and ’60s. His father played piano, and Mr. McGriff learned it from an early age; he went on to play saxophone and bass before settling on the Hammond organ, which became a common instrument in small-group jazz instrument only in the mid-’50s, largely because of the example of another Philadelphian, Jimmy Smith.
During the Korean War, Mr. McGriff served as a military policeman; returning home, he spent more than two years on the Philadelphia police force. Encouraged by his friend Richard (Groove) Holmes, another Philadelphia organist, he took up the organ, playing around Philadelphia, sometimes with the tenor saxophonist Charles Earland, who himself switched over to the organ soon thereafter and became another one of that instrument’s great players.
His first hit, in 1961, was a 45-r.p.m. single of Ray Charles’s “I’ve Got a Woman,” a local jukebox success that was featured on the radio. It led to a full album for the Sue label; it also quickly led to another hit single, “All About My Girl.”
From the mid-’60s through the 1970s, his records were produced by Sonny Lester, on the Solid State, Blue Note and Groove Merchant labels; his own 1971 live album, “The Black Pearl,” as well as another with the blues singer Junior Parker, were recorded at his own club in Newark. He also played with Buddy Rich’s band for a stretch in the late ’60s and early ’70s.
In 1986 he started working regularly with the saxophonist Hank Crawford, making records and touring; he continued to record as a leader for the Milestone label and made his last recording in 2006, a live album done at the Manhattan jazz club Smoke. He stopped playing in 2007.
In addition to his wife, Margaret, Mr. McGriff is survived his mother, Beatrice, and brother, Henry, both of Philadelphia; his sisters, Jean Clark of Amherst, Va., and Beatrice Evans of Philadelphia; two children, Donald Kelly of Philadelphia and Holiday Hankerson of the Newark area; and five grandchildren.
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company