Jimmy McGriff, the acclaimed blues organist, who scored his first hit in the 1960s with an instrumental arrangement of “I’ve Got a Woman,” then continued to record hard-swinging grooves that appealed to audiences across musical boundaries, died Saturday at a nursing home in New Jersey. He was 72.
The cause of death was not known but was believed to be heart failure, said his wife, Margaret McGriff. McGriff was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis many years ago.
Though sometimes described as a jazz organist, McGriff considered himself a bluesman; the blues was what he felt when he played and what distinguished his music from other greats of the organ.
“Jimmy Smith is the jazz king on the organ, but when it comes to blues, I can do things where he can’t touch me,” McGriff once said.
In a 2000 Times article, jazz writer Don Heckman described McGriff’s concert performance with saxophonist Hank Crawford and others as “an impressive display of the depth and power of the blues.”
McGriff’s “rich-textured organ timbres” created “a roiling undercurrent of rhythm.” Heckman wrote. “At climactic points they gathered to generate tsunami-like waves of energy before breaking off into sudden, dramatic moments of silence.”
Born April 3, 1936, in Philadelphia, McGriff began playing the organ when he was still a boy. Both his parents played piano and, by age 5, McGriff was also playing. Later he learned the saxophone and the bass, but the sound of the organ captured his attention. With the encouragement of his father, he switched from piano to organ.
“He was hearing something I wasn’t hearing,” McGriff said in a 2006 interview posted on the website allaboutjazz.com. “He told me to play the organ, because I had that gospel thing.”
From 1953 until 1956 McGriff served in the United States Army and was stationed in Korea as a military police officer. Afterward, he entered the police academy and spent two years as a police officer in Philadelphia.
McGriff trained at Juilliard and the Combe College of Music in Philadelphia and also took private lessons from Smith and another legendary organist, Richard “Groove” Holmes. The music of Count Basie, whom he met, also influenced McGriff.
“It was big band music. And I liked that big band kinda thing. That’s what turned me on,” McGriff said in the 2006 All About Jazz interview.
"[Basie] was the father of Harlem musicians. He wouldn’t teach you nothing wrong. If you did something wrong, the changes I would play, he would just say, ‘That’s wrong. You don’t wanna do that.’ . . . I liked that.”
In 1962 McGriff was at a Trenton, N.J., club playing his instrumental arrangement of Ray Charles’ hit “I’ve Got a Woman,” when a talent scout for a record company offered him a recording contract. The record was a hit and led to a contract with Sue Records.
McGriff’s first album, “I’ve Got a Woman,” included Walter Miller on guitar and Richard Easley on drums and produced another hit, “All About My Girl.”
Over the years McGriff played with many musicians, including Buddy Rich’s band, and founded his own supper club in Newark, N.J. Early in his career he played a Hammond B-3 organ; during the ‘70s he played electric keyboards; later he played a Hammond XB-3 organ.
The core of his music remained the same.
“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,” McGriff said in biography posted on All About Jazz. “That’s how I got it, and I just never dropped it.”
In addition to his wife, McGriff is survived by two children from a previous relationship: a daughter, Holiday Hankerson, of Newark, N.J; a son, Donald Kelly, of Philadelphia; his mother, Beatrice McGriff, of Germantown, Pa.; two sisters, Jean Clark, of Amherst, Va., and Beatrice Evans of Philadelphia; a brother, Henry McGriff, of Germantown, Pa.; and three grandchildren.
A funeral service will be held June 3 at 11 a.m. the Harold O. Davis Memorial Baptist Church, 4500 N. 10th Ave., Philadelphia, PA 19140.